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Clause IV: The Enduring Controversy

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The Labour Party just wouldn’t be the Labour Party without its periodic rows over Clause IV. Deputy leadership candidate Richard Burgon became the latest figure to broach the subject this week when he called on the party to draft a new version of its central statement of aims and objectives, one committing future Labour leaders to extending public ownership of key utilities as outlined in the most recent party manifesto.

With the advent of Corbynism and the unlikely revival of the Labour left since 2015, the existing Clause IV – adopted under Tony Blair’s leadership in 1995, in what proved to be a crucial statement of intent – has been called into question numerous times over the last few years. With the Blair-era draft clearly resented by many party members, a clear majority of constituency delegates voted at last year’s Labour conference to reinstate the original 1918 Clause IV, only to be defeated by trade union block votes.

In an article for Tribune written to mark the 100th anniversary of the original Clause IV in 2018, Owen Jones argued that a modern replacement was needed to finally bring Labour’s doctrine into the 21st century, and to take account of post-crisis realities. But what is it about Clause IV that has made it the source of such enduring controversy within the Labour Party, and what does this tell us about the contradictions contained within Labour’s fissile coalition?

“To secure for the workers…”

For Labour leftists of a certain vintage, the original Clause IV (specifically, section four), drawn up by Sidney Webb just over a century ago, remains Labour’s quintessential statement of socialist intent. There are Labour activists who to this day can happily reel off the entire text by heart, and many often require little prompting to do so. On the face of it, Webb’s wording makes an unambiguous declaration of war on capitalism:

“To secure for the workers 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, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

However, upon its adoption in 1918, Webb’s Clause IV formed just one part of a new party constitution which served to strengthen the power of trade union leaderships over the party, sidelining the rank and file. Clause IV was, in Eric Shaw’s words, a “consolation prize, intended to appease the socialists”. It also represented a response to then-recent events in Russia; Labour leaders were horrified by the revolution there, but couldn’t ignore the sympathy for it among their own working-class movement, thus the need to bow to that sympathy while enticing workers away from any attempt to emulate Bolshevism in Britain.

The fragility of the ‘Labour Alliance’ had already been made apparent before World War I, amid bitter disagreements over the party’s ongoing subordination to Liberalism. Syndicalist ideas had gained a foothold among radical trade unionists, while the experiences of life during wartime had their own radicalising effects. In the war’s immediate aftermath, Labour and trade union leaders needed a sop to the left, and Webb’s Clause IV provided it. Shaw has made the point most succinctly: “Riveting Labour to socialist objectives seemed a small price to pay to placate those who might otherwise be seduced by other philosophies.”

But did the 1918 Clause IV rivet Labour to socialist objectives? Gregory Elliott has noted that the language contained therein was quintessentially Fabian; it subtly reflected Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s famously low opinion of popular democratic capacities, and the ability of working people to take collective charge of their own lives. Reading between the lines of Sidney Webb’s carefully calculated phrasing gives this away, “not only in the prose, mandarin in cast, but also in the statist-paternalistic origination of the envisaged transformation (‘to secure for the workers’)”.

Elliott adds that Webb’s draft elides the need for any outright “expropriation of the expropriators”, and despite its reference to common ownership and control (a nod to the syndicalists), there is nothing specific on what form that might take or how it might be brought about. Furthermore, Clause IV’s deliberate inclusion of non-manual (“by brain”) workers “was expressly intended to display Labour’s non-sectional vocation as a ‘National Party’, and thereby facilitate entry into ‘its rightful position in national life’”. Section four of Clause IV was therefore, for Elliott, “a compromise formation – a sufficiently adept item of draftsmanship to ensconce reformist socialists without lumbering social reformers”.

The party programme of the same year (also authored by Webb), Labour and the New Social Order, gave a more accurate reflection of where Labour was really at politically, and “was noticeably less radical in tone”, though it did contain pledges to extend public ownership into certain sectors. Whatever the party constitution said, as Shaw notes, it remained the case that Labour’s “approach to matters of policy was set by leaders who coupled an adherence to a sentimental and insipid brand of rhetorical socialism with an immense admiration for the British constitution”. This would remain the case for long thereafter.

Revisionist challenges

Despite its ambiguities, Webb’s Clause IV served as the basis of Labour’s official doctrine for 40 years with little in the way of serious dissent. The 1945 Labour government went at least part of the way to acting on it, extending state ownership to encompass rail, iron and steel, electricity, gas and other leading utilities. But as the 1950s wore on, Clause IV came under increasing attack from Labour’s ‘revisionist’ social democrats, who sought to modernise Labourist doctrine for the changed post-war conditions of the mixed economy.

