Labour is not a museum. It should be a movement for the future

by Pat McFadden

It was back in 1959 that some in Labour first though the old Clause IV was out of date.  1959, before the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the same year the German SPD renounced its Marxist heritage with the adoption of the Bad Godesberg programme.  Gaitskill’s attempt to change Clause IV was a response to Labour’s third defeat on the trot.  He failed.  The party would not give up its statement of aims and values dating from 1918 and the original Clause IV survived until the 1990s.

For some the commitment to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” was a serious statement of intent, a yardstick by which to judge Labour Governments who would inevitably be found wanting when it came to implementation.  That’s the thing about leaders, they will always sell you out goes the argument.  For others its value was more as heritage, not a statement they expected to be implemented but of value as a kind of holy text.

Before Tony Blair attempted to change Clause IV Jack Straw had raised the issue.  If memory serves me right he quoted his constituency chairman citing Yeats’s plea to “tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.”  For Clause IV was not only about content.  It was part of Labour’s religion.  It had a poetic appeal and its very longevity lent it symbolic weight.  So when Tony Blair set about changing it both he and the opponents of change understood the importance of the change.

Blair wanted a statement of Labour’s aims that a Labour government could seriously attempt to abide by.  No Labour Government was going to nationalise the means of production, distribution and exchange.  Secondly, he wanted to communicate to the public, most of whom of course hadn’t read Clause IV, that Labour had changed and was modernising to meet new times.  He knew Labour had a problem appealing to voters who believed Labour was wedded to high taxes, dominated by the unions and weak on defence.  Many of these voters had parents or grandparents who were Labour but they felt they had moved on from a Labour party that seemed locked in the past.

The new Clause IV, which we all carry on our membership cards, is about community, solidarity, mutual rights and duties and the many not the few.  The old one had more poetry, but the new one was more in tune with what Labour could actually do.

Delivering the change to a new Clause IV was a hugely important step for Labour.  It was prepared to update its most sacred text for new times. It would be a party of today, not of yesterday.  The move helped pave the way for the victories that saw Labour introduce the minimum wage, sign up to the European Social Chapter, save and modernise the NHS, introduce Surestart, work for peace in Northern Ireland and put increased aid and debt relief at the heart of the international agenda – the difference between winning and losing is not academic.

Such was the import of the adoption of the new Clause IV that a new phrase – the Clause IV moment – entered the language.  The characteristics of a Clause IV moment for any organisation were a big fundamental and probably difficult to agree change that came from within, not a superficial or small change or something imposed from the outside.  A Clause IV moment, whether in politics or any other field, was a signal that you got it, you knew you had to change.

The attempt to bring back Clause IV is revealing about Labour’s debate over its future.  How do we respond to our defeat and what lessons do we learn from past victories?  Are we even prepared to learn lessons from past victories?  Are we to be a movement for the future, always hungry to adapt and indeed anticipate change, or are we to become an ideological preservation society, claiming radicalism but instead displaying deep conservatism through the advocacy of answers that we moved on from decades ago?  Are we constantly asking how lives and expectations and ways of doing things have changed, and what new possibilities these changes may bring, or are we going to take refuge in protest and shut down the alternative by attacking it as betrayal?

Of course winning matters because you achieve nothing if you don’t but telling Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters they won’t win an election is beside the point for many of them because victory in a general election is not what they desire – after all they have been told repeatedly in recent years that Labour’s record in Government was not worth defending.  But for Labour more broadly there is a more urgent prior question.

This contest has been posited as a battle between principle and power but it’s really something else.  It’s about whether we can exercise the leadership to face up to the changes we need to make or not.  When millions look to Labour and want a more appealing Labour party than they were offered at the recent election, opting to become a museum would not be a principled thing to do.  It would be an abdication of responsibility.  And it would be a terrible lost opportunity.  Because for all their post election honeymoon, the Tories are beatable.  The country does not love them.  They have no compelling vision for Britain’s place in the modern world.  The possibilities are there for the centre left.  But we won’t seize them by winding back the clock.

Pat McFadden is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East

Tags: , , , , ,

21 Responses to “Labour is not a museum. It should be a movement for the future”

  1. @ Pat,

    “Out of Date ” ??

    What you really mean is that you don’t agree with it.

    Let’s just refresh our memories on the clause in question:

    “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.”

    The first thing that anyone might notice is the beautiful prose. There’s no politico-speak cliches like “going forwards” , “hard working families”, “long term economic plan”, “let me be clear about this etc”.

    In that sense it’s timeless.

    So we can only conclude that you don’t want the workers to have the full fruits of their industry. You don’t want equitable distribution. You don’t want common ownership or popular administration etc.

    That’s fair enough. You’ll find no trouble finding those who think the same as you. But, why some much concern from those who do disagree with these sentiments that there should be not even one political party that does agree with them, when there are already plenty that don’t?

