Friday, 28 April 1995


New Statesman & Society leader, 28 April 1995

Tony Blair's Clause Four victory is a massive defeat for the hard left-and it reinforces the argument that the left should work with, rather than against, the Labour leadership

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 Clause 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, realised 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 NSS 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 a 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 (see interview on page 24). But it does mean that he can simply ignore the left if it responds to its 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 not 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.


New Statesman & Society, 28 April 1995

Tony Blair is heading for an overwhelming victory at Labour's special conference on Clause Four this weekend. He talks to Paul Anderson about the ideas behind the new clause and about where Labour goes from here

It's early Monday evening, and Tony Blair, travelling first class on the 16.20 non-stop from Preston to London Huston, watches the coun­tryside of Middle England flash by the window as he talks.

The Labour leader is obviously tired – hardly surprising after a six-week nation­wide speaking tour in support of chang­ing Clause Four of the party's constitu­tion, which has involved adding 30 extra meetings (and hours more on trains) to an already busy schedule. But he's also clearly jubilant. He is on his way back from the last of the speaking engage­ments, at the annual conference of the shopworkers' union Usdaw in Black­pool, and he knows he has won a famous victory, not just in Usdaw but throughout the Labour Party. On Saturday, a special conference in London will vote over­whelmingly in favour of the new Clause Four. So far, only a single constituency party that has held a ballot has come out against change. There's even a chance, according to transport workers' leader Bill Morris, that the TGWU delegation will ignore its executive's advice and vote for the new wording.

The speech Blair has just given in Blackpool was carefully drafted to max­imise his appeal among those trade unions that have yet to make up their minds. There was even a coded reference to class struggle, when he warned against being "Utopian about the potential for conflict between employees and manage­ment". "There is a divergence of interests at some points inherent in the relation­ship," he said. "There can be a clash on the balance between profits and wages or on how far and fast restructuring should go, never mind disagreements over the individual problems of employees."

Not that Blair has suddenly turned Marxist in his pursuit of votes. "There's no doubt that there are massive social divisions," he says. "But to analyse soci­ety today in terms of Marxist definitions of class is unhelpful. It's possible to do it, but it just doesn't tell you very much about society."

Blair would much rather talk about community and solidarity, as he has since long before becoming Labour leader: like John Smith before him, he is an austere Christian socialist for whom such ideas are at the very heart of social­ism. Echoing the language of the new Clause Four, he explains: "What distin­guishes the left from the right is the belief on the left that to advance individually we need to act collectively. Community is an expression of that. It means to me principally the notion of interdependence. But it also implies that we are prepared to act together to provide those benefits that we are unable to provide for ourselves as individuals. The notion of community for me is less a geographical concept than a belief in the social nature of human beings."

If the rhetoric of community is an alter­native to that of class, it is also a way of talking socialism without embracing bureaucratic statism. "The definition of socialism as more and more power accru­ing to the state has had its day," says Blair, leaning back in his seat, arms folded. "In the early part of the century, it was per­fectly easy: when people wanted the very basic things in life, the state was the way to achieve that. But there's more diversity and choice nowadays. That doesn't exclude a role for the state: the state is going to have to act on all sorts of ques­tions. It does mean that power, wherever it is exercised, should be accountable and that we should have a plurality of centres of power."

But perhaps the most important func­tion of the language of community for Blair is that it allows him to talk of respon­sibilities of citizens towards one another, as well as of their rights. "I think it was a mistake of Labour politicians to stop talk­ing that language," he says as the train streaks through Milton Keynes. "It's the purest drivel to claim that because you believe that rights and responsibilities go together you're in some sense authoritar­ian. The purpose of social action was never to substitute itself for individual responsibility. It was to make it more easily realisable."

Blair dismisses critics who claim that his emphasis on responsibility is a ploy to win support from middle-class voters – being tough on crime and making it clear that Labour supports the family appeals to the party's traditional voters, he argues – and he is scathing about the refusal of many on the left to embrace his approach. "The single biggest mistake of the left in the 19603 and 19705 was that its essential political philosophy got intermarried with, and at points almost dominated by, a crude form of Marx­ism – by which I mean not that people in the Labour Party ever particularly believed in the abolition of all forms of private enterprise, but that they became heavily influenced by a strain of thinking that is almost determinist in its view of social conditions and their impact on individual behaviour. Many Labour peo­ple thought that to talk about punishing people for crime was wicked or wrong – all we needed to do was talk about amelio­rating the social conditions. Any sensible person would have been talking about both." The elderly couple at the table opposite, who are taking a great interest in the conversation, nod in agreement.

There are striking parallels here with the thinking of American communitarians like Amitai Etzioni, but Blair plays down any transatlantic influences. "I've read Etzioni with interest," he says. "But what he's saying is part of what's happen­ing all over the world. The left is trying to recapture the spirit of its belief in solidar­ity while distinguishing it from the form that collective action took – which in many cases was bureaucratic state con­trol. That's the task of the left the whole world over: finding a new relationship between society and individual that moves beyond either old-style collec­tivism or the crude market dogma of the right."

Changing Clause Four is only the first step towards this goal for Labour: what comes next is serious policy work. Of course, there's already plenty of policy. "If Labour were to implement all the pol­icy we have at the moment, it would be one of the most radical governments we have ever seen," says Blair. There's also a strong case for taking things slowly: "People forget that it took the Tories a second term before they got into ballots before strikes or privatisation. You've got to pace yourself, and I make no apologies for that."

