Many on the left of Labour still take pleasure in decrying Blair’s altering of Clause IV of the party’s constitution, citing it as definitive proof that the former Labour leader never cared about his own party’s ideological core. Yet what I’ve always found interesting about that “moment” at the special Easter conference in 1995 is the first line of Blair’s revised clause. For those of you who can’t recall what it is, let me remind you:
“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.”
The reason I find this noteworthy is because while the changing of Clause IV is famous for rejecting the notion that nationalisation of all industry should be in Labour’s constitution, Tony Blair essentially negated the change anyhow with this opening sentence. For what is socialism if not the nationalisation of a nation’s wealth and resources?
This question is a lot more controversial than it should be. The word “socialism” is thrown around a lot on the Left without many of those who invoke it knowing what they really mean when they do so. I’ll go one better by saying that socialism, both the word and the concept, is the elephant in the centre-left room. It is a big part of what is stopping the Left from reasserting itself throughout Europe and why the Right is so dominant at present.
It is worth bearing in mind that no Labour government has ever pursued a truly socialist agenda. Attlee’s government was probably the closest: creation of the NHS, a huge expansion of welfare, nationalisation of coal mining, the steel industry, railways. Yet by the time the Tories came back into power in 1951, only 20% of the British economy was under public ownership. Furthermore, the 1951 Labour manifesto is not truly socialist in tone or policy – there is even a pledge to break up monopolies in it. Even at its most left-wing, the Labour Party of the late-1940s was nothing like any ruling party of an Eastern Bloc country.
And that was Attlee and the Spirit of ’45. To suggest that the Wilson and Blair governments were not socialist, even by the loosest definition of the term, is so uncontroversial as to not need defending. So why does Labour cling so hard to this idea of democratic socialism when it never practices it and cannot even seem to satisfactorily define it?
Coming back to exactly why clinging to socialism is so destructive for the British Left, I’ll say this: if Labour wants to become big tent again, to get enough people behind it to win a general election, it needs to become a squarely social democratic party and reject socialism. Hell, it probably even needs to change Clause IV again to make that abundantly clear. Millions of British voters would be interested in a party that could convincingly promise to improve public services, eliminate regional inequality, and bolster the NHS. A lot of people who would not even consider voting Labour now would vote for such a party over the Conservatives. But in order to be electable that party would need to understand that most British voters do not want a genuinely socialist government.
Having said all of that, we are witnessing a Labour leadership contest at the moment in which both candidates define themselves without caution as socialists. This fact and the quandary that Labour finds itself in at present are closely related. Social democracy has a future. Socialism does not. When that is embraced at the top of the Labour Party once again, the party will have a future also.