  2. Madasafish says:

    Because for all their post election honeymoon, the Tories are beatable. The country does not love them. They have no compelling vision for Britain’s place in the modern world.

    Could just as well read:

    “Because with their post election leadership campaign, the Labour Party are a shambles and currently unelectable. The country does not love them. They have no compelling vision for Britain’s place in the modern world- – just regurgitating 50 year old failed policies and with unappealing Laedership candidates”

  3. Forlornehope says:

    “Common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” would, logically, involve nationalising everything from a sheep farm in Cumbria to Tesco. This hardly makes much sense and the idea that bringing Sainsburys into public ownership to make it as successful as the Coop is not really what most voters are likely to want. It is, perhaps, possible to make a case for re-nationalising the railways, telecoms and other utilities but it would be necessary to understand how this could lead to better customer service at lower cost and the necessary long term investment without large amounts of public money.

  4. Madasafish says:

    Anyone who talks about the “working class” is harking back to the days of three classes: Upper , middle and working.

    There are lots more now: including permanently on benefits claimants, immigrants, self employed etc etc.
    So anyone quoting Clause 4 is automatically in the wrong century and have not moved on from then so irrelevant. (But you knew that anyway.)

  5. swatantra says:

    Quite a few dinosaurs still hanging around: Skinner Clywd and Prezza to start the list rolling. Should be an Age Rule and the Number of Terms served limited to 3.

  6. Adrian says:

    There are good reasons why people don’t want “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” – because everywhere that has become a reality it has been associated with brutal political repression.

    For socialists, of course, the eternal preservation of a mode of production that entrenches and deepens inequality should not be an option and it is the brilliance of social democracy that, across the world, it has helped build better, more equal and free-er societies without repeating the mistakes of the collectivisers.

    Pat is right: either a restoration of the old Clause IV is about an emotional hankering for a lost political childhood or its a commitment to nationalise the corner shop (and hence jail those who refuse to accept collectivisation). One is a road to defeat, the other is a road to perdition

  7. paul barker says:

    This is half right, actually all serious Politics has to be primarily focused on the future/s, even when it wants to preserve good things inherited from the past. However, Labour is a museum, currently a popular one. It has been a museum since at least the turn of the Century. The present contest is between 3 politicians nostalgic for 1997 & 1 who hankers for 1968.
    Personally I love museums but I wouldnt want to live in one.

  8. David Walker says:

    I keep reading articles where Labour is referred to as a movement. Presumably, this is due to how far the party has moved over the last three decades. It has moved so far that it has become unrecognisable.

  9. william says:

    Try nationalising residential property, the logical extension of Clause 4, and see how many votes Labour gets in a general election.

  10. Landless Peasant says:

    Movement of the future? Unless the Tories are stopped there won’t be any future! Blairites are ClassTraitors. Clause 4 is the whole point of the Labour Party.

  11. Landless Peasant says:

    @ William

    All property is theft

  12. Wasn’t it Harold Macmillan who described Thatcher’s privatizations as ‘selling off the family silver’. Now Corbyn doesn’t seem that bothered about Clause 4 in the interview, but maybe another look at it mentioning public ownership of some type for the basic infrastructure of the country may do for him what Blair’s changes did for New Labour.

    Funny that the last time we had enthusiastic young people around Labour was the first Blair government election.

  13. Delta says:

    What Labour “should be” and what it is are entirely seperate issues that are the in total conflict of each other.
    This is turning out better than I ever imagined or dreamed…it was a pleasure meeting master Hodges after the Corbyn meeting a “chance” meeting as I was there on other business.

    The opportunity to buy some Corbynites a drink or too and learn a great deal was taken up (what politicos will do for free pint!) 🙂

