Fabian Society set to ditch its Clause IV after 115 years

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE FABIAN Society, Britain's oldest socialist think-tank, is set for the most acrimonious annual conference in its history, over plans to axe the society's equivalent to the Labour Party's now defunct Clause IV.

In a bitter re-run of Labour's own attempts to rewrite its constitution, Blairite members are proposing to ditch the 115-year-old society's commitment to nationalisation.

The society, which was formed in 1884 and included such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and H G Wells, is split down the middle over the issue. Left-wing members have vowed to oppose the move. New Labour activists will propose that November's annual meeting adopt a new constitution that closely mirrors the Labour Party's.

The party constitution's Clause IV, drafted by Sidney Webb in 1917, committed Labour to "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange".

It appeared on every member's card until it was dropped in 1995 as a key part of Tony Blair's creation of New Labour.

Although the Fabians have long been mocked for the gentle nature of their "evolutionary socialism", they have a clear pledge to nationalise where possible. Section 2 of the society's constitution commits its members to the abolition of "economic power and privileges of individuals through the collective ownership and democratic control of the resources of the community".

A resolution to be put to the annual meeting will suggest that a new text should include a pledge to work for a dynamic economy "in which the enterprise of the market and the rigours of competition are joined with the forces of co- operation".

Paul Richards, the Blairite Fabian who is proposing the move, said the current constitution failed to recognise the modern political era.

"What we are in reality and what we are according to our constitution are two very different societies. In reality, we are modernising socialists, engaged in theoretical reconstruction of Left politics," Mr Richards said.

However, the proposal is facing stiff opposition from some of the society's older members, who believe that it should remain distinct from the Labour Party. John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, said that he and other members would resist any attempts to ditch the commitment. "Poor old Sidney and Beatrice Webb will be spinning in their graves," he said.

"The state of the railways proves the failure of privatisation and the need for more state ownership, not less. The last thing the Fabians wants is a shift to the right."

Tony Wright, the Labour MP for Cannock Chase and chair of the Fabians, said that he would also oppose the plan.

"We are socialists," he said. "Trying to mimic the wording of the Labour Party is completely unnecessary. What we do is promote ideas and policies We're an independent- minded body, with our own history and purpose. I think that we should keep it as simple as possible."