Leading Article: Mr Smith's battle with the past

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THE COURTIERS of France's deposed Bourbon kings were said to have 'learnt nothing and forgotten nothing' during the Revolution. It is tempting to say the same of John Smith, who is struggling over what to do about the notorious Clause IV of Labour's constitution. Mr Smith knows that his party's commitment to 'the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange' is hopelessly out of date and alienates the new voters to whom he must reach out if Labour is ever to achieve power again.

Nevertheless, Mr Smith fears the precedent of Hugh Gaitskell, the last Labour leader to try publicly to have the clause redrafted. Although Gaitskell had the weight of three successive lost elections behind his arguments, he failed to get rid of the clause - but provoked bitter divisions in the party as a result. That was 1960, however; today, Mr Smith should not fear.

The case against Clause IV as it stands hardly needs to be rehearsed. It was hastily drafted in 1918, when wartime statist policies were still in fashion. Labour eyes were on other matters - such as where power in the fledgling political party would lie. Even then, the focus on 'workers by hand or by brain' was too narrow; today, it is laughably so. British workers are also consumers of goods, investors in houses or capitalists in their small businesses. Some voters, such as pensioners, the retired and mothers at home, are not even workers in the traditional sense. Few Labour party members (let alone MPs) would advocate the sweeping nationalisation implied by the 'Party Objects' of Clause IV.

Those who want to retain the status quo concede much of this. They insist, though, that Labour has already moved far away from its catechism: witness the manifestos on which it fought the 1987 and 1992 elections, which appeared to contradict rather than follow the logic of Clause IV. They argue that to change the constitution would be to fiddle unnecessarily with something that does a sentimental, rather than practical, job. There is also, they say, the risk of a damaging internal fight at a time when Labour seems to have a Tory government on the run.

Yet the disputed clause is, after all, printed on the back of the party's membership cards. What kind of impression does it give to the outside world when new members are given a slogan that is no more appropriate to the Nineties than old Tory rallying-cries for the Empire?

Recent research by Giles Radice has confirmed the view that Labour will find salvation only by attracting a new sort of voter, different from the blue-collar workers to whom it appealed for generations. Undoubtedly, a new Clause IV would be a help rather than a hindrance. Jack Straw, MP has just published his own ideas. Mr Smith should tell his party to discuss it and hope to have a text ready for approval at this year's party conference.