The revisionists held that the mixed economy (and Keynesian macroeconomic management) had effectively smoothed out the fundamental economic antagonisms of capitalism; this was a thesis elaborated in Anthony Crosland’s highly influential 1956 book The Future of Socialism, which became the revisionists’ urtext. For the revisionists, there was no particular need to extend public ownership any further, as all that was needed to obtain social justice was for capitalist surpluses to be distributed more equally. Those left-wingers in Labour who insisted on cleaving to the opposite view were considered borderline fetishists.

Labour’s third successive election defeat in 1959 prompted much soul-searching, and the revisionists – among whose ranks were counted Hugh Gaitskell, then Labour leader – were quick to seize control of the narrative, bamboozling their Bevanite adversaries on the left. But in the process of mounting their challenge to the party’s main article of faith, the Gaitskellites began to alienate more traditionalist elements on the Labour and trade union right. Changing party policy was one thing, but intruding on the “central symbols” of Labourism – so crucial to ensuring that this fractious alliance had sufficient common ground to hold together – was quite another. As a result, Gaitskell’s attempt to scrap the original Clause IV in 1959-60 failed. A compromise was reached which allowed the Labour leadership to save face, with a new ‘statement of aims’ adopted alongside Webb’s Clause IV and soon forgotten.

It would take more than 30 years for a new generation of revisionists to succeed where their Gaitskellite forebears had fallen short. It is important to note that New Labour was never the ‘year zero’ moment it is sometimes purported to be. It shared many of the same preoccupations as the earlier revisionism of the 1950s and ‘60s, including establishing a greater distance between the party and the unions, and the replacement of Sidney Webb’s Clause IV with a more market-friendly formulation.

The final abandonment of Webb's Clause IV in 1995, though resisted by what remained of the Labour left, merely made the de facto into the de jure. It had already long been apparent that the Labour Party had no intention of reversing all of the Thatcherite privatisations, let alone securing for workers the full fruits of their labour. The actual commitment of Labour governments to public ownership had always been patchy in any case, with the partial exception of 1945. But what Blair’s updated Clause IV, with its commitment to a “dynamic market economy”, did signal was an official reconciliation with the new, post-Thatcherite economic dispensation.

A “complicated alliance”

Why is it that Labour has, over the years, struggled so badly to define what it’s about, and what its aspirations for social change are, without plunging itself into civil war? The party is comprised of radically differing political tendencies, all agreed on being nominally anti-Tory, but continually prone to bitter disagreement among themselves over what they might positively want to do when in office. There are, as Hilary Wainwright has put it, two parties (at least) in Labour: one committed to mild social amelioration under capitalism, the other to electoral, reformist socialism.

The sheltering of such divergent political views and objectives under a common umbrella means that certain political elisions are necessary if Labour in its current form is to hold together as a credible and coherent electoral force. The animating spirit of the party’s much-mythologised ‘broad church’ is simple realpolitik, along with the need to adjust to an electoral system which tends to punish breakaway formations severely (as Change UK soon discovered to its cost). Labour’s basic incoherence has produced what Raymond Williams has called “an evident poverty in theory”, as “any attempt to go beyond quite general definitions leads at once to strains on this complicated alliance”.

Given all this, Labour has never been able to offer or act upon a fundamental definition of how society and the economy might be reshaped to serve the interests of working people above all. The emotion and sentimentalism within Labour towards its own history makes devising any such redefinition even harder. Leo Panitch has argued that the Labour left’s propensity to wrap itself in the banner of party tradition has ultimately hampered its efforts to remould Labour along socialist lines, blinding it to the reality that “the task of changing the Labour Party surely involves wrenching it out of its tradition”.

Panitch has asserted elsewhere that the responsibility for maintaining party unity always weighs heaviest on the Labour left, which is “more easily guilted, always”. The current leadership contest appears to be bearing this out. Many erstwhile Corbynites, demoralised and no doubt guilt-stricken after December’s heavy election defeat, are leaning towards supposed unity candidate Keir Starmer. But Labour’s internal contradictions are so volatile they cannot be soothed with warm words and sincere sentiment. Whether or not Labour runs the risk of revisiting Clause IV, enduring party unity is likely to prove as elusive as ever.

Tom Blackburn is a founding editor of New Socialist. He lives in Greater Manchester.