Why did they do it, and what should they do next?

Ross McKibbin on the Labour Party’s fear of power, and Tony Blair’s chances of overcoming it

Whatever weight future historians give it, 29 April 1995 will undoubtedly be thought symbolic. For on that day culminated a process, begun under Neil Kinnock, by which the Labour Party effectively jettisoned its past. The repeal of the old Clause IV has finally sundered the historical continuity of the Labour Party – as it was intended to. It was also a public admission that the Party had lost the self-confidence – the belief that, whatever the electorate thought, the future was on its side – which had sustained it from 1918 until the early Eighties. Mr Blair has done what Hugh Gaitskell failed to do and what no other Labour leader has even attempted; an achievement we should not minimise. The votes of the constituency parties really are remarkable, particularly to anyone who bears in mind what those parties were like a decade or so ago, and what they could be again.

Yet there was no especially good reason to repeal Clause IV – other than Tony Blair’s determination to put his leadership and authority beyond question. As such, the ‘socialist objective’ has never been an issue at a general election, partly because no one supposed for a moment any Labour government would attempt to realise it. If he had lost (as he could well have done) he would have looked foolish and the Labour Party worse. Even in winning Mr Blair risks alienating a number of trade-union leaders with whom he will presumably have to live if he becomes prime minister. And for what purpose? What replaces Clause IV? These are now questions of some urgency since a Labour victory at the next general election is at least a good possibility – if little more than that.

While few now admit it, Clause IV was defensible. Although unachievable itself, it had obvious implications. The first was to establish the Labour Party’s moral distinction. No other British party had any kind of formal objective, and to the extent that they had informal objectives none had one which was both a profound moral critique of the status quo and a promise to transform it. The second was to commit the Labour Party to social equality: if not absolute equality, then something approaching it. The third was to justify the role of the state as active agent; and not just as an institution which redistributes wealth, but, since Labour leaders have always doubted the innovative urges of British businessmen, one which also creates it. To abandon the ‘Socialist objective’ is, therefore, of more than cosmetic significance: it leaves the Labour Party without any objective at all – or, since there is a new Clause IV, any objective that gives moral sanction or clear point to its politics.

What the Labour Party now feels committed to is very unclear. No matter how hard we peer into the murk, the outlines remain obscure, the signals contradictory. It is hard to see any commitment to policies which are other than tenuously within a Labour tradition. The state has gone, both as spender and organiser, and as wealth-distributor via taxation. The commitment to social equality seems largely to have gone. Every time Mr Blunkett, for example, opens his mouth, Labour’s allegiance to an egalitarian educational system becomes that much weaker. The notion of public service – which is central to a social-democratic tradition – has largely been destroyed and the Labour Party shows no sign of wishing to restore it, even itself adopting the wholly inappropriate vocabulary of the ‘market’ (or what is imagined to be the vocabulary of the market). In fairness, it must be conceded that opposition parties have to fudge, particularly when, like the Labour Party, they operate in a hostile ideological environment – Labour’s nervousness about tax, for instance, is entirely understandable. It is possible, therefore, that Labour in government may behave differently from Labour in opposition – but at the moment I doubt it.

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