Leading Article: A clause for the future

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's decision to abandon Clause IV last October is in the process of being vindicated. There was a danger he might have lost, but it is already clear from the Scottish vote last Friday that he will score a triumphant victory next month. There was also a risk that he might have won too easily; instead he has had to take on his opponents, barnstorming around the country to proclaim the case for change. Blair arrived at the leadership with an easy, popular appeal in the country; the Clause IV debate has put a framework of steel beneath his leadership inside the party.

In abandoning Clause IV, Mr Blair set himself a very difficult task. The present clause may be outdated, unworkable, and largely irrelevant to modern political debate, but its language of collective ownership has a powerful appeal. Its sentiments have been the cornerstone of Labour thinking for much of this century. The clause retains a fierce loyalty among at least a minority of party members. In seeking to replace it, Mr Blair has broken with a great swathe of Labour history. That is always a risky business, however necessary and overdue.

The difference between the two versions can be simply put, disguised though it is by politic language designed to appease various Labour factions. The old Clause IV saw salvation in collectivism and common ownership. It was intimately linked to the notion of a class liberating itself from the oppression of private ownership in a society dominated by producers.

Mr Blair's rallying call is community and mutual responsibility. Instead of nationalisation, his new Labour Party would strive for a community in which "power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe". Mr Blair's society would have a dynamic market economy serving the public interest, a thriving private sector, and essential services either owned by or accountable to the public. There is talk of delivering people from poverty, prejudice and abuse of power. These are potentially resonant thoughts, if expressed in the ungainly language of the composite motion.

The rewritten clause sums up how the Labour Party, together with other modern social democratic parties, has been obliged to change. Gone is the sense of certainty, the idea that history is on their side. The modern socialist, instead, accepts and acquiesces in a capitalist world which the traditionalist socialist would unequivocally have declared to be hostile. There is no ambition to transform the fundamental contours of that society. The days of social engineering and grand plans are gone. Globalisation, technical change and the bankruptcy of the old doctrine leave no alternative. All is now contingency spiced with values and ethics. Mr Blair recognises this: indeed he embodies it in his very political being.

He is right. He represents Labour's best chance. Indeed, the route he has chosen is surely the only one available to Labour if it wants to be a government party again. But the decision to cut adrift from Labour's old historical moorings, however right, does not provide any new anchorage. From now on, Labour has to learn to think for itself. President Clinton's fortunes are a warning that generalisations are no substitute for a coherent sense of strategy and well-conceived policies. Mr Blair's victory on Clause IV has given him the elbow-room he needed to move forward.