Will Progress ever have a clause four moment of its own?

by Sunder Katwala

“A Fabian clause IV moment may loom for the ole statists’ new chief”, wrote the pressure group Progress, as their think-tank column sought to stir up some speculation about the future of the Fabian Society under its next general secretary. (I leave this summer. Do apply here, before May 26).

A week later, Progress published a “reform or die” injunction to the Fabian Society, though doing more to stoke a little distant nostalgia for the early “big tent” Blairism of the Britpop era than to credibly suggest an existential threat, particularly when Fabian Society membership is today higher that at any point in our 126-year history.

Still, the argument for a fabian clause four moment is a good one. Fabianism is full of clause four moments. It is because it has been the most open, plural and self-critical, hence regenerating and revisionist, of intellectual and political traditions that fabianism has endured and thrived across a century and more. As Progress gathers for its annual conference this weekend, it would be a good moment for that organisation to consider how to emulate that fabian tradition, and to try a clause four moment of its own.

The Fabians can, uniquely, stake a claim to have been a significant contributor to both of Labour’s own clause four moments. Sidney Webb’s 1918 clause four was, in its own time, the moderate, gradualist and democratic socialist riposte to the Bolshevik revolution. Its appeal to workers “by hand or by brain” was designed to expand Labour’s appeal beyond the trade union interest by seeking middle-class support for democratic socialism. That this was a fabian achievement was never a barrier to fabian interrogation and criticism of it.

Arthur Henderson favoured rewriting it by 1929. Fabians were at the heart of the revisionist social democratic push to revise clause four in the 1950s. Fabian general secretary, Bill Rodgers, was central to the modernising campaign for democratic socialism, which sought to mobilise support for Hugh Gaitskell’s ill-fated assault on the old clause four.

Fabians returned to the fray in the 1990s, as the society put Labour’s “southern discomfort” at centre stage after the 1992 general election. Giles Radice called on leader, John Smith, to revise clause four, and returned to the theme as the latest follow-up pamphlet was published on the eve of the 1995 conference. “There would be no better way of showing that Labour is putting forward a credible vision for the future than by rewriting clause four”, wrote Radice. His diaries recount that he had no prior knowledge of Blair’s plan to do exactly that, but was able to tell a fabian fringe meeting on the Tuesday night that “I have been outflanked by my leader”. A decade later, we were making the case for Labour to revisit its foundational values in every generation, not twice a century. Having successfully helped to put the language of equality back into mainstream politics – with the argument for more equal life chances now echoing across the political spectrum. So I argued that Labour ought now to have the confidence to make its commitment to a fairer and more equal society an explicit part of its political mission.

By contrast with the fabians, Progress has never had nor contributed to a clause four moment yet.

Founded in 1996, the organisation had been a mere glint in Derek Draper’s eye when Tony Blair revised clause four the year before. The self-styled modernisers of Progress, arriving afterwards, did not offer an independent, insurgent challenge for Labour to rethink its ideas. Rather, as Tom Watson has set out on Uncut, the organisation was created “from above”, through explicitly seeking out and receiving the patronage of the party leadership for its offer to consolidate and mobilise support for what had already become the new status quo. After fifteen years of flying that New Labour flag, arriving metaphorically in its late adolescence, Progress may increasingly face a “forward, not back” challenge of its own.

If the Fabian Society‘s next leadership should embrace the challenge to define the society’s own next clause four moment, it must also be time for Progress to consider how to have their first.

With Progress fashioning a new trend in fraternal advice and organisational scrutiny between progressive allies, it would seem only fair to reciprocate and to draw on the fabian experience to identify three signposts as to what Progress‘ first ever clause four moment might look like.

First, choose your shibboleth.

Labour had hardly intended to nationalise the means of production, distribution and exchange prior to 1995, as had been clear from the earlier modernising prospectus of both Harold Wilson and Neil Kinnock.

Clause four moments are often as much about language and symbolism as substantive content, questioning an irrational attachment to outdated political language for primarily sentimental reasons. Progress could hardly be better placed to make a symbolic sacrifice of a shibboleth of its own.

Why, in 2011, insist on clinging on to the label “New Labour”?

