Reds flagging

April 28, 1995

Whatever the outcome of Labour's conference on Clause Four tomorrow, Brian Brivati argues that the debate has illustrated the power of the proceduralists and the eclipse of the ideologues.

We know about Gaitskell's attempt to change it in the 1960s and that made sense. What Blair is doing - and Blair in general - has made no impact whatsoever, even by the insular standards of the United States." This comment came from Gerard Alexander, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York last week. It has been echoed in Europe, with a touch more incredulity as to why Labour's debate on Clause Four did not take place a generation ago.

Blair needed to do something. The reform of the party had been carried out by Kinnock and polished off by Smith. All the hard work had been done. How then was Blair to make a big political impact with his first speech to a Labour Party conference as leader? How to isolate the left even more than defeat had done? The choice of reforming Clause Four, of resurrecting the glorious failure by Gaitskell in 1959, met all the key criteria; it would force the left into the ludicrous position of defending current political philosophy in terms of the past; it was essentially a symbolic and linguistic issue in which any change was a triumph and would ensure that New Labour had a New Testament; and it was a battle that could be won by capitalising on the structural changes that Kinnock and Smith had made in the party.

In all these respects the Clause Four reform worked beautifully. Watching the left react to the debate has illustrated the extent to which they have become prisoners of the past. But the debate matters, or at least it should have mattered, because it could have been the occasion for addressing the most important question facing the left: how to marry the agenda of new politics with the reformulation of central economic policy in a such a way that 12 million people will vote for it.

Unfortunately, the debate rarely looked to the future. A prime example of what went wrong was played out in February in a basement room in Westminster Central Hall at a Fabian debate on Clause Four, one of many such encounters, this time between Jack Straw and Mo Mowlam on one side and Diane Abbott and Alan Simpson on the other. The people were a good mix in age and, although suits predominated, there was a sprinkling of ageing Fabian anoraks. But there were no tee-shirts emblazoned with political messages; few badges; no banners and no hecklers. In sum: no political atmosphere. Aside from a couple of nutters and Austin Mitchell, this could easily have been a meeting of management consultants arguing over the best way of organising the promotion of a new product.

The debate ran like this. Straw recounted a version of the history of Clause Four and finished by talking about power, about a common ownership of ideas and about coming out of the political closet to say what the party really stood for. Abbott replied with a collection of political platitudes and emotive dogma. Her mantra for the rest of the evening emerged: the Labour Party is about "ownership". Back came Mo Mowlam with a collection of random thoughts about "empowerment" and "hegemony". Finally there was Alan Simpson who mentioned that the debate was about the relationship between property and capital, before producing a pair of white Y-fronts and saying: "this is what the Labour Party wants".

The front benchers have become so well trained in the school of repetitive soundbite that they seemed incapable of putting more than one coherent sentence together. While the left simply spoke a dead language.

Back in the 1959 debate, when Gaitskell tried to do what Blair is doing now, Michael Foot could speak with confidence of the command economy because, if only for a moment, the USSR was ahead in the space race as Sputnik circled the earth. Clause Four could be seen as part of the wave of the future. The left-wing speakers in the 1995 debate defended Clause Four on the grounds that it was a connection with Labour's past - the reason why people became involved in Labour politics in the first place - rather than because it was a defensible summation of Labour's central economic belief. But all this was only a small part of their contributions. What really counted, and this was reflected in question after question from the floor, was not the ideas that were involved but the procedures for the conduct of the debate.

It was increasingly clear as the evening progressed that the gradual take over of politics by the activists has been completed. The activists run the party and the essence of what they care about are the procedures: these were the moments when the debate became truly animated. They are right, in a sense, to care about the nitty-gritty. Gaitskell failed in 1959 for many reasons but a very important one was that for the constitutional reform to be carried, the summer trades union conferences would have to pass the measure and once the early ones voted against, the others followed. Blair organised the special conference for the end of April so that even though the unions are considerably more biddable now than they were in 1959, they did not get the chance to debate the issue - other than in Labour Party forums.

So an interest in procedure is valid because procedures are how politics work: but the glee with which the activists abandoned debating ideas in favour of debating procedures revealed where their hearts lay. The generation of Labour politicians now in positions of responsibility have come up through roots of political activism: there was one surreal moment when Abbott sneered at Straw because he came from a "student" activist background - there is evidently a sort of competitive hierarchy between the particular activist networks through which one has reached the top. Perhaps this kind of exchange and this kind of debate is why what we understand as radicalism has vacated the space occupied by the political parties. Radicalism is today centred on issues such as development, environmentalism, gender and sexuality, and radicals tend to define themselves in terms of their positions on these issues or in the ways they choose to live, rather than by economic policy.

The traditional battlegrounds of politics - wealth, property, and class - have been abandoned for these newer territories. We are at a moment of impasse between the re-formulation of left-wing politics and the hegemony of the right. Perhaps because political radicalism is no longer defined by economic positions, the economic argument seems, for the moment at least, to be over. In the same way that in the 1960s the argument was conducted within the terms of reference of collectivism so today the argument is conducted within the terms of reference of the market.

The Clause Four debate could have been about how to have a welfare state that works without high levels of taxation; how to have the environmentalism people want while maintaining the economic growth they need and how to have equality of opportunity without sacrificing excellence. Instead, Blair is now "empowered" with his ideological soundbite after a year of procedural wrangles. In the context of new forms of radicalism we will see less pressure on him to reformulate his basic economic policy and more pressure on him to promote the new social issues. All of which causes a wry smile on the face of those conservatives who are quite happy to see the left diverted to chasing the non-aligned radical vote while they remake the democratic economies in their own, free market, image. RIP Clause Four.

Brian Brivati is a lecturer in modern history at Kingston University.

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