Britain's Labour Party Debate

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Britain's Labour Party Debate

The Abandonment of Clause IV


By: Anonymous

Date: 1994

Source: "Party Conference Report 1994." Labour Party (1994): 191–199.

About the Author: The Labour Party is the United Kingdom's principal left-wing political party. It describes itself as a "democratic socialist party."


In February 1900, the Trades Union Congress hosted a conference in London's Memorial Hall called the Conference on Labour Representation. Over seventy organizations convened at the meeting with the goal of creating a political party that would represent trade unions and socialists. As such, the Labour Representation Committee was created. The party consisted only of organizations and did not have individual members. From 1906 through 1914, this newly created Labour Party worked closely with the Liberal governments. In 1918, Labour adopted clause 4 to the party's constitution calling for a nationalization of the economy through the "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange" of wealth. In 1924, despite winning sixty-seven fewer seats than the reigning Conservative party, Labour was asked to form a government. This newly found power was lost in the next election due to the Zinoviev letter, a forged letter suggesting a link between Labour and Communists. By 1929, Labour was once again in power and began to implement changes, such as the reorganization of the coal and iron industries. Under the economic guidance of Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes (1887–1946), the Labour government sought to implement economic changes to combat widespread unemployment following the 1929 stock market crash. By 1931, Labour had lost its majority once more.

Following the end of World War II, Labour won a landslide victory in the 1945 election by gaining 393 seats. Much of the success of Labour during the 1945 election was attributed to its newest manifesto, "Let Us Face the Future," which consists of the party's pledge to destroy the five evil giants of want, squalor, disease, ignorance, and unemployment. The party was led by Clement Attlee (1883–1967), who initiated substantial reforms. Attlee and Labour sought to promote the sense of community and cooperation that had been prevalent during the war. As a result, the party received cross-class support from trade unions and working classes. Attlee successfully created the National Health Service, established a universal welfare state, worked toward accomplishing full employment through the implementation of Keynesian economic theories and limited state planning, and nationalized twenty percent of British industry. During this period privately owned coal and rail industries were inefficient, prone to industry conflicts, and had a record of poor treatment of workers. As a result, Labour asserted that the state must intervene to ensure economic stability, rather than wait for the market to correct itself. This was the first successful implementation of the goals and objectives outlined in clause 4 of the party's constitution. Despite leading widespread reform, the Labour party lost its momentum and failed to win majorities in subsequent elections.

After losing a series of elections, the party began to modernize in 1980 led by Neil Kinnock (1942–). Kinnock pushed the party to accept market mechanisms for economic change rather than the Keynesian demand-side policies. While Kinnock's attempt to reform the party was failing, Margaret Thatcher (1925–) was dismantling much of the nationalization of industry that had occurred under previous Labour governments. Successes of privately owned companies such as British Airways and British Telecommunications led to continued Labour election losses. Kinnock's successor, John Smith, was more successful at modernizing the Labour party. Although Kinnock had abandoned policies of high taxation and nationalization, the party was still in conflict. Smith first addressed the power of unions to vote as a block. In 1993, Smith succeeded at the party conference in passing the One Man One Vote measure, thereby dismantling the union block power in the party. Smith died in 1994 as the Labour party was gaining support for the reforms that he had implemented.


Jim Mearns (Glasgow Maryhill CLP) moved Composite 57.

He said: Comrade Chair, comrade delegates and friends, I am proud to be a socialist, proud to be in the Labour Party and proud of Clause IV of our Constitution. (Applause)

This composite calls for clear, radical socialist policies. It calls for the party to commit itself to working towards a fundamental and irreversible shift in power in favour of working people. It calls for a measure of public ownership, and everyone here knows that public ownership for railways, the Post Office, water and other utilities makes sense. It is concerned with emphasising the party's socialist principles as set out in clause IV (4), that is "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" —not the words of left wing revolutionaries, but of the Fabian Society.

These words are a symbol of our commitment to the working class and a succinct statement of our core philosophy. They did not stop us winning elections in the past and they will not stop us winning elections in the future. (Cheers and applause)

Jane Carroll (South Debyshire CLP) seconded composite 57.

