Monday, 14 September 2015

Re-writing Clause 4 for Labour Party

by Les May
WHEN I was a member of the Labour party my membership card carried the then Clause 4 (part 4) which was just 56 words long. Had I pondered it closely I would have noticed two things.  It confuses 'ends' and 'means', and its not clear what the term 'common ownership' actually means. 
This had not gone unnoticed by Anthony Crosland and Hugh Gaitskell. Crosland developed his ideas in his 1956 book 'The Future of Socialism' in which he pointed out that Labour's 'ends' could be achieved without 'common ownership' a.k.a. 'nationalisation'. Gaitskell's desire to change Clause 4 in 1959 may well have been motivated more by a realisation that it was unlikely every to be implemented in full and he thought that Labour should say so. Certainly it was not an issue in the 1959 election which Labour had just lost. Nor does it appear to have been one of the reasons Labour lost the elections of 1970 and 1979.  
Whether Labour's victory in 1997 with Blair as leader can be attributed to the newly written Clause 4 which dropped mention of 'common ownership' is doubtful. A study published in The Independent in 1994 made no mention of nationalisation being a reason for Labour unexpectedly losing the 1992 election.
In 1993 Blair had authored a Fabian Society pamphlet which put forward a case for defining socialism in terms of a set of values which were constant, while the policies needed to achieve them would have to change to account for changing society. 
Superficially it looks as if Blair was simply following on from Crosland and Gaitskell. But there is one subtle difference. 
Both Crosland and Gaitskell had a strong belief in the importance of equality. Crosland in particular developed the idea that 'equality' as not just about income and wealth. It included a more equal distribution of power, of equality of treatment by public bodies and institutions, and a more equal education system, though with its line about 'equitable distribution' Clause 4 was itself not clear on this. For both Crosland and Gaitskell 'equality' meant 'Equality of Outcome'.  
That's not what the New Labour version of Clause 4 said. It referred only to the fact that a just society promotes 'Equality of Opportunity'. That's no longer a policy exclusive to New Labour, the Tories say it too and the Lib-Dems used to say it until Clegg began to use the phrase 'social mobility' as something of a synonym.   
In 1996, Yvette Cooper wrote an article for 'The Independent on Sunday' which set out what 'equality' meant to New Labour and it is still worth reading as a summary of the New Labour project. In 2015 we are now able to see what twenty years of 'Equality of Opportunity' has got us apart from Blair and Mandelson taking the opportunity to make fortunes.  
Not everyone thinks that outcomes don't matter.  The Equality Trust has compiled figures showing the scale of inequality.  People in the bottom 10% of the population have on average a net income of £8,468.  The top 10% have net incomes almost ten times that (£79,042).  In this context 'net' means after direct taxes have been deducted and before benefits have been added. Inequality is much higher amongst original income than net income with the poorest 10% having on average an original income of £3,738 whilst the top 10% have an original income of £102,366 on average, which demonstrates the impact of redistribution on equality.  Wealth (property, shares, land etc) is even more unequally divided than income. The richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth.  The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9.5%. 
Income and wealth are quantifiable but twenty years on we find that there has been a qualitative change too. Whilst in 1996 Labour still defined itself as a 'left-of-centre' party it now sees itself as being in a fight for the 'centre ground' of politics.  
In their day both Crosland and Gaitskell were seen as 'right wing'.  (Mandelson's grandad, Herbert Morrison, was seen as even more 'right wing' and he masterminded the nationalisation of basic industries in the post 1945 Attlee government.)  Both would have welcomed a rewording of the original Clause 4. But I don't think either of them would have been foolish enough to 'throw the baby out with the bathwater'.  Time perhaps for a redrafting of Clause 4 to reflect some of the spirit of the original? :  
'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.'

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