  14. Richard says:

    Putting aside what Corbyn actually said in response to a question and whether this means that he would like to see wholesale nationalisation or not, the thrust of your argument is that the clause IV moment was important in order to redefine the LP and thus make it electable, as you said, to make the LP a party of today and not of yesterday. Hogwash.
    Even though I disagree with the premise that Labour had lost every election since 1979 because they were too left and unelectable there is clearly an argument there, for the right at least. However, the Blairites could have re-invented the LP and created New Labour and left clause IV languishing unused in the same way that every Labour Prime Minister had. After all, the vast majority of the electorate have no idea what was printed on the Party card, and could care even less. The new phrase that entered the language, the ‘clause IV moment’, is only ever used by those activists, bureaucrats and journalists who were aware of the significance of the change in what the party fundamentally stood for, even if it was only a totem, and that is what is key.
    People like Lord Sainsbury don’t finance the SDP for the split or fund Progress from the goodness of their heart, they have an agenda, ideological followers and no end of careerists to help them, in the party and in the press. Their goal is to make the working class follow leaders who are a ‘safe pair of hands’ from the perspective of the status quo, or, better still, to follow a ‘safe’ party so that it doesn’t matter who is leading it, much like the workers in the U.S. are wedded to the Democratic Party (often seen as the model for New Labour).
    This is why Blair didn’t stop ‘modernising’ after his ‘clause IV moment’, he came for conference to make it a rally and wanted to move toward public primaries to reduce the influence of the CLP’s and the trade unions in leadership selection, amongst many other changes to remove the teeth from organised labour, why do you think he didn’t reverse Tory anti Union legislation?
    Look carefully and you will see that under the banner of ‘modernisation’ lurks not an endeavour to make the party electable but a secret class war being waged against workers. This is why the right in the party and the press are wild eyed and foaming at the mouth as Corbyn’s star is rising, they can see all of their hard work come to nothing and this has little to do with concern about electability.
    To the question of nationalisation. Clearly Corbyn has no plan to nationalise everything, to my knowledge even the revolutionary sects don’t plan that, but there are natural monopolies that most of the public would like to see nationalised. But then there is a bank. I think this is one of the main reasons the Tories will rush to privatise RBS (it is currently 75% nationalised) just in case the politics of 2020 make them unelectable and Labour win, or even Corbyn inspires the electorate.
    My father in law is find of the question, fool or knave? Which are you Mr McFadden?

  15. john P Redui says:

    landlesspeasant unless the tories are stopped, how do you propose stopping them by getting people who already vote to vote labour, unless they’re SNP by moving to the left or a few thousand greens, the way to stop the tories is by getting ex tories or Ukip to vote labour, and they won’t do that as you call tory voters scum

    I know people who joined labour in 1995 after the change to clause 4,and had voted Labour last in the 70’s,when yes we still had it, but needed to be shown we’d changed, as for class traitors, the real treachory is losing labour elections which is what you did big time in 1983

  16. Madasafish says:

    I see Richard above believes in conspiracy theories.

    Enough said.

  17. paul barker says:

    As I was predicting after the last week of CLP nominations, Corbyn looks set to win outright, making all the “plans” for coups & underground resistance by the Labour centrists look even more undemocratic & silly. Its time for the losing side to admit that they have lost the argument & leave quietly for another Party that would fot you better. In most cases I would think that Party would be The Liberal Democrats.

  18. Landless Peasant says:

    In the future, when Corbyn is PM, will Labour ban the practice. of unpaid “work experience”? The Jobcentre wanted me to do a. Weeks work in Poundstretchers Warehouse for no pay. Naturally I declined. It was à 6.00am start too & would have taken me over an hour to walk there. Sod that!

  19. Mike Stallard says:

    “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.”

    Lovely English, I admit – I heard one of the Big Four Candidates yesterday on WATO on Radio 4. She said absolutely nothing at all that I could understand. It was all just cliche after cliche.
    The big problem is that Socialism like this doesn’t work. Some people have got the drive to make things happen. Other people (like me) just want to get on with it and not make a pile of money. Life is not equal. Ideals are in no way the same. True, someone has to wipe up the mess (that;s me). But rewarding the people who make stuff work, stuff happen is very important. If you don;t reward them sufficiently, they don;t do their bit.
    PS This does not apply to Civil Servants who are good at taking, good at survival, bad at everything else.

  20. Landless Peasant says:

    @ John

    A proper Left wing manifesto would attract back all the Green & SNP protest voters as well as millions of dissillusioned people who don’t bother voting because they see Labour as s useless sell-out. Lots of people have thought voting is pointless as there is no difference between Labour & Tory. It’s time to re-define the difference. Get Labour back to being a true Left wing Socialist Party that represents the people not the Capitalists.

  21. John P Reid says:

    Landless peasant, apart from the fact greens and SNP still wouldn’t be enough, or the fact there are several million who voted labour this time,who wouldn’t vote labour if we swung to the left, why do you assume that those who don’t vote,would vote labour if we were more left wing, they didn’t vote green this time, there was a 67% turnout the highest since the 71.7% turnout of 1997 compared to the 76.9% turnout of 1992 which along with 87 and 79 were higher than the 72% turnouts of Oct 74 and 1983 and not much different to the 64,66 and 70 turnouts,

    So the idea as most are dead that there would be a higher turnout under Corbyn is daft, plus even with green votes to get that many more labour votes we’d need a turnout of 77% and assuming everyone extra who voted for the first time, voted Labour it would have to be the highest turnout since 1955

    If there’s no different between Tories and labour,it’s because the Tories have swung back to the centre as they did in 1959′ in an attempt to ape labour and beat us, like Gay marriage, Theresa May questioning racism in society ,

Leave a Reply