She said: this composite reaffirms our commitment to democratic socialism. These principles founded our great victories in the past and should be the basis of our new strategies. These principles are not new; they coincide with the principles of the Cooperative movement, from which we have just heard, and of course the trade union movement. Indeed, some trade union rule books include the selfsame principles about the redistribution of wealth and the improvement of conditions in the workplace and in the home.…

During the past decade we were persuaded that we had to move to the right if we were to gain office, but it now appears that the electorate have more radical visions than some of us realize. A MORI poll, commissioned by The Economist, not well known for its left wing views, was published this week. It gives credence to the essence of this composite, and if opinion polls are important, as we are told they are, we should certainly take notice of this one. The Economist poll indicates that the return of privatized industries, such as water and electricity, to public ownership is backed by 68 per cent, and even by many of those still intending to vote Conservative. A wealth tax on fortunes above 150,000 is supported by an overwhelming majority—perhaps people would favour a maximum wage as well as a minimum wage. There is more. A 46 per cent majority is in favour of increasing income tax to pay for spending on education; a majority is in favour of more state intervention in the economy. Finally, a staggering 84 per cent supported the reduction of VAT on domestic fuel bills to 5 per cent.…

Alan Johnson (Union of Communication Workers): Supporting Composite 56 on behalf of 180,000 public sector workers in the Post Office and opposing Composite 57.

To my members public ownership is not some vague concept, but is crucial to the future of the Post Office and to their working lives. We have been publicly owned for 300 years and are still waiting for our members who work by hand or brain to get the full fruits of their labour.…

It is 20 years since we last won a general election. In those 20 years, the command economy has been discredit—forget about it: it is never going to be restored. If those people who are worried about an open review within the party of every dot and comma of our constitution are so worried that they cannot defend Clause IV in open debate, then Clause IV is not worth defending. We need objectives and principles that are relevant to the 21st century and to the working class, not principles written by two middle class Fabians in 1918. We want to fight the election on policies, not on shibboleths. I oppose Composite 57. (Applause)

David Winnick (Ex-Officio, MP for Walsall, North):

I have come here this morning to make a plea that we should not waste the next 12 months on an internal debate about Clause IV. There is no reason why we should be engaging in such a debate: Clause IV should stand.

I remember that in 1959/1960 we were told by the ten arch-modernisers that unless we deleted Clause IV we would never win another election. Some of you will remember it. Well, we did: we won in 1964, in 1966 and twice in 1974, with Clause IV intact. We win when we have confidence in ourselves, our socialism and what we stand for. We stand now examining our navel. Next week the Tories will not be doing that. When they gather, they will not be saying that they need to start apologizing for their wholehearted belief in capitalism and privatization. They have that self-confidence, and we should do the same.

Tony Blair said that we should not apoligise for our socialism. You are absolutely right, Tony. Some of us have never tried to start apologising. Neither is there any need to start apologizing for Clause IV. It is a long term objective. We have always recognized it and always recognized that it needs the consent and enthusiasm of the large majority of British people. But, Alan Johnson, it is nonsense to believe that we have been in the wilderness for the past 15 years because of Clause IV. When you go on the doorstep, do people ask about Clause IV? I will tell you what they talk about, poverty and unemployment and the disasters that they bring; they talk about the breakdown of law and order.

In his excellent speech—except for the last part— Tony Blair concentrated on what we should be doing in the two to two-and-a-half years that are left. We are now on the offensive; we have got the Tories on the run; in the House of Commons and in the country we are winning elections—Euro-elections, local elections, by-elections. Why should we spend the next 12 months going through the nightmare and agony of Clause IV? What sense is there in that? (Applause)

With the greatest respect to our leader, sometimes ideas that come during a holiday season on the beach are not necessarily the best ideas in practice. I say to Tony and to the National Executive Committee, let us drop this nonsense. The most decisive way to profit is by passing Composite 57 today. You may not agree with every dot and comma—after all, you pass NEC statements where you might not agree with every dot and comma—but passing Composite 57 would have this virtue above all else: it would stop the nonsense of ensuring that we go through the agony of having a debate on Clause IV. They would be bound to drop it; therefore I plead with Conference that if we want to concentrate on the real enemy—and we know who that is—let us make sure that we pass Composite 57. That is the way forward.(Applause)

George Sands (Graphical, Paper and Media Union)…

Clause IV is central to the philosophy of the Labour Party. It is this, and our clear, unambiguous policies, that differentiate our programme from our opponents' and gives the means of providing purpose and vision to every member of this society. Support composite 57. (Applause)

Chair: … What we have before us here today are two composites. The NEC support Composite 56 and ask you to remit Composite 57, so that it can be part of that wide-ranging debate.