Just about everybody realises why it would be absurd for Labour’s public narrative to be that it is “still New Labour” in a general election in 2015, fully eighteen years after the 1997 landslide, and so as chronologically distant from it Tony Blair’s election had been from the 1979 defeat of Jim Callaghan. However effective the New Labour brand was in the late 1990s, defining it around newness meant it inevitably had a perishable shelf-life.

So David Miliband declared New Labour over when opening his leadership campaign “New Labour isn’t new any more. What I’m interested in is next Labour”.

Ed Miliband declared the last rites after winning the leadership: “the New Labour era is passed”. But Progress can’t let go and join this “forward, not back” consensus, so have invited the Labour leader to open Saturday’s annual conference gathering as “new ideas for New Labour”, perhaps sounding rather more 2001 than 2011.

Second, “reform”.

Clause four moments have usually combined symbolic change with organisational modernisation.

Progress could make plenty of progress here, simply by acting on the advice which it offers to others.

David Chaplin’s “reform or die” piece for Progress on fabian organisational challenges was both more constructive, and much more cautiously incremental, than its clichéd “reform or die” headline would suggest. But founding an argument for the Fabian Society to be “more transparent and dynamic” in its internal democracy in the need to keep up with groups like Progress has an obvious flaw, as I discovered when inquiring politely how far Progress matched up to these challenges itself.

How many members does Progress have? “We don’t currently publish membership figures”, director Robert Philpott told me. He set out that Progress is  “clear and transparent” in its funding because its accounts can be ferretted out at Companies House, and its major donors are reported to the electoral commission.

However, Progress gives no power, little voice and next to no information on the organisation’s governance to its own members. So the second clause four challenge would be for Progress to learn from the internal democracy of comparable groups like the Fabians and Compass, whose members democratically elect their governing boards, and can decide issues of governance at AGMs open to all members. If democratic participation would be too bold a modernising move – a “Westminster spring” – then a group which presents itself as deriving legitimacy from being a membership-based organisation need not resist even a little glasnost, ending its practice of keeping secret even the size of its membership, its constitution and its governing board.

Clearly “reform or die” would be hyperbolic – as Progress‘ capacity and resources do not appear to depend at all on its membership base. But Progress would win greater legitimacy, and avoid the appearance of a double standard, were it to apply Chaplin’s reformist advice to its own organisation.

Third, expand the tent

New Labour’s aim was that there should be no ideological barrier to reaching out for new support. Increasingly, it is voices from Progress‘ natural constituency on the centre-right of the party, including in the shadow cabinet, who wonder about how that seemed to narrow into a dogmatic defence of particular market-based forms of public service provision.

Tom Watson suggests that Tony Blair gave his blessing to Progress on the condition that it did not become a faction. Progress is widely seen as having become considerably more factional in the last few years, perhaps partly increasing the volume to compete with Compass and get media attention in the crowded marketplace of ideas.

But I disagree with those who adversely criticise the principle of groups like Compass or Progress, the cooperative party, Blue Labour or others mobilising as “factions” within the party. There is nothing at all wrong with a pluralist and broad party containing factions, and different strands of opinion. Done right, this is a sign of health rather than weakness. This seems to me preferable to having party debates unmediated between top-down leadership and the individual member.

I have argued that what we need are factions without factionalism. In the end, that argument depends on strands and factions of opinion seeing that it is in their own self-interest to recognise and respect the legitimacy of other voices.

This should be particularly obvious to the post-New Labour Progress right.

Why isn’t David Miliband the leader of the Labour party now? A major (and ultimately decisive) reason was the impact of unwelcome and harmful interventions from his own supporters. By unfairly caricaturing David Miliband, a moderate, modernising social democrat, as a Blairite continuity candidate, his most vocal supporters hurt their own candidate in a way which ultimately proved decisive in a knife-edge electoral college.

The handling of the announcement of the much hyped Purple Book, still some months away, during the local election campaigns, repeated many of the same mistakes. When NEC member, Luke Akehurst, a highly committed party activist who makes no secret of identifying robustly with the right of the party, is outside the Progress tent, it ought to be taken as a sign of how narrow the tent risks becoming.

