Leading Article:The clause celebre

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is a new kind of leader for Labour, but does he have the party to suit? The period between now and the Clause IV vote in April will tell us to what extent the party is prepared to follow him. The scarlet standard planted on the front p age of the Guardian yesterday by 32 Labour MEPs suggests that the struggle is going to be hard-fought.

In many ways the text of the advertisement is deeply depressing. Assertion is followed by non sequitur and then by absurdity in a way that wouldn't disgrace the letters page of a Trotskyist weekly. What are we to make of "with Britain and much of the world in crisis, this is no time to jettison this powerful weapon [state ownership] for social and economic justice"? Help Chechnya - renationalise BT? The signatories of this undistinguished document are a melange of those retreads for whom time stopped in1979 and, worryingly, some younger MEPs, tired of what they see as endless retreat.

Battle against these forces cannot and should not be avoided. Siren voices seeking to prove that defeat for Blair is manageable, or that the issue is simply one of tidying up some antique clauses in the party constitution, should be shunned. Mr Blair rightly sees Labour's transformation - into New Labour, to use his jargon - as crucial to Labour's ability to win the next election.

This debate is a paradigm for many others. As so often in the history of the left, the ends (justice, fairness, opportunity) have been confused with the means (public ownership, trade unions, comprehensive schools). The result is a defence of outmoded and under-performing institutions and agencies, at the expense of the original goals.

The public ownership question bears this out. For a decade and a half Labour has fought each succeeding privatisation in turn. Yet the incredibly painful truth for Labour activists is that these industries, for all their redundancies and executive pay hikes, provide a materially better service to the public than their bureaucratic predecessors. Mr Blair knows this, and if BT could be re-acquired for five pence a Blair administration wouldn't touch it. But the Labour leader is not typical. He has n ever carried that much Labourist baggage around with him.

In their heart of hearts, many party members know or suspect the truth already. But to embrace it openly is a different matter. Breaking with a past in which so much emotional capital has been invested is hugely difficult. But it must be done - on ClauseIV and elsewhere. Otherwise New Labour will remain wishful thinking.