There are parts of Composite 57 with which we can all agree, but we cannot accept the motion as it stands. It both attacks the present position of the party, which you have all voted on and applauded earlier in the week, and distorts the historic role of Clause IV in our history and constitution. Labour remains totally committed to the public ownership of public services.…

Co-operation, both with a large and small 'c', was very much part of the thinking around Clause IV, as it is today. Common ownership was not seen, as it has subsequently all too often become, as a matter of nationalized corporations and state monopolies. We all know that the cost of the mistakes of capitalism are all around us, but we also have to admit that socialism has made a few mistakes too: too great a concentration on state ownership and public corporations and too little on real control and real popular administration. We do not want a narrow definition of socialism. Massive extensions of "public ownership", as understood in that sense, are not on the agenda of the next Labour government. That is only partially because of the restraints on resources. Let us not forget that, enormous though those constraints will be, the next Labour government will require massive money and resources to reverse the inequalities of 17 years of Tory rule and to get the economy going. We will not have that much money for extension of ownership.

But also we have learnt the lesson from here and from Eastern Europe that "top-down" socialism very rarely works. What is needed is something that was in the minds of the drafters of Clause IV, the subtler, more varied, multi-layered approach in Europe and elsewhere, to which Denis referred, that is subject to popular administration and very much part of the socialism of the 21st century, whichever way we update the words and whether or not we update Clause IV. The aims and values and the constitution of the party may need updating, but I ask you today to understand the reality of your history and the commitment that the front bench and the party leadership are making to the future of socialism. We ask you to support Composite 56 and to remit Composite 57 and get on with this debate so that we can redefine the socialism of the 21st century. (Applause)

Chair: Conference, there are two composites in front of us.

(A vote was taken and Composite 56 was carried.)

Composite 57, the NEC recommendation is to remit. (Interruption) Does the mover refuse to remit? No. Then the recommendation of the NEC must be to oppose. The mover has served notice that he wanted to call for a card vote.

(Card vote 3 was taken on Composite 57: Votes for, 50.9 per cent; votes against, 49.1 per cent. The composite is carried.)


Tony Blair (1953–) succeeded Smith as leader of the Labour Party. Before his election to the party leadership, Blair called state collectivism inappropriate during the time of globalization and stated that social and economic change and individual prosperity made Clause IV outdated. As a result, he led the push to modernize the amendment. Blair asserted that the clause didn't relate to present day issues, such as gender equality, race relations, employment, and education. The new clause expresses the goals of a dynamic economy, a just society, an open democracy, and a healthy environment. Under the new clause, Labour began to officially move away from the welfare state that was created by Attlee in 1945. The new Labour Party, under the guidance of Blair, supports private enterprise and stresses the rights and responsibilities of citizens. The newly adopted policies removed government from everyday monetary policies and stripped away the socialist rhetoric of the Labour party of the past. As a result, the new Labour Party has attracted a wide spectrum of middle class voters and retained a majority since the 1994 election.



Fielding, Steven, Peter Thompson, and Nick Tiratsoo. "New Labour and 1945? (Britain's Party Since Its Majority Election to Power in 1945)." History Today (July 1, 1995).

Trimdon, Barry Hillenbrand. "Britain on the Attack and on Track: Tony Blair Has Won the Battle to Reform the Labour Party." Time International (March 27, 1995).

Turner, Royce. "'New Labour' and Whatever Happened to the British Left?" Contemporary Review 256 (August 1995).

Web sites

Assinder, Nick. "How Blair Created a New Party." BBC, July 20, 2004. <> (accessed May 10, 2006).

The Labour Party. "History of the Labour Party." <> (accessed May 10, 2006).