The rest of the population can be forgiven a certain bemusement, but the debate ignited by Jeremy Corbyn in The Independent on Sunday cuts to the heart of the fateful struggle currently under way for the soul of the Labour Party. However painful the feelings this aroused, however perilous the reopening of old wounds and whatever the efforts by Mr Corbyn’s backers to deny that he meant anything important by his clear and concise comments, this is the argument the party could not avoid having. Better to get on with it.
“I’m interested in the idea that we should talk about what the objectives of the party are,” he said, “whether that’s restoring the Clause Four as it was originally written or... a different one”. That’s an unambiguous statement. His backers do him no favours by trying to spin it.
Mr Corbyn is a socialist. The party he joined, and of which he has been a hyper-rebellious MP for many years, was in its foundation a socialist party. It remained so, despite the reforming efforts of Hugh Gaitskell and Neil Kinnock, until Tony Blair replaced the crucial wording in 1995: his “Clause Four moment”, as it was subsequently called, the moment that Labour grasped the nettle and plumped for radical change.
The crux of the argument was spelled out by Sidney Webb in the original Clause Four 98 years ago, identifying “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” as the royal road to securing for workers “the full fruits of their industry”. But whether “common ownership” – the taking into public hands of major industries such as the railways and energy generation – is the best or even a tolerably efficient way of giving workers prosperity and security is a question that has been gnawing away at the party since Mr Gaitskell first tried to amend the clause after Labour’s election defeat of 1959.
As Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed, wrote in 1972, the question of “whether the Labour Party is to be concerned with attempts at a more efficient and more humane administration of a capitalist society; or whether it is to adapt itself to the task of creating a socialist one... is as old as the Labour Party itself”.
Is Labour a social-democratic party that has made its peace with capital, is “intensely relaxed” about the filthy rich and has turned its back on revolutionary dreams? Or is it still, in its guts, committed to achieving by democratic means the revolution that Communists sought through violence? It is a debate that many imagined three Blair election victories had killed off. They were wrong; it was merely dormant.
Labour’s problem is that, in the absence of the distant dream of a socialist New Jerusalem, the party seems to many of its members to be severely lacking in point. The deficiency is not new: after the Attlee years, Mr Miliband wrote: “It became increasingly difficult to evade the question of Labour’s ultimate purposes.”
But Labour’s other problem – and the crucial one – is that, since the events of 1989, to continue to believe in the socialist Utopia requires a lack of curiosity and information that is positively childlike. Capitalism continues to wreak havoc in many ways, not least by its cyclical crises: the greed it promotes is to blame for many of our gravest difficulties. But while the world’s former socialist regimes purchased a few decades of full employment before their contradictions tore them apart, their longer-term legacy was disastrous. Mr Cameron’s increasingly reckless Government demands robust opposition. But this tribal, tormented Labour Party looks unlikely to provide it.
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