In May 1994 the leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, died suddenly. He had only been Party Leader since July 1992 and his death came as a major shock to the whole nation.
In the leadership election that followed, Tony Blair became Party Leader, with 57% of the overall vote and a majority of all three elements of the electoral college: Affiliated Unions, Party Members and MPs and MEPs. This was a defining moment in the history of the Labour Party. Alongside Gordon Brown (later Chancellor of the Exchequer), Peter Mandelson (later a Cabinet Minister) and Alistair Campbell (later Communications Director) the ‘New Labour’ movement began to take shape. One of the major early policy decisions taken was the abolition of Clause IV. So, what was Clause IV and why did Tony Blair want to see it abolished?
What was the political philosophy of New Labour?
The New Labour movement subscribed to the ‘Third Way’ political philosophy. The central premise of this was to find a middle-ground between Socialism and Capitalism. Whilst continuing to be the party of social justice and the working-class, New Labour deviated from the traditional Labour view of how to achieve this.
Born as a Socialist Party in February 1900 , the Labour Party had traditionally believed that social justice would be achieved through an interventionist government. This intervention was typically seen through the public ownership of key public industries.
What was Clause IV?
After the landslide victory of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party in 1945 around a third of all British industry was placed into public ownership, for example, the coal mining industry. This socialist system was put under pressure in the 1970s and in the 1980s, it began to be removed as the Government of Margaret Thatcher, having commissioned a report called the Ridley Report, began to privatise industry. For example, in the 1980s Thatcher privatized electricity, telecoms and the rail industries, among many others.
Throughout the 1980s, the Labour Opposition under Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, remained committed to re-nationalisation of these industries. Central to this was Clause IV of the Labour Constitution. Clause IV was agreed in 1918 and said:
“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.”Clause IV of the Labour Constitution 1918
This was a clear commitment to nationalisation and, after the 1980s, re-nationalisation.
What efforts had been made to reform Clause IV?
In 1959 General Election the Conservative Government of Harold MacMillan convincingly beat Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour Party. Gaitskell believed that public opposition to nationalisation had been a key cause for the scale of the defeat. Subsequently, at the 1959 Labour Party Conference Gaitskell proposed changing Clause IV by removing the phrase ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange’. The proposal led to a bitter debate, with many on the left of the party believing the move would be an abandonment of the party’s socialist principles. In the end, Gaitskell’s motions were rejected and Clause IV remained unchanged.
What did Blair do with Clause IV
For Tony Blair, the Labour Party could simply not win a General Election with Clause IV in place. He had made this clear in 1993, before even running for the leadership, in a pamphlet written for the Fabian Society. After becoming Labour Leader, Blair convinced the party to reassess Clause IV. In 1995, after an often bitter debate, Clause IV was amended. It now read:
“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect“Clause IV after 1995
Although the fundamental aims behind Clause IV still existed, there was no clear indication of how they would be achieved – it therefore ended Labour’s commitment to nationalisation of industry. This was an epochal moment in the History of the Labour Party. Indeed, Blair himself said:
“Let no one say radical politics is dead. Today a new Labour party is being born”
Why is Clause IV still an issue in the Labour Party?
Despite Tony Blair going on to win three successive elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005, there were rifts in his party with those that ascribed to the traditional socialist position of the Labour Party. Among those that did so were former Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell.
The video below even shows Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to the speech in which Blair announced he would attempt to revise Clause IV:
As a backbencher during the Blair years, Jeremy Corbyn voted against his own party’s government 428 times. In the three election years, 1997, 2001 and 2005, he was the most rebellious Labour MP.
Whilst Clause IV is not going to return, it is notable that Labour has committed to the renationalisation of the railways if it wins the General Election.
The abolition of Clause IV was a turning point in the history of the Labour Party that signified a move away from Old Labour and towards New Labour. Clause IV remains supported by the left of the party, but even under Jeremy Corbyn serious discussion about reinstating it was never carried forward.
Nationalisation – The process of bringing industries under the control of the Government.
Clause IV – The clause of the Labour Constitution that committed the party to supporting nationalisation of key industries.
Old Labour – The term now given to refer to the Labour Party before its transformation under Tony Blair in the 1990s.
New Labour – The brand of Labour bought under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that sought to find a Third Way.
Third Way – A political philosophy that aims to find a centrist approach to political and economic issues.