But to get that message across we have to communicate clearly and precisely. No modern Conservative speaks in the language of the Earl of Salisbury. Why should we stick with the words of Beatrice and Sidney Webb?
In the Eighties, Margaret Thatcher distilled modern conservatism into two words: freedom and enterprise. Privatisation, home ownership, cuts in income tax: whatever the issue and however complex, Tories could explain what they were about in these simple, effective terms.
The Labour Party has briefing books stuffed full with policy detail. What we have lacked until now has been a similar unifying theme. We need to connect our policies with core values that ordinary people understand, with which they identify, and which they recognise as distinctively Labour. This is what needs to be in Clause IV and printed on the back of every membership card.
Fairness, democracy and community sum up Labour's values. Fairness, not as an impossible economic egalitarianism but rather as embodied in the progressive principle of taxation - a principle the Tories have increasingly abandoned. Democracy, founded on the moral principle that each person is equally deserving of respect. This democratic principle is a powerful prescription for change, and not just in the way Britain ought to be governed. It is also a call for participation and power-sharing in the workplace, as well as a profound challenge to Britain's archaic, class-ridden culture, and to the immorality of racism.
Finally comes community. Everyone accepts that social action is needed to enable individuals to achieve what they cannot do by themselves, and to provide a collective means to secure individual ends. But belonging to a community is much more profound and central to socialism than that pragmaticism. Just as a healthy society is one in which each individual can achieve his or her full potential, so no individual can flourish or truly be fulfilled without feeling part of a healthy, supportive community. A sense of social responsibility is a necessary lubricant for a community; but it is equally essential for individuals themselves if they are to be complete and whole.
This is the powerful moral message of modern socialism. It runs through all that Tony Blair has said about the family, education, and law and order. Viewed through the prism of community, these are issues that should be natural Labour territory, and not that of the Tories.
It is obvious that the pursuit of these values does not necessarily involve an extension of state control or bureaucracy. They also go much wider than a narrow focus on the economy and means of production.
That is what is wrong with Clause IV at present. It focuses too narrowly on means and techniques to achieve a single goal rather than upon the core values of socialism. Nationalisation and massive, state-administered programmes to tackle unemployment, bad housing, low wages and poor education were excellent tools in the Thirties and Forties. Indeed, they can still be relevant in certain circumstances today (Russia, for example, badly needs Rooseveltian New Deal rather than Thatcherite laissez-faire).
But these are instruments of policy - not its objectives. A new Clause IV should make reference to the wide range of tools at the disposal of government. These can be forms of public ownership and direct administration, such as in the health service and other crucial public services, they can be regulations through independent ombudsmen working to goals laid down by Parliament, or they can be through encouraging and community self-help - for example, in the provision of pre-school education. Unlike the Tories, we don't rule out the use of any instrument to achieve public ends solely on dogmatic grounds. But the important point as regards Clause IV is that we must not confuse means with ends. Core values must come first.
On Tuesday, Tony Blair warned that 'parties which do not change, die'. But it is not that Labour has been a hapless bystander to the march of progress. On the contrary, it is social democracy that has transformed society throughout Western Europe in this century. When Keir Hardie first became politically active, public spending was less than 10 per cent of national wealth, and that was spent mostly on the cost of current and past wars. Today it is well over 40 per cent, a proportion that has actually increased since 1979.
In Hardie's day, the majority of Britons lived in slum housing, had no education beyond puberty, suffered from poor health and epidemic disease, lacked money and time for leisure, and looked forward to insecurity and poverty in old age. Today that world is gone, thanks to the radical policies of Labour and early Liberal governments.
The world has changed because socialists have changed it. A new Clause IV is not a betrayal of the past but a necessary part of recognising what has already been achieved and a determination to focus anew, with clarity, on the great work still to be done.
The writer is Labour MP for the Western Isles.Reuse content