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The Labour Party and the abolition of Clause Four

Fifteen years ago this April a special conference of the Labour Party voted to abolish the old Clause Four of Labour’s constitution, adopted in 1918, committing to "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". An article by PETER TAAFFE in issue No.61, Summer 1995 of Militant International Review, the forerunner of Socialism Today, analysed the significance of this move in the process of transforming the character of the Labour Party as the mass vehicle of political representation of the British working class. The version below has been slightly shortened for reasons of space.

IN ADVANCE OF the conference some commentators were clear about what was happening: "What we shall see this afternoon is the collapse of Labour as the party of organised labour" (Martin Kettle, The Guardian, 29 April 1995). Not just at the conference itself, with the crushing majorities for the right wing, but in the days that followed, the Labour leadership did everything to prove Martin Kettle right.

Blair indicated that the union vote at party conferences would probably be reduced to 50% before the general election. In fact this has already been agreed in principle. Privately Blair and his entourage of ‘gilded youth’ have flagged their intention of eliminating completely organised trade union influence in the party.

Alongside of this is the open embrace of the ‘market’, of capitalism. This was brazenly expressed by shadow chancellor Gordon Brown in the Evening Standard on the eve of the special conference. In language worthy of any Tory leader, Brown wrote: "The Labour Party is now the party of modern business and industry in Britain... For the first time... the Labour Party has set down its commitment to a market economy, to living with the rigors of competition, and to nurture enterprise... now with our clear statement of aims, no-one can ever again question our commitment to a healthy and successful private sector, or to competition and enterprise".

Brown went further after the abandonment of Clause Four: "A Labour government will be very tough on public spending... takeovers can be very healthy for the economy, they can be a spur to inefficient management". It’s no wonder then that the Financial Times jeeringly comments about "Labour’s love of the market... Even a year ago, it would have been unthinkable for Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, to give the speech he delivered yesterday".

This has to be taken together with Blair’s opposition to such a basic question as the re-nationalisation of utilities. On this issue the Labour leadership are more conservative than some on the right in France. One of Chirac’s leading advisors, prior to the presidential elections, supported in an interview in the Financial Times the re-nationalisation of water. The timorous Labour leadership are not even prepared to promise re-nationalisation of the railways, if the government should proceed with privatisation.

Notwithstanding this, Labour’s membership, according to Blair, has increased by 100,000 over the last twelve months, standing now at something like 320,000. Half of the present membership, according to Gordon Brown in the Evening Standard, has joined since 1992. This actually shows the rapid turnover in Labour Party membership, with workers leaving in disgust at the policies of the right and being replaced by a largely petit-bourgeois ‘Blair levy’. These new members, overwhelmingly middle class in origin, manipulated by loaded postal ballots, have been the raw mass used to still the voice of the few socialist workers left in the Labour Party.

A guarantee of future corruption scandals

LABOUR ENJOYS A 50% to 30% lead over the Tories amongst the so-called A-B groups. This general support is paralleled by a layer of petit-bourgeois joining the party. A high proportion of careerists will have been drawn in, attracted by the lure of office, which would follow on the heels of a Labour victory. Similar developments have taken place in Labour and Socialist parties in Europe.

In Spain, for instance, the ‘membership’ of PSOE includes 40,000 state office holders, who have benefited from an extended period of PSOE government. With this has come inevitable corruption which has plagued not just PSOE, but the French, Belgian, Italian and other Socialist Parties.

The party leaders, and a big part of the ranks also, once having abandoned the great historical aim of socialism, have adapted themselves completely to capitalism. It was therefore only a matter of time before the leadership of these organisations drew the conclusion that they also, alongside the bourgeois politicians, should poke their snouts into the state feeding trough. If you accept capitalism, why not accept the moral code of that system, or the lack of it, and look after ‘number one’?

The tendency towards careerism, inherent in all reformist organisations, was given a finished expression in the past in the phrase of a former left Labour MP: "I believe in the emancipation of the working class one by one, beginning with myself". If now the ‘emancipation of the working class’ is abandoned, the shackles will come off and then it is a scramble for each individual minister and party member to look after themselves first.

The present evolution of the Labour right in Britain is a guarantee of corruption on the scale of Spain or France in the event of them coming to power. Such a tendency will be reinforced by the determination of the leadership to free themselves even more from the irksome control of a conscious and organised rank and file in the trade unions.

It is true, as Lenin argued, that the Labour Party through its pro-capitalist leadership has always been a ‘bourgeois’ party. This has been pointed to in the past by every stripe of ultra-left sectarian in Britain as evidence that the Labour Party was a ‘write-off’. However Lenin also emphasised that this was just one side of the Labour Party; through its trade union base in particular, it was also a working class party. From this source would come a limitless supply of workers who would move in and transform the party. Militant [the forerunner of the Socialist Party] in the past based itself on this perspective.

