Labour in Blackpool: Clause IV endorsed after hot debate: Delegates vote narrowly in favour of maintaining party's commitment to public ownership, despite Blair's wish to review it

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THE LABOUR conference narrowly endorsed the most contentious clause in the party's constitution yesterday, after an emotional debate in which the 1918 commitment to public ownership was hailed as central to the party's philosophy but was also denounced as a shibboleth.

Jim Mearns, a delegate from Glasgow Maryhill, left the rostrum to rapturous cheers after urging the conference to 'keep the red flag flying'.

By a margin of 50.9 per cent to 49.1 per cent, delegates carried a motion from Mr Mearns's constituency welcoming a 1993 conference decision to reaffirm Labour's commitment to Clause IV of the party constitution.

Tony Blair, who had wanted the motion remitted into the review of the constitution that he announced on Tuesday, preserved a smile as a result was declared.

Larry Whitty, outgoing general secretary, told the conference that massive extension of 'public ownership' was not on the agenda of the next Labour government. 'We have to learn the lesson from here and Eastern Europe that 'top- down' socialism rarely works.'

In another unsuccessful plea to fall in behind Mr Blair and 'pluralist' forms of ownership, Denis MacShane, recently-elected MP for Rotherham, warned delegates not to 'jump into the trenches and start shelling each other . . . Comrades, we are a party of the people, not a cult of Clause IV'.

Moving the controversial motion, Mr Mearns said the clause was a succinct statement of the party's core philosophy. 'It didn't stop us winning elections in the past and it won't stop us winning elections in the future.'

As Mr Mearns left the rostrum, Dennis Skinner, MP for Bolsover, lent down from the platform and shook his hand and Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, slapped him on the back. The two left-wingers were elected to the party's National Executive Committee this week.

Mr Mearns said he was sick of being told by political commentators that socialism was dying. 'Socialism is very much alive and it is striding forwards with victory in sight. Fifteen years of Tory rule have certainly convinced me that unfettered capitalism is evil . . . We must use the power of office in the interest of our supporters as the Tories have done for theirs.'

Jane Carroll, of South Derbyshire, said a radical agenda would be supported by the electorate. The ideals of Clause IV were not of the past, they were the 'steadfast, concrete building blocks' for the future, she said.

Maria Exall, of the National Communications Union, said that to win the middle ground at the next election Labour 'must promise to take from the minority who exploit and give to the people who want a better life'. They knew the consequences of not having popular control of public services, she said. Tory privatisations had left behind poverty, squalor, unemployment and wage cuts.

David Sneller, a council leader from Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, spoke the language of 'new Labour' and co-operation but believed everyone was shocked when Mr Blair's 'wonderful' speech to the conference on Tuesday was spoilt by the passage on Clause IV.

It was 'sad' that delegates had been given no notice to discuss it and he was mandated to support the motion, Mr Sneller said.

Opposing Clause IV, Alan Johnson, general secretary of the Union of Communication Workers, hailed the conference vote against Post Office privatisation but said his 180,000 members worried 'not one jot about words written by two middle-class Fabians in 1918'.

'We - the Post Office - have been publicly owned for 300 years and we are still waiting for our members who work by hand and brain to get the full fruits of their labour.' It was 20 years since Labour last won a general election and in that time the command economy had been discredited, Mr Johnson said. 'Forget about it. It's never going to be restored,' he said.

David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, urged the party not to spend the next 12 months going through the 'miseries and agonies' of a re-examination of Clause IV, which should stand. 'It's a nonsense to believe we have been in the wilderness for 15 years because of Clause IV. When you go on the doorstep do people ask about Clause IV? They ask about poverty and unemployment.'

Offering a short lesson in Labour history, Mr Whitty said a lot had been written about Clause IV this week and throughout the decades since 1918 - 'much of it nonsense'. But the wording of 'the most famous and most contentious clause in the Labour Party's constitution' needed updating and clarifying. The language was 'a bit obscure', he said.

'We shouldn't belittle the intellectual achievements of our forebears. These remain resounding words. But we also have to remember it was deliberately drafted to be a bit ambiguous.

'Let's be honest, the 1918 conference was a bit of a shambles.' Representatives included supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution, Syndicalists, reactionary and cautious trade unions, Fabian gradualists, and people well to the right of today's party.

'So the conference needed a lot of pulling together. It needed fixing.' Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Ramsay MacDonald and Clause IV were part of that fix, Mr Whitty said, to laughter and outrage.

'The drafting is not only testimony to the idealism of our forebears, but also to their pragmatism and their subtlety'. Mr Blair and John Prescott would need 'similar drafting skills' as they prepared the updated statement of the party's aims and values, he said.