This weekend, the Labour Party’s special conference in London will give a ringing endorsement to Tony Blair’s new statement of aims and values to replace Cluase Four of the party constitution.
That much has been certain since long before the Labour leader unveiled the new statement last month.
Indeed, the only real question ever since Blair announced his intention of replacing Clause Four at Labour conference last year has been the margin of his eventual victory. Even before anyone, apart from Blair, had an inkling of the contents of the new statement, the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members at every level knew that defeat for the leader would be the sort of humiliation that could lose Labour the next election. If few would have predicted that the most substantial opposition to change would come not from the constituency Labour parties, but from the executive committees of trade unions, few believed that the outcome was in doubt.
Despite this predictability, it would be wrong to play down the significance of the exercise. Getting rid of Clause Four is extraordinarily important symbolically. Although it has never accurately described Labour’s programme for government – even in 1945 the party stood for a mixed economy – for most of its life it has represented the long-term aspirations of many if not most Labour members. After Hugh Gaitskell’s botched attempt to get shot of it in 1959-60, moreover, Clause Four became a symbol of the party rank-and-file’s ability to resist the attempts of opportunistic leaders to ditch principles in the pursuit of power. It was accepted as untouchable by both leaders and led. Right up to last autumn, the received wisdom in Labour’s upper echelons was that meddling with Clause Four was guaranteed to stir up a hornet’s nest. Hence the sharp intakes of breath when Blair announced his plan for change – even from those who, as they inhaled, realized that the received wisdom was nonsense and that Blair would get his way simply because the alternative was too dreadful to contemplate.
Seven months on from Blair’s declaration that the emperor has no clothes, his transgression of Labour’s unwritten law that no one touches Clause Four has been completely vindicated. No matter, as the NS said after the publication of his new draft, that the new wording is inelegant and uninspiring: some 85 per cent of Labour Party members prefer it to the old. There’s no arguing with the results of the constituency ballots: those on the left who reckon that the absence of the old clause from the ballot papers made any significant difference to the result are insulting the intelligence of the electorate. Everyone who voted knew what was at stake – and the brutal reality is that the scale of support for Blair in the constituencies is a massive humiliation for the hard left, worse even than the defeat of Tony Benn and Eric Heffer when they challenged Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley for the leadership and deputy leadership in 1988.
Then at least the hard left had the consolation of being on the winning side at party conference, as the leadership’s plans to ditch unilateral nuclear disarmament were unceremoniously dumped by the party. Now, the hard left has nothing. It has been stuffed by Blair, who can now argue, with reason, that his modernising project has complete democratic legitimacy in the Labour Party. He can do just about what he likes. No Labour leader before has ever had the authority that Blair now has.
Of course, this does not mean that Blair ought to behave as dictator, riding roughshod over all criticism: it would make more sense for him to be magnanimous in victory – and indeed he insists that he intends to encourage debate and pluralism inside Labour. But it does mean that he can simply ignore the left if it responds to defeat by moping in a corner, waiting sullenly for its chance to get its own back. If the left is to have any influence at all, it must engage constructively with the modernisers who are now in command. That does imply stinting on criticism when criticism is justified, nor does it necessitate hero-worship. Still less does it mean embracing the strategy of caution, inherited from John Smith, to which Blair clings when it comes to specific policies. After Clause Four, however, anyone in the Labour Party who refuses to recognise that, for the foreseeable future, Blair is the only show in town, is living in a dream world.