And so farewell, monstrous icon, 1918-1995

Today, Labour meets to vote on a new Clause IV. Jack Straw, who stirred up the hornet's nest in the first place, recalls the highs and lows of the drive to update party aims and principles
Click to follow
I cried after we lost the last election. Not at first. Not for weeks. I was too numbed, and exhausted by the experience. But one dull Saturday afternoon in June 1992 as I waited in the drizzle for a train from Gatwick, tears came. I was overcome by grief.

By the time the train got to Victoria I had decided that despair was not enough. I had better do something, write something to avoid this fate again. I read all the scores of analyses on Major's victory. As I did, an encounter in the Tory marginal of Elmet kept repeating on me. Campaigning in Boston Spa, I had lunched with staff at the British Museum depot, mainly middle-class, middle-aged women - classic swing voters. They talked politely, but they would not look me in the eye. Then one woman said that her husband was in private industry, building, and "he'd been told" there would be many bankruptcies if Labour won.

If there was one certainty about a Labour victory, it was that the building industry would prosper. I said so, explained why. But it was no good. This woman, her husband, and many others, did not trust us. Six days later, the Tories held Elmet, and John Major was back in power.

And as I wrote, the reason why these women at Boston Spa, and thousands more, did not trust us hit home. It was not that the individuals in Neil Kinnock's shadow cabinet appeared less trustworthy than John Major's cabinet; not that we had dodged difficult issues like tax (quite the reverse). Rather, people felt uncertain about what we might do with the country because of a glaring gap between the sensible reassuring detail of our policy, and the ideology to which we had all signed up, Clause IV. These women had probably never heard specifically of Clause IV. But they did know we were committed to something wholly hostile to the private sector and that we wanted sometime, someday to nationalise anything of importance in the British economy.

So Clause IV, in my view, had to be changed, but how?

I tried my local party first. If I could not convince two close friends, the party chairman and secretary, I had better abandon the whole idea. They suggested that I should demystify the whole thing by writing a history of Clause IV's origins , and propose an alternative. They proposed that it would be more persuasive to ordinary party members if Blackburn Labour Party published my ideas than if some national group like the Fabians did so.

Many colleagues at Westminster gave me great encouragement, above all Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair. Neither could be too public about this because of their close association with the late John Smith, who was less than keen on my ideas. Neil gave hours of advice, especially on the wording of my suggested redraft. But some colleagues warned me off, advising me that I would only help to divide the party.

The Blackburn party duly published my pamphlet, "Policy and Ideology", in March 1993, to some interest. At the 1993 annual conference my local party hosted a lively fringe meeting, at which Peter Hain and I debated the case for change. I think all this broke the taboo on the discussion of Clause IV. The sky did not fall in on me. I survived, my local party prospered and the debate simmered. But it never reached boiling point. There the issue could have been left indefinitely but for Tony Blair's election as leader last July and his act of courage last October, when his conference speech made changing Clause IV the key test both of his leadership and of Labour's modernisation.

It might all seem very easy now. But that was not how it looked then. For we have not been dealing with words on paper, but with a monstrous religious icon, a graven image that has provided false certainty in an age of huge change.

One Westminster friend, for example, told me that whatever the rational case for change, it would be an act of desecration "like driving a juggernaut through grandad's graveyard". When Gaitskell tried to change Clause IV, in the aftermath of the 1959 Labour defeat, he failed. Partly he failed because many party members were still mesmerised by the alleged economic success of the Soviet Union. Speaking against Gaitskell's project, Aneurin Bevan said: "I am Socialist. I believe in public ownership.

Tony has not made that error. What has been wonderful about the last six months has been the depth and breadth of the ideological debate he has unleashed. No longer do we have to worship false gods, utter prayers that have lost all meaning. Instead, for the first time in my political life, ordinary party members have had the confidence to speak openly about how a democratic socialist movement can embrace the market economy with values of justice, fairness and equity; of different forms of capitalism, rejecting the now false dichotomy between "socialism and capitalism". What has been most striking in the debates in which I've taken part is that virtually no one among the defenders of Clause IV has seriously made the case for nationalising the "means of production, distribution and exchange", but only ever of the utilities. Time and again I've had the bizarre experience of listening to defenders of the old Clause IV assert the right to the private ownership of Marks & Spencer.

The scale of the revolution in Labour's culture that Tony has secured is vast. He has ended the worship of ancestors, made Labour apply itself to ideas, not just bits of policies, and has emancipated the party's members.

By a quirk of history, Clause IV will end today where it began in 1918, in Westminster Central Hall. But the only tears at its passing will be shed not at our conference, but 100 yards away, in Conservative Central office. For 50 years, Clause IV allowed the Tories to define what we stood for. Now we are defining our ideology for ourselves.

The writer is MP for Blackburn and the Shadow Home Secretary.