Up to a point the British Labour Party was ‘unique’ in its origins and in its relationship to the trade unions. The French and German parties had different origins without the same organic link between the unions and the mass party. The British Labour Party from its inception was to all intents and purposes a ‘trade union’ party. This proved to be a powerful impediment to the capitalists exercising decisive influence over the direction of the party. In office it was subject to the pressure of the unions and therefore could potentially endanger the interests of capitalism. It is for this reason that from its inception the bourgeoisie have attempted to break the link with the unions as well as remorselessly attacking Clause Four.

In 1931 the Labour government was broken because the trade unions refused to accept the draconian retrenchment policy of MacDonald. The bourgeoisie therefore opted to split the Labour Party with the formation of MacDonald’s ‘National Government’. In 1969 the Wilson government’s attempt to introduce anti-trade union legislation, In Place of Strife, was defeated by colossal trade union pressure exerted on the Labour cabinet.

Both the capitalists and their right-wing echoes in the labour movement learn from history, as do Marxists. What if a left Labour government, led by the likes of Tony Benn, had come to power in Britain? Then the pressure of the working class through the unions could have pushed that government in the direction of challenging capitalism, as with Allende in Chile from 1970-73. It is for this reason that the ruling class have ceaselessly campaigned to break the Labour Party officially from the long-term aim of ‘socialism’ and to destroy the trade union link with Labour. They wish to establish a version of the US Democratic Party in Britain. Now they have succeeded in removing Clause Four.

A product of the 1990s ideological retreat

THE DEFEAT OF Clause Four is a setback for the general struggle for socialism. Developments in Britain and internationally, as well as the internal decomposition of the Labour Party, have allowed the Labour right to succeed. The collapse of Stalinism and the ideological campaign against socialism which followed from this, the world economic upswing of the 1980s, the purging of Militant and others on the left from the Labour Party, have all contributed to the right’s victory.

Jack Straw, writing in The Independent, gives a glimpse of some of the reasons why Gaitskell’s attempt to eliminate Clause Four failed in 1959: "Partly he failed because many party members were still mesmerised by the alleged economic success of the Soviet Union. Speaking against Gaitskell’s project, Aneurin Bevan said, ‘I am a socialist. I believe in public ownership. The challenge is going to come from Russia, not from the United States, West Germany, (or) France’." The collapse of the planned economies, due to the crimes of the Stalinist elite, was utilised by the capitalist class to conduct its ideological offensive against socialism. This in turn has allowed the right to conduct its offensive against Clause Four and the trade union link.

Blair is quite conscious of the fact that his government will face opposition from the unions. This is why he must proceed quickly to further weaken their voice within the Labour Party, at the national conference and through changes in the composition of the National Executive Committee, by stuffing it with right-wing local government representatives.

Will the union leaders accept further attacks on their influence? Will they swallow a fundamental alteration in the structures of the Labour Party? Some of the union leaders complained in the aftermath of April 29 about the ‘Blair juggernaut’ which rolled over them and the left at the special conference. However, it is likely that, while still complaining loudly about the methods of the right, they will accede to the right’s proposals.

Is it possible, in the light of these developments, that the Labour Party could end up in the same position as PSOE in Spain? Here is a party that was reborn in the 1970s as a ‘Marxist’ party. However, the Gonzales leadership has gone so far to the right that the socialist trade union federation, the UGT, some time ago detached itself and even refused to advocate a vote for PSOE in recent elections. PSOE still retains a residual electoral support particularly among older workers, although even that must have been severely shaken by the revelations of Gonzales’s involvement with the state death squads against the Basque ETA terrorist organization. Similar trends showing the increasing ‘bourgeoisification’ of the social democracy, and the consequent desertion of significant layers of workers and youth, are evident elsewhere.

It can be objected that Britain is ‘different’. Of course there are differences, in origins, traditions and in the rhythm of the movement, between the workers’ movement in different countries in Europe. But to emphasise at this stage the ‘uniqueness’ of the British Labour Party, given the developments of the past period, is an expression of ‘British exceptionalism’.

This philosophy, much in vogue amongst bourgeois strategists in the past, could have a certain credibility at a time when British capitalism was a pre-eminent world economic power. But the shattering of British capitalism’s previously privileged position means that Britain now displays all the same tensions, only in a more aggravated form, as the other countries of Western Europe. So also the labour movement in Britain is affected by the same trends evident throughout the workers’ movement of Europe.

