This is a brief blogpost I wrote as part of my Research Project as part of my BA in Politics at Manchester Metropolitan University. Originally published on https://specialarchiveprojects.wordpress.com/2017/03/14/labour-and-the-re-wording-of-clause-iv/#more-32
During my visit to the Peoples History Museum’s archives, I wanted to research the reactions to the change in the Labour Party’s constitution by Tony Blair in 1995, especially the rewording of Clause IV, seen as central to Labour’s original socialist aims. Blair sought to change the wording, as he believed it was holding the party back and that the key to electoral success was to modernize the party, making it fit for the 21st century. The original wording of Clause IV reads,
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.
This was seen as a commitment to socialist aims. For Blair, public opinion indicated that the country had moved away from its support of nationalised industry, and to win power again for the party, he needed to remove this commitment to a mixed economy, with its unpopular element of national ownership of key industry.
The main resource that I utilised to gauge responses to the Labour Party’s (at that time) proposed changes to Clause IV was a document entitled “Labour’s Objects: Socialist Values in the Modern World,” a newsletter which set out Labour’s ideas for an updated Clause IV. The newsletter included a questionnaire that allowed members to inform the party of their opinions. The responses to this questionnaire ranged from members who were completely supportive of the leadership, through those who were apathetic to the changes and wished to voice their frustration at what they saw as a waste of time while the government was in meltdown, to a third group that regarded the changes as a complete betrayal of Labour’s values. This final group were the hard-core left of the party, who saw the changing of Clause IV as tantamount to blasphemy.
I also utilised letters from Labour politicians and other political grandees, who also had their own opinions on the actions of the Party’s leadership. Most interesting of these was the response from the Socialist Campaign Group on the left of the party, who were a group of Labour MPs including Jeremy Corbyn, Michael Meacher and Tony Benn. With a joint letter written on 8 December 1994, the group expressed their surprise at the fact that the question was being asked directly to party members, and not being asked in a subtler way, possibly through the courting the support of Constituency Labour Parties . They also thought that the questionnaire was too simplistic and they saw it as overly leading towards supporting the changes to the constitution. They also thought that the convening of a special conference for the purposes of changing Clause IV was both poor timing and too expensive. These factors, combined with the lack of desire for change on their wing of the party, meant that these MPs were completely against altering Clause IV.
Another figure who was against the change was Frances O’Grady, the current general secretary of the TUC, who in her response to the questionnaire said, “This questionnaire is extremely poorly designed. My commitment is to retaining Clause IV plus adding in a statement about redressing all forms of inequality, whether based on Class, Race, Sex or Sexuality […].” This rejection of Blair’s changes was something agreed upon by most of the left of the party, however there were more members who were in favour of the changes, like Joan Ruddock MP, who went on to become Minister of State for Energy under Gordon Brown. Ruddock agreed with Blair’s changes and wanted to add environmental pledges as part of any new constitution.
Many of the arguments in favour of the changing of Clause IV were presented by the party leadership, especially by Tony Blair and his deputy John Prescott. Prescott’s support for the changes was a surprise. Later, after their election victory, Prescott was kept on by Blair as deputy prime minister due to his command of support from the unions. Support from the unions was seen as key for any leader due to Labour’s system of leadership elections.
Blair’s changes were approved at a special conference held during Easter 1995, and Clause IV, which continues to be emblazoned on membership cards, now reads:
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.
On the one hand, these changes sought to placate the left wing of the party, by retaining the Labour’s commitment to being a democratic socialist party, which seeks power and the creation of a community of solidarity through parliamentary elections. On the other hand, Blair was pursuing a form of social democracy, the ‘Third Way’, that was also in favour of a free-market economy. These changes proved fruitful, as Labour went on to win power in a landslide election result in 1997, retaining power in the 2001 and 2005 elections, before finally losing power in the 2010 election.
This shows that Labour’s electoral successes may be a product of poor Conservative Government in the post Thatcher years, however many, including myself, believe that Blair’s personality and his effectiveness in implementing his ideas and convincing opponents of their merits, as evidenced in the changing of Clause IV, was instrumental in retaining power for 13 years, and it is no surprise to see that the first election Labour contested without Blair as leader since 1997, the 2010 election, was the time the party lost power.
The People’s History Museum’s archives, and the archivists who helped my research, were a wonderful resource that allowed me to find resources that I wouldn’t be able to find without their help. The resources I was able to use were first hand sources, without which I believe this research would have come to a different conclusion. The help of the archivists in guiding my research was really useful too, as they were able to look at what I had already researched, and what I had found, and help me find other resources to answer my questions. This research could be expanded upon further to look at the reasons that Blair was elected as leader, and the question of ‘would Labour have been elected in 1997 without Blair as leader?’ The resources used and other documents from the Labour archives would be extremely useful in answering this question.
Archival documents used
Labour’s Objects: Socialist Values in the Modern World and associated questionnaire responses from approx. 50 members of the party.
Letter from Socialist Campaign Group – 8/12/1994
Letters from office of John Prescott MP
Minutes of Labour’s Special Conference Easter 1995
Letters addressed to Tom Sawyer regarding ‘Labour’s Objects: Socialist Values in the Modern World’ and associated questionnaire