What we do know is that the Purple Book‘s objective is to explore a “less statist” Labour politics, which may involve some sorting out of means and ends. Any intelligent “less statist” approach from the centre-left is going to have to offer a coherent account of what it is for, not merely what it is against. That will no doubt mean arguing for “more state” and “less state” in different areas, so as to avoid rejecting extensions of state power in principle, in areas like introducing the minimum wage, spending 0.7% of GDP on taxpayer-funded international aid, the important increase in public support for science championed by David Sainsbury as science minister, Peter Mandelson’s industrial activism. The most profound recent long-term extension of state power has been the project to introduce legally binding curbs on carbon emissions, yet that is enthusiastically supported by Blairites, Orange Book Lib Dems and most anti-state Cameroons.

Meanwhile, Progress has been rather quieter than it might have been about state over-reach in the area of civil liberties. Indeed, it promoted a mini-manifesto from a dozen Labour MPs arguing that Labour’s “perceived authoritarianism has restricted the political space for pragmatic policies such as identity cards”.

A more contentful liberal social democratic route to a less statist politics would resist joining the political right in denigrating fabianism, or to lazily caricature it as “overweening statism”, when it is the most important of Labour’s revisionist social democratic intellectual traditions. That is a route to losing the argument and further narrowing Progress‘ appeal.

Purple Booker, Phillip Collins, has previously argued that Labour should ditch social democracy and the “poisoned well” of fabianism entirely, reconstructing itself as a liberal party. That, co-authored by Richard Reeves (before he became Nick Clegg’s political strategist) is remarkably narrow and non-pluralist. A rather better project is the attempt to fuse the insights of social democracy and liberalism.

Pardoxically, Collins and Reeves declared that their anti-fabian hero was GDH Cole, life president of the Fabian Society. Other Purple Bookers like Paul Richards do know their Labour history, and so will be able to articulate that anybody looking for “less statist” Labour traditions will find that many of the most important have been from fabian voices, such as Cole.

If there turns out to be common ground after all, there may be no need to define the next clause four moment against the party this time.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He blogs his personal views – read more at www.nextleft.org.

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One Response to “Will Progress ever have a clause four moment of its own?”

  1. Ralph Baldwin says:


    Firstly I want to say i am sorry for your choice to stand down as Fabians primary position.

    I agree with you that labour does indeed require a broad tent. The role of progress I and many others view with deep suspicion.
    Compass going independent not a very healthy development.

    Fabianism itself to me though was in decline also and narrowing its scope regardless of the numbers you brought in. Its presence at Conservative conference was not a “branching out” it was a cynical maneuvre or at least appeared to be so in seeking to recruit new members from that most narrow group of all, who have yet to win a general outright, a signal failure for a Dinosaur of a party.

    I have advocated the move towards a participative (Liberal is to simple a word as it can mean increased democracy or decreased State intervention and commercial recklessness) Social Democracy.

    Participative because it does indeed broaden our “church” makes us more relevant and petrtinent and gives us a massive advantage over our opponents whilst also ensuring we are as Labour party members building good policy from a good values base.

    Too many people from narrow backgrounds having a BIG say and those of us having material stolen from us by our pragmatic contributions on blogs still being ignored.

    The face does not fit the picture.


    The narrowing of the Labour Party will be its undoing and it is losing countries now not counties.

    Well lets see this process of nepotism and corporate corruption to its climax and give license and authenticity to that which those our eternal opponents the Conservatives are doing and accept defeat.

    Being redundent and irrelevant Labour achieved when it was in power and is perpetuating the same short-term press obseessed agenda whilst forgetting the principles and procedures that are required for us to grow and become a Party that really can create a difference.

    Is that not why we are all here? The world is becoming increasingly populated, resources are on the decline, economies are favouring the minority globally and where are we, and where is so-called Social Democracy across Europe?

    But then when was it ever Social Democracy? Democracy?

    We can’t even manage the one word in our Party at the moment.

    A massive and radical overhaul is needed driven by the interests of the Party not of individuals with cheap tawdry motives.

    Until it is, until people begin to actually and truly show by actions and by even-handedness that the interests of the Party must always come first and not political opportunism we are lost and cannot grow.

    Even now those challenging the Tories are not the Labour Party. That itself is incredible.

    I agree we have to open our tent but do so with clear ideas about what our party is and what its goals are.

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