Labour’s clause four dead-end

Labour’s infighting over clause four is in full swing now with almost every left group imaginable inside and out of the Labour Party jumping on board to defend the clause. Everybody knows that it has meant nothing to the Labour Party in power and that the wording itself means little. But just as with the leadership contest, until we are able to build an effective alternative to Labour the left will hang desperately on to its skirt tails

THE ROW over Tony Blair’s attempts to rewrite the Labour Party’s clause four this week focused on whether or not Labour would renationalise British Rail. ‘We would love to do it,’ runs the argument, ‘but the Tories always spend what they get from state sell-offs. So where would we get the money?’

Champion of the left John Prescott was brought in to give a ‘firm commitment’ to take back the railways under ‘public control’. Well ... not quite. The six-year private contracts would be allowed to stand, but after they expire, “ ... we want a publicly owned and publicly accountable railway and we are entitled then to allow BR to bid for those franchises” (our emphasis).

So the market will decide whether the railways will be privately run or collectively managed by the capitalist class as a whole. What matters is how the system is best served.

Those opposing any change to clause four pose their utopian version of ‘socialism’ as being able to operate within the ravages of the capitalist market. For example the first bulletin of the Defend Clause Four campaign states, “.... during the 1980s, privatised industries ... had lower productivity than in the decade before privatisation.” Those united around the campaign all claim that clause four will be their weapon to bring about fluffy, nice - and productive! - capitalism which they will call socialism.

This is not exactly a new idea, but it is significant that those on the revolutionary left who claim the tradition of Marx and scientific socialism have thrown their weight behind the fluffy, nice, ‘national’ socialists.

Socialism must, by definition, be international - a fact ignored by the Defend Clause Four campaigners. Nationalisation is no answer to the global capitalist economy, which needs an internationalist response - common ownership by the world’s working class.

Labour’s right wing, keen to ditch its ‘socialist’ rhetoric altogether in favour of nice, fluffy capitalism, has in contrast been disarmingly honest in its assessment of the clause. Roy Hattersley declares himself to be a believer in public ownership, but is wholehearted in his support for the ditching of clause four. He writes that its author, Sydney Webb, intended to “combine inspirational language with a total absence of meaning” (The Independent January 11).

Hattersley continues: “Some months after the 1918 constitution was ratified, he wrote in the Observer that his great philosophical work was ‘open to a variety of meanings’ ... Strange that a radical party is expected to worship an absurdity simply because it has been around for so long.”

Clause four was written primarily as a sop to workers to win them from the ideas of socialist revolution. Now, when such ideas appear to an over-confident bourgeoisie to be no longer on the agenda, it is “a hopelessly out-of-date expression of what the Labour Party stands for”, as Blair puts it.

Tailing Labourism may be the easy option for the left, but the job of serious revolutionaries is to break workers from a party that has proved itself time and time again to be useless to the working class. That demands the harder but essential task of building a serious revolutionary alternative.