A clause for our times Labour MP Brian Wilson on the words he would choose to define his party's value s

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The Independent Online
AS ONE who prefers a relatively quiet life, I might not have started the debate on Clause IV, but once it was under way I admit to feeling a slight sense of intellectual relief.

My objections to Clause IV have been with its literal meaning rather than its accepted thrust. Of course we believe in the role of common ownership, and of course we don't want to nationalise the corner sweet shop any more than the Webbs did in 1918. Thecommon ownership baby should not be confused with the Clause IV bath water.

If we are going to redefine the core aims and values of the party, win trust for that redefinition and make people feel good about it, then it seems to me that the starting point should be a search for honesty rather than for a mere form of politically calculated words.

What do we stand for? Why are we democratic socialists? Why do we attend meetings on winter nights and hand out leaflets in the rain? It is because we believe that society - and, by extension, the world - could be more fairly and efficiently organised ifcertain social and economic principles were applied.

It strikes me as a dreadful admission of inadequacy if, in 1995, we cannot translate that basic belief, and its key components, into a language of aspiration at least as inspiring as that of the Webbs. Rewriting Clause IV should not be regarded as a threat, but as a political and (incidentally) literary opportunity.

The irony is that very few who are defending the status quo have any greater literal belief in the semantics of Clause IV than those who are seeking to change it. Furthermore, the defenders are just as anxious as the rest to promote other core values of our democratic socialism, which find no place at all on the backs of our membership cards.

In trying to define my own aspirations, I accepted the constraint of using no more than the 56 words of the existing Clause IV. It is not obvious that economy of language must be at the expense of high principle. An "alternative Clause IV" which reads like a composite resolution deserves rejection.

So here goes. Let's put what Neil Kinnock described as "the enabling society" right up to the top. It's the fundamental job of socialists to work for a society in which everyone has the chance to make the best of himself or herself. Whether they take it seriously is another matter.

Asserting that simple human right to make the best of oneself, liberated from the economic impediments which stunt so many of our fellow citizens from birth, is no trite form of words. It is absolutely central to what we are about.

Throughout the 1980s, when a "big idea" was demanded of Labour, I never thought that there should be much difficulty in defining it. There is no need, in this last decade of the 20th century and in one of the world's richest countries, for the kind of poverty that stalks our communities and undermines our security. So let's say so.

Every Labour councillor, MP and trade unionist understands that we need successful enterprise in the private sector in order to create the employment, wages and working conditions which Labour has spent the past century trying to achieve. The idea that public ownership is the only route to fulfilling these ends is bizarre, and everyone knows it. Let's be better than the Tories at getting right behind enterprise and wealth creation at every level.

Then there is common ownership, and I believe that any problem about its inclusion or exclusion is largely one of over-anxious posturing on both sides. Of course we believe in the role of common ownership - some state, some municipal, some co-operative, some in partnership with the private sector. And only the lunatic right-wing fringe would dispute that.

We need have no fear of asserting the role of common ownership, any more than we should have nostalgia about renouncing a make-believe attachment to the universality of its application.

We should certainly say something about democracy, since we are distinguished from other breeds (in some cases, those who actually practised the letter if not the spirit of Clause IV) by the fact that we are democratic socialists.

Most of us spend large parts of our lives, at every level of activity, in pushing out the limits of personal freedom and public accountability, while resisting encroachments by forces for whom the word democracy is merely a flag of convenience. So let's highlight our democratic credentials and beliefs.

At first sight, I've probably missed out a lot that we hold dear. But then again, maybe not. Under the broad banners of equal opportunity, democracy, economic and social justice, most of our key principles can comfortably find a corner - and all in 55 words. Here, then, is my contribution to the debate.

TO ENHANCE the birthright of every citizen to fulfil his or her potential, consistent with social justice and the equitable distribution of wealth; to cast out poverty, nurture enterprise and promote common ownership; cherish and advance democracy; all in order to bequeath to the next generation a better world than the one which we inherited.

I would be proud to have something along these lines on the back of my membership card. But the important point is surely that we should try to define what we're in business for in 1995, rather than argue over the sanctity of words written by past mortals.