The 1980s saw a certain layering of the proletariat as well as a marked shift towards the right of the leadership of the main workers’ organisation. This went hand in hand with the weakening of the left within these organisations. Changes are taking place, or rather are now in the process of doing so, which raise questions about the character of the Labour Party. All indications show that the Labour leadership is pushing in the direction of creating an openly ‘liberal’ bourgeois party.

No longer seen as ‘their party’

THE FACT THAT Labour enjoys considerable electoral support is not the only, or even the decisive factor, in determining its relationship with the working class. Marxism has nothing in common with impressionism – a superficial view of temporary and empirical facts – but takes an all-rounded, dialectical view of processes. The abandonment of Clause Four and the weakening of the links with the unions are not developments of secondary importance. Yet even more decisive is the consciousness of the working class, or significant layers of the working class, towards the ‘traditional’ organisations.

The links with the unions could be broken in the future but this and the abandonment of Clause Four would not in and of themselves signify a decisive break in the link between the party and its working class base. After all the Socialist Party in France or the Social Democracy in Germany do not have these features. Yet Marxists still characterised these organisations at bottom as workers’ organisations, because of their working class base and the consciousness of the working class. However, workers in both France and Germany are beginning to undergo a transformation in how they view these organisations.

In Britain significant layers of workers, particularly amongst the youth and in the inner-city areas, no longer automatically look towards the Labour Party as ‘their’ party. They perceive the Labour Party leaders, both nationally and particularly on a local level, as merely ‘another party’, incapable of offering any solution to their problems. This has gone to such an extent that bourgeois commentators, like Andrew Marr in The Independent, have warned the Labour leaders of going too far. He approves of the direction which Blair has taken: "Labour’s internal polling confirms that its new supporters remain seriously worried about a revival of union militancy in the future. Therefore... it is essential for New Labour to be unequivocally on the side of users and taxpayers – more consumers’ association than workers’ party".

At the same time, he warns, "Blair can dump the unions, but not the poor... Labour cannot, should not, must not break with the millions of lower-paid and unemployed people who have partly looked to the trade union movement for their salvation. Someone must speak for them. Labour is not simply the party of Middle England and cannot ever be. There is another country, lower Britain, and it is a frightened and angry place". Significantly he adds that: "If Labour in power fails to offer it leadership and hope then... lower Britain would eventually turn elsewhere, perhaps to a period of militant syndicalism, perhaps to political dissent of a different kind".

By ‘militant syndicalism’ and ‘political dissent’ Marr is hinting that ‘lower Britain’ can be attracted by left and Marxist ideas. Yet a Blair Labour government is bound to disappoint the millions of poor, in the inner-cities in particular, if it remains within the framework of capitalism. And the fact that it will do so and therefore expects opposition is shown precisely in the fear by the right that trade union opposition will materialise very quickly after the coming to power of a Labour government.

Would workers move to ‘reclaim’ the party?

NOTWITHSTANDING EVERYTHING above is it still not possible for the trade unions to enter the Labour Party and transform it in a leftward direction under the next Labour government? One could not rule out such a development. But there are powerful obstacles now set in place by the right wing which make such a process difficult, if not unlikely. The idea, mechanically repeated by some, that following a Blair-led Labour government the revolt of the working class will be automatically translated into a mass left current within the Labour Party, ignores the changes in the structures of the party and its relationship to the working class.

It also flies in face of recent historical experience. Left oppositions have grown usually as a reflex to the defeat of Labour in a general election. This was the case in the 1970-74 period which saw the emergence of Benn as a left leader for the first time following the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation. Of course there had been signs of an emerging left-wing during the Labour government of 1964-70 but this only took on a significant form in the period of 1970-74. There was also some left opposition, although of a muted character, throughout the period of the 1974-79 Labour government. But a huge left-wing opposition only developed following the defeat of 1979.

In addition the channels which previously existed to change the Labour Party in a leftward direction have been dammed up by the right-wing’s ‘reforms’. In the past a resolution from a local Labour Party could become, through a conference discussion and debate, the policy of the party nationally. Indeed a resolution initiated from a ward in the Liverpool Wavertree constituency which opposed the five per cent limit on wages, was accepted at the 1978 Labour Party conference. This resolution, moved by a Militant supporter, gave the signal to Ford and other workers which in turn led to strikes and the ‘Winter of Discontent’. In other words the initiative at a ward in a local Labour Party helped to break the wages policy of the Labour government at that time and open the floodgates of industrial discontent.

