Clause IV

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For the group in Labour student politics, see Clause Four Group. Clause IV historically refers to part of the 1918 text of the British Labour Party constitution which set out the aims and values of the party. Before its revision in 1995, its application was the subject of considerable dispute.


The original version of Clause IV, drafted by Sidney Webb in November 1917 and adopted by the party in 1918, read, in part 4:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

In 1918, nationalisation was seen by many voters as akin to modernisation – the nationalisation of the railways was a widely supported policy, for instance, as it would reduce the plethora of uncoordinated and competing companies.

This text is usually assumed to involve nationalisation of the whole economy but close reading of the text shows that there are many other possible interpretations. Common ownership, though later given a technical meaning by the 1976 Industrial Common Ownership Act, could mean municipal ownership, worker cooperatives or consumer cooperatives.

In December 1944, the Labour Party adopted a policy of "public ownership"[1] and won a clear endorsement for their policies – the destruction of the 'evil giants of want, squalor, disease, ignorance and unemployment (idleness)' – in the post-war election victory of 1945 which brought Clement Attlee to power. However the party had no clear plan as to how public ownership would shape their reforms and much debate ensued.

The nationalisation was led by Herbert Morrison who had had the experience of uniting London's buses and underground train system into a centralised system in the 1930s. He started with the Bank of England in April 1946, whereby stockholders received compensation and the governor and deputy governor were both re-appointed. Further industries swiftly followed: civil aviation in 1946, and railways and telecommunications in 1947, along with the creation of the National Coal Board, which was responsible for supplying 90% of UK's energy needs. 1946 also saw the establishment of the National Health Service which came into force in July 1948 and in 1948 came the nationalisation of railways, canals, road haulage and electricity. By 1951 the iron, steel and gas industries had also been brought into public ownership.

Gaitskell's fight

After losing the 1959 general election Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell came to believe that public opposition to nationalisation had led to the party's poor performance and announced that he proposed to amend Clause IV. The left fought back and managed to defeat any change: symbolically, it was then agreed to include Clause IV, part 4, on Labour Party membership cards.

The economic crisis of the 1970s, and the defeats suffered by the trade union movement, as well as the decline in influence of the British Communist party, led to a strengthening of the position of Labour party members who were opposed to Marxism.

Blair's fight

Tony Blair had in 1993, before becoming Leader of the Labour Party, written a pamphlet for the Fabian Society which criticised the wording of Clause IV for confusing ends with means. Blair put forward a case for defining socialism in terms of a set of values which were constant, while the policies needed to achieve them would have to change ("modernise") to account for changing society. After becoming Leader he announced at the conclusion of his 1994 conference speech that the Labour Party needed a new statement of aims and values and that he would draw one up and present it to the party. The new version was adopted at a Special Conference at Easter 1995 after a debate.

The present version reads:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

Presentationally, the abandonment of the nationalising principles of the original Clause IV represented a break with Labour's past, specifically, its 1983 Manifesto. However, the new clause did, for the first time, declare Labour to be a "socialist" party.

The Clause Four Moment

The changing of Clause IV was seen by political commentators as the defining moment at which Old Labour became New Labour.[2] Labour's "Clause Four Moment" has subsequently become a metaphor for any need or perceived need for a fundamental recasting of a political party's principles or attitudes. Accordingly, Conservative modernisersWho? have argued that the Conservative Party must similarly undergo its "Clause Four Moment", rejecting past commitments and demonstrating, rhetorically at least, change to the electorate.[3]

This has given rise in some quarters to a degree of cynicism among those who see the "Clause Four Moment" as nothing more than a stage-managed row where the leader takes on and humiliates the membership of his own party.[4]

Other uses

Clause Four was also the name of a campaigning group within the Labour Party's student wing (now Labour Students), which succeeded in ending its control by the Militant tendency in 1974. However the attempt of the Clause Four group to oppose Militant in the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) was a failure, and LPYS was eventually dissolved. Many of the members of this group such as Mike Gapes (MP for Ilford South) went on to support Tony Blair's amendment of Clause Four.


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