A motion calling for the restoration of Clause IV – Labour’s original commitment to common ownership and socialist policies – was narrowly defeated at Unite the Union’s policy conference this week.
Delegates in Brighton were asked to vote on a motion coming from the South East 6236 Construction Branch and Portsmouth Area Activists Committee, which called for Britain’s largest trade union to campaign within the Labour Party for the reintroduction of Clause IV.
After a curtailed discussion, which included strong opposition from the union leadership, the motion was voted down by a tight margin.
Race to the bottom
The motion was moved by Russ Blakely, a construction worker from Portsmouth, who spoke passionately in favour of bringing back Clause IV.
Russ began by giving his own personal experience from construction about the disaster of privatisation.
PFI contracting and outsourcing have been a gift to parasitic monopolies and a punch in the face for workers, Russ explained. It has helped big construction companies in their attacks on workers through blacklisting and bogus self-employment.
At every step of the process, the bosses and shareholders have creamed off profits for themselves, whilst workers are forced into a race to the bottom.
Full fruits of our labour
Russ then went on to highlight that this year marks the centenary of the introduction of the original Clause IV. This pledged to “secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their labour”, based upon “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange”.
Russ went on to describe the relevance of this demand today, when workers are under attack amidst the deepest crisis of capitalism in history. “Capitalism has been exposed, day-in and day-out,” Russ stated. “It is time to restore socialist principles back into the Labour Party, not support capitalism”.
As Russ explained, it was Tony Blair who abolished Clause IV, as part of his New Labour project. “He ditched the commitment to ‘common ownership’ and replaced it with support for the ‘rigors of the market’,” Russ continued. “But it was the ‘rigors of the market’ that caused the collapse of Carillion, which has affected many of our members”.
Russ finished his opening speech by imploring delegates to vote to restore Clause IV.
“Socialism has never been more relevant. Clause IV has never been more relevant,” Russ stressed. “Comrades, let us fight for the socialist transformation of society as encapsulated in Clause IV.
“We want the full fruits of our labour, not the crumbs.”
Opposition from above
Unfortunately, the Unite leadership came out again the motion, urging the motion to be remitted; and failing that, for conference to vote against.
The ensuing debate was then severely restricted by the chair, limiting the opportunity for a genuine open and honest debate around this important question for our movement. Only a couple of delegates were brought in, alongside a representative of the leadership, who presented their official statement in opposition to the motion.
The arguments against centred around two main themes. Firstly, that this was not the right time to raise such a demand. And secondly, that the original Clause IV was outdated and needed to be updated for modern times.
On the first point, speakers asserted that calling for the restoration of Clause IV would be a “distraction” from the key task of supporting Corbyn. But the fight for a Corbyn Labour government is inseparably bound to the demand for common ownership and socialist policies.
As the Labour manifesto at last year’s general election proved, it is only through bold demands – such as for nationalisation – that we can galvanise workers and youth behind the goal of putting Corbyn in Downing Street. Providing a bold vision for transforming society is precisely the way to put a Corbyn government in power.
And as Russ explained in his reply, now is exactly the time to demand the return of Clause IV and the fight for socialism. “The working class is under attack as never before,” Russ stressed. “This is not rocking the boat. It is defending our members.”
On the second point, speakers called for a new, “modern” version of Clause IV. But these speakers could not point to anything specific in the original wording that is “out of date”.
Indeed, by rejecting the restoration of the original (1918) Clause IV, the leadership has implicitly accepted the current status quo: the (1995) Blairite constitution, which calls for competition and a “dynamic market economy”.
Indeed, as Russ highlighted when responding, “The original Clause IV is more relevant than ever. Capitalism is in crisis everywhere. Workers are being treated like in the 1930s. Capitalism has clearly failed.”
“Clause IV is very modern. Its meaning is very clear. It you want to add to it, fine. But first of all, bring the original back. This must be our starting point.”
Unfortunately no speakers in favour of the motion were brought into the discussion by the chair, nor were they encouraged to. Indeed, the chair reiterated on multiple occasions that the leadership was opposed to the motion, asking delegates to follow their recommendation.
The fight continues
In the end, this opposition from the top was enough to swing the vote, which seemed to suggest a narrow majority against the motion. But even then, the vote was not clear or certain, and was easily the closest of the conference so far. Despite this, no electronic vote was called to provide clarification, and the chair swiftly moved the discussion on to the next motion.
In this way, a valuable opportunity to debate this important question about the demands of our movement was lost.
Nevertheless, the fact that a motion calling for the restoration of Clause IV almost passed at the policy conference of the Labour Party’s biggest backer shows that there is strong support amongst workers and grassroots trade unionists for socialist demands.
This should provide us with enormous confidence in the fight for a socialist Labour government.