Would working class opposition, inevitable under a Blair-led Labour government, now be channeled through the Labour Party? Or is it more likely to result in a split from the Labour Party? We support the coming to power of a Labour government, not because there will be a fundamental change in the policies pursued by that government compared to the Tories, but because it would lift the yoke of 16 years of Tory rule off the backs of the working class. It would release the pent-up frustrations which have built-up over this period. Moreover it would test out in action, and thus expose, Blair and the right-wing, which in turn would prepare the ground for the acceptance of genuine socialist and Marxist ideas in a mass form.

Most politically advanced workers entertain few illusions as to what a Labour government will mean. At best they hope for a more favorable, less hostile, framework within which to struggle. But they are already conscious, or half- conscious, of the fact that it will be down to the strength and combativity of workers in action, and not the actions of a Labour government, if the Tory attacks of the past are to be reversed and new conquests made. The issue of the minimum wage and the shorter working week, as well as the general issues of low pay, trade union rights etc, will quickly surface with pressure on Labour to take action. However, a Blair-led government will be like the present Social Democratic government in Sweden which from day one of its election victory last year has carried through vicious counter-reforms.

This could bring a Labour government into rapid conflict with the trade unions and the working class generally. But is it likely that workers will move into and begin to transform the party? It is more likely that the growing opposition will be reflected in demands for the unions to break with the increasingly bourgeois Labour Party leaders. While a certain movement back can not be ruled out completely, it is unlikely that a mass left wing will crystallise in the Labour Party following a Labour victory. It is more likely that some unions, under the pressure of their members, will demand disaffiliation from the Labour Party. This could be the precursor to a split.

A turning point

THE PRESENT LABOUR left leadership, who more and more rely on a policy of inertia, will not take the initiative in such a development. A mass movement from below will have to develop before they will be pushed into action. Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill have both indicated that it is necessary to ‘continue the struggle for socialism’ within the Labour Party, despite the overwhelming victories for the right. Rodney Bickerstaff has also complained loudly about the ‘treatment’ dished out to trade union leaders, protesting that they can hardly keep up with the ‘rear lights of the Blair juggernaut’ as it rushes to the right. And yet none of these leaders have called on, or are capable of organising, the tens and hundreds of thousands of workers from the unions to flood in and reclaim the Labour Party.

It is doubtful whether at this stage there are a significant layer of leftward-moving workers within the unions who would respond to this call, given the quiescence of left reformism in the whole preceding period. However, on the basis of big events, a radical, socialist mass wave will develop in the unions. Then the question will be posed point blank: either to use the trade unions to enter the Labour Party and brutally push out the bourgeois elements, or to put a minus against the present organisation of the Labour Party and commence to create a new mass socialist political party.

Already The Economist has commented that while Blair was claiming overwhelming support for his ditching of Clause Four, in January a Gallup poll showed that 37% were "broadly in agreement" with the words of Clause Four. They went on to say that this showed that there was a space, quite a significant one, for a new socialist party in Britain.

The triumph of the right on all fronts within the Labour Party poses stark choices for the left within the unions and within the labour movement generally. For the foreseeable future the Labour Party on a day-to-day basis will not be a viable weapon for the British working class. When it comes to an election the mass of workers will polarise behind Labour, hoping against hope that a Blair-led Labour government would begin to change the situation. But while a few minimal measures may be introduced, these will be outweighed by counter-reforms, with the likelihood of increased attacks on workers in the public sector in particular.

The whole position of British and world capitalism deems that any government in power must take back the conquests of the past. In this situation Militant appeals to all those who continue to struggle for socialism to consider joining its ranks. It will continue to offer a socialist, fighting alternative on all fronts in which working people struggle. At the same time, unlike the sects who, in the words of Marx, "emphasise their own shibboleth rather than what they have in common with the movement", we will fight for the creation of the widest possible mass socialist force in Britain. If the trade unions conclude that it is necessary to fill out the Labour Party at a future date in an attempt to transform it, we would give the maximum possible support. However, as suggested earlier, the channels for pursuing this no longer exist, at least in the form that they did in the past. It therefore can not be ruled out that the demand will grow for a new mass socialist force in Britain. We are interested in the widest possible organisation of the British working class and would support all steps in this direction.

One thing is clear: April 29 marks a turning point in the history of the labour movement. Sometimes history raises a party to its full height, the better to concentrate the forces of disintegration and opposition to this same party. In 1906 the Liberal Party scored its greatest electoral triumph, but this was the high water mark of Liberalism. Tested in action it began to disintegrate, never again to recapture the position it then held. Blair’s Labour Party could be swept into power with a huge electoral majority on the tide of bitter class hatred of the Tory government. However, the inevitable disappointment of the hopes of millions, by a government which remains within the framework of diseased British capitalism, will conjure up forces which will shatter the grip of the right wing on the labour movement in Britain.


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