Wind of change sweeps North-east

North-east Labour Party members Jeff Morland (left), Alan Nicholson and Martin Fisher rehearsing their arguments for Tony Blair Photograph: Ted Ditch burn
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Indy Politics
Common ownership was flourishing in Newcastle yesterday, customers at Bainbridge's department store resisting bitterly the "modernising" influence of out-of-town malls.

The shop is part of the John Lewis Partnership, which became the property of its workforce only 11 years after the Labour Party incorporated in Clause IV of its constitution the goal of common ownership.

Bainbridge shoppers knew little of Clause IV. "Labour could back a loser if they get rid of it," one man said. "If you look at how privatised companies have been run, there could be a case for taking them back."

The case will be made tonight in Gateshead when Tony Blair embarks on a consultation tour of Labour in the provinces. What he is unlikely to encounter during discussions about the constitution is a demand for a return to implacable socialist canons from the age of drapery.

A sample of six party members who will be in the audience tonight was adamant yesterday that the constitution must change. The leader will find that members in the North-east want rid of more than Clause IV.

Gina Tiller (Newcastle North Labour Party) wanted specific references to goals of equality. Stefan Cross (Newcastle C) sought a thorough redefinition of party aims, while Jeff Morland (Durham City) said the party had to focus on multinational ownership of industry.

For Alan Nicholson (Durham NW), the constitution had become irrelevant. Martin Fisher (Durham City) said it lacked both contemporary idealism and pragmatism.

Alison Hiles (Durham NW) thought references to "workers by hand or by brain" out- moded. "What about those not working and the pensioners and disabled? I am personally in favour of renationalising the utilities, but we don't have to drop that if we drop Clause IV."

Reform of Labour's constitution could germinate wider political participation, the six said. Though none had felt burdened by the old constitution until Mr Blair lifted the stone.

Mr Morland said: "I would have more sympathy with nationalisation if the nationalised companies had been all sweetness and light. But workers in the health service, the mines and education have all suffered from long and bitter disputes." The issue, theyagreed, was not ownership but control and influence. How could workers in the North-east realistically take ownership of their industry? Nationalise Nissan?

Common ownership was meant to be a means, not an end, and nobody committed to social justice could fail to have been influenced by experiences of workers in the command economies of Eastern Europe.

"We need a statement of values and fairness, justice and equality and to define our relationships with other organisations, like the EU and the trade unions," Mr Fisher said. "Common ownership is not a principle that makes any sense in the 1990s."

Why not, they agreed, have a commitment instead to the Social Chapter? Commit Labour formally to sexual equality, employment rights, full employment, to objectives which are both ethical and practical?

"We've seen an increase in membership since the moment Tony Blair was making his conference speech. We have got to demonstrate relevant principles to new members," Ms Tiller said.

Common ownership, state ownership and co-operatives may all find a place in Labour's revised Jerusalem, though none was an objective in itself. "Pension funds represent the common ownership of the contributions of thousands of workers, but what influencedo they have?" Mr Morland said.

All 550 seats for tonight's meeting were taken rapidly and Mr Blair seems likely to find members in the mood to examine every option and shop around for the fine detail of social justice and equality - a party that wants to shop at Bainbridge's, perhaps.