The socialist roots of Clause 4

Today, 27th February, marks 100 years since the Labour Party adopted Clause 4, the party’s commitment to socialism. The ideas of socialism have deep roots in the British working class movement.

Tony Blair’s decision to abolish Clause 4 resulted in tens of thousands of activists leaving the Labour Party in disgust. The party drifted further and further to the right. It represented a dark period for the Labour Party and for the ideas of socialism.

The New Labour era has now been consigned to the dustbin of history. The counter-revolution in the Labour Party is being rolled back. However, Blair’s legacy remains as a stain on our movement. We still have some unfinished business. We need to bring back Clause 4.

The Blair project

The removal of Clause 4 was a central part of a larger Blair “project”. The aim of this was to break the trade union Labour link and transform the party into a British version of the US Democratic Party – i.e., a party committed to capitalism.

The New Labour project was a continuation of the attacks on the left wing seen throughout the 1980s under Kinnock and Hattersley. Over this period, it was not only left-wing policies that were jettisoned. Party democracy was also undermined – in particular with the scrapping of mandatory reselection for MPs.

Blair’s counter-revolution (euphemistically described as “reforms”) had the full backing of the capitalist establishment. Every dirty trick in the book was pulled to carry out his vision.

The attempt to change the Labour Party into a harmless liberal party can be traced back to the days when Hugh Gaitskell was leader. Following Labour’s electoral defeat in 1959, he also claimed that he wanted to “modernise” the party. For Gaitskell, this meant abolishing Clause 4, breaking the links with the unions, and changing the name of the party. He was, at that time, roundly defeated by the rank and file.

However, the right wing of the Labour Party never gave up on this aim. Of course, behind them stood the City of London and big business, who wanted to change the Labour Party and place it in a safe pair hands.

Tony Blair would succeed in introducing two out of three of Gaitskell’s proposals: he abolished Clause 4 and he created New Labour. He tried to break the trade union Labour link, but was unsuccessful. In effect, this was an attempt to destroy the very traditions of British socialism.

Keir Hardie

As far as the pioneers of our movement were concerned, socialism meant the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. This was the view of Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party.

Resolutions had been repeatedly passed at Labour conferences calling for the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

The founding of the Socialist Commonwealth, as Hardie called it, was seen as the only the way we could rid ourselves of the profit motive and the dog-eat-dog society created by capitalism. That is why the call for common ownership was made in Clause 4 in 1918.

The trade unions and socialism

This commitment to socialism was not only within the Labour Party constitution, but in those of the trade unions also. Many of the major industrial trade unions adopted a commitment to common ownership and the socialist transformation of society into their Rule books and Constitutions.

In the rulebook of the GMB, we see Rule 2, (8) which says:

“To help elect members to Parliament and public authorities who promote our policies and the interests of members through political methods, providing the candidates are pledged to collective ownership, under democratic control, of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

The above GMB constitution was originally drafted by Eleanor Marx, who was unanimously elected to their Executive Committee. Again, this showed the influence of Marxism in the British Labour movement. Many Marxists played a key role in building our unions, as well as the Labour Party.

The RMT objectives state that the union shall (b) “work for the supersession of the capitalist system by a socialistic order of society.” The ASLEF rule book states its objective is “to assist in the furtherance of the Labour movement generally towards a Socialist Society.”

The Fire Brigades Union also retains this commitment in its rule book:

“To this end the Fire Brigades Union is part of the working class movement and, linking itself with the international Trade Union and Labour movement, has as its ultimate aim the bringing about of the socialist system of society.”

The public sector union NUPE, which merged with two other unions to form UNISON, reprinted in its rule book 2(m) the entire text of Clause 4. Unfortunately this was dropped at the time of the last merger.

The TGWU and AEEU had similar aims, and carried them over into UNITE when it was formed. The UNITE rule book states (2.1.4): “To have a strong political voice, fighting on behalf of working people’s’ interests, and to influence the political agenda locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, so as to promote a socialist vision”, this to include “public ownership of important areas of economic activity and services, including health, education, water, post, rail and local passenger transport.”

This shows the deep seated commitment to the socialist transformation of society embedded in the British labour movement. With a Corbyn Labour government in sight, we need to bring this commitment back to centre stage.