Issue 180 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Subordinate clause

Tony Blair's plan to remove Clause Four from Labour's constitution is an attack on the left. Gareth Jenkins looks at the origins of the clause and how it was originally favoured by the right
The mass struggles that Labour feared
The mass struggles that Labour feared

'To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service.'

So runs Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution adopted in 1918. It has remained emblazoned on Labour Party membership cards ever since--plus the commitment added in 1929 to common ownership of the means of distribution and exchange.

Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell tried to get rid of it in 1959 and failed. For him as for Tony Blair it is the embarrassing symbol of an idea they want to bury--the idea that Labour is a threat to the rich and powerful who own British industry. For the left that idea is exactly why Clause Four should be defended.

The myths surrounding Clause Four are enormous. The current myth peddled by the Labour right is that it is, in Shadow Environment Secretary Jack Straw's words, 'a sop to keep middle class party activists happy'. Alan Johnson of the Post Office workers' union, the UCW, made the same point when he claimed at the Labour Party conference that Clause Four had been the creation of middle class reformers, unrepresentative of the vast bulk of working class supporters.

There is little evidence, Jack Straw went on to say, that Labour in government had ever sought to implement taking the means of production into common ownership. In that he is quite correct. But that was equally true of the framers of Clause Four, who were indeed middle class but as right wing as Jack Straw or Alan Johnson.

For Clause Four never represented the triumph of the left in the Labour Party or the conversion of the Labour Party to socialism. The people responsible for Clause Four saw it as a way of stifling not promoting socialism.

They were terrified by the rising level of class struggle as the war ended and the prospect of revolution, such as had already occurred in Russia, sweeping across Europe as a result.

Labour had participated in the wartime government and tasted power for the first time. But with the mood swinging against sacrifice in the national interest, Labour's leaders feared they would be discredited and swept aside, as their counterparts had been in Russia.

How could they rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of their followers? At the same time, if their time for government had come, how could they ensure Labour's fitness for office?

It fell to Arthur Henderson, Labour parliamentary leader and cabinet minister in the wartime coalition, and Sidney Webb, leading Fabian thinker, to transform the Labour Party. They had to accommodate both pressures: the move to the left among workers and the need to modernise. They were ideally suited to the task.

Henderson was never on the left. But he had witnessed something his colleagues had not: revolution at first hand. Prime Minister Lloyd George had sent him to Russia after the February Revolution to stiffen the resolve of the Provisional Government against the workers' revolution. His job was to keep Russia loyal to the Allied cause by boosting the flagging morale of the troops.

Henderson therefore saw how events might hoist Labour to power. But he also feared how precarious Labour's position might then become (as the Provisional Government's proved to be). He returned determined to avoid the 'disaster', as he saw it, putting 'supreme control in the hands of the workpeople themselves'.

The only way to avert this dreadful prospect was to strengthen reformism, so that it could contain and dissipate revolutionary impulses among rank and file workers.

Two things were needed. The first was to overhaul the Labour Party itself. It needed to be a mass party of individual members rather than a mass party (however indirectly) of the trade unions. Up till then you could only join the Labour Party as a member of a trade union or of a socialist organisation. If the Labour Party was ever going to become a party of government in its own right it would have to attract the right kind of people.

Just to prove how non-class this new party would be it was even seriously suggested that Labour should change its name to the 'People's Party'.

But if the Labour Party had to be 'modernised' in order to fit it for stable and effective capitalist government in the turbulent period ahead, it had also to be attractive to workers. Hence the need to adopt a left face in the shape of Clause Four.

This is where Sidney Webb, one of Henderson's 'brains', came in. He, like other Fabians, hated the mass movement because of its threat to 'order'. But he also realised the need for a collectivist ideology. This would give the new elite he believed should run the capitalist state a voting base among workers stirred by mass action. With the skill of the civil servant that he was, he drafted a clause that would appear socialist and favourable to workers' control but commit no one to anything.

Thus the adoption of Clause Four fitted a pattern that has long characterised the Labour Party. That pattern is to try to marry class and nation. Labour depends on workers' votes and the trade unions: it is a party of the working class. At the same time, its aspiration to run the state machine binds it to the dominant interests of the state: it is therefore also a capitalist workers' party. The relationship between the two shifts, dependent on the balance of class forces.

In 1918, when Britain was close to revolution, Clause Four was the necessary concession the Labour Party had to make. In 1994, determined to cosy up to the market because it sees little scope for even minor reforms, the leadership wants to rid itself of the illusion of its socialist past.

Even if it succeeds--and we should resist with all our might--that won't mean that the Labour Party has become an openly capitalist party like the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. It will continue to depend on workers' votes in elections and the trade unions. But it does mean the creation of a socialist alternative to Labour is more urgent than ever.


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