Above all, it's necessary to avoid mak­ing specific commitments too long before the election. "In 1992, we ended up committing ourselves to tax and spending plans in a period of boom and found that there were different priorities in the run-up to the election. The same goes for tax and spending now – and in other areas. On the minimum wage, for example, it's important to commit our­selves to a certain floor that no one falls below. But to get ourselves into a tangle over what precise level it should be now, when we're two years off an election – what's the point?"
Nevertheless, Labour does need to push on with policy, "generating a much greater excitement and openness of thinking". "We often argue about the wrong things," he says. "What we need to do instead is identify the new issues that the country faces – for example, the global marketplace, the challenge of tech­nology, the changing nature of the labour market, the reshaping of Europe, the existence of large numbers of elderly people who find their savings eaten away by the need for nursing care at the end of their lives" – once again the elderly couple opposite nod in agreement – " and the requirement for a quite different commitment to education in society. We need to identify and describe much more clearly how we would tackle these problems."

This means casting the net wide for ideas. Blair is keen on the Institute for Public Policy Research's new Commis­sion on Public Policy and British Busi­ness, and does not rule out talking to the Liberal Democrats. "There are no propos­als for anything institutionalised, but there are clear areas of overlap and agree­ment, for example in relation to the con­stitution. I don't see anything wrong with that. I don't take a tribal attitude to left-of-centre politics. The problem for the Lib­eral Democrats is that the position of equidistance is not seriously tenable. It makes life difficult for those of us who recognise that there should be a proper dialogue of ideas."
He is easy about the involvement of Labour backbenchers in plans for a par­liamentary Lib-Lab discussion group – "It doesn't trouble me at all: it's sen­sible" – and is warm about the prospect of cooperation with the Lib Dems in gov­ernment: "The most important thing is that we have a government that doesn't just say 'We're the masters now, things have changed', but is deliberately trying to change the politics of the country – and that requires working to achieve the broadest possible basis of consent."

And consent, he insists, does not mean that he wants no one to disagree with him inside the Labour Party. "I don't mind people disagreeing with me at all as long as it's a genuine debate and is democrati­cally conducted," he says. "A lot of the recent criticism of Labour – not least in the pages of New Statesman – has been either full of bile or plain feeble. What I ask of those who criticise is to deal with the argument. The left is never going to be a place where there' s going to be a una­nimity of view, and neither should it be. Take Europe and the debates over Maastricht. I am strongly pro-European although I think that Europe must be greatly reformed. But there's a perfectly justifiable intellectual argument against it. I don't merely not disapprove of having that debate, I positively welcome it."

By now, we've reached London's inner suburbs. Blair has been talking animat­edly for the best part of an hour and is los­ing his voice. The elderly couple, who can no longer hear what he is saying, have lost interest. One of the two young aides trav­elling with him, who has said nothing throughout, tells his boss that he's being too defensive about the whole Clause Four exercise: it has been a great tri­umph, he says, and he should make that clear. Blair grins. "It's not over yet," he protests, but there's something about his demeanour that shows – for once – he doesn't really mean what he says.

Friday, 21 April 1995


New Statesman & Society leader, 21 April 1995

The trade in live animal exports is morally repugnant – and by trying to prevent protests against it the police are stepping on basic rights

When the protests against live animal exports from British ports began last year, they divided left and liberal opinion down the middle.

For some, the outrage at the export of veal calves and other animals was a proportionate response to a cruel and unnecessary trade, an expression of a healthy public concern for the wellbeing – or even the rights – of animals. For others, the talk of animal rights smacked of anthropomorphism: to them, the demonstrations were no more than a macabre symptom of a deep-rooted British sentimentality about animals, the protesters people whose worries about soon-to-be-eaten sources of chops and escalopes had never been equalled by concern for their fellow human beings.

This argument will run and run, for the simple reason that both sides have a good case. For what it's worth, NSS comes down in the end on the side of those who would like the export of live animals banned. It undoubtedly causes unnecessary suffering – there is no reason whatsoever that the veal calves and sheep should not be reared and slaughtered in Britain and exported as meat – and causing unnecessary suffering to animals dehumanises those who do it. One does not have to embrace the anthropomorphist notion of animal rights or be a hopeless sentimentalist to believe that cruelty should be stopped.

But this week, all that is in many ways beside the point. Even if we supported the export of live animals, we would argue that those who did not had an inalienable right to protest peacefully against the trade. And that right has now been seriously infringed by the actions of Essex police.

Last week, they delivered a letter to the residents of Brightlingsea informing them that anyone who organised a protest against the resumption of animal exports from the small port this week would be prose­cuted under the 1986 Public Order Act. The threats had the desired effect. Brightlingsea Against Live Exports, the local pressure group that had organised protests of several thousand people earlier in the year, disbanded itself. And on Tuesday, the day that live exports resumed, only 350 people, many of them outsiders, turned out to demonstrate.

According to Liberty, the civil liberties campaign, this use of the 1986 act is unprecedented: until last week, the police had not used their powers to ban marches and demonstrations. Although the police did not carry out their threat to make arrests, the danger is that Brightlingsea sets a precedent not just for animal exports protests, but for any demonstration that the police believe might be a little difficult to control.

The 1986 Public Order Act was intended, we were told at the time it was passed, to deal with serious disruption of the life of the community, serious threats to public order and serious intimidation. The government assured sceptical civil libertarians (and in those far-off days, they included the Labour front bench) that it would not be used to impose blanket bans on protest.

Yet in Brightlingsea the police did just that. A protest movement that has involved a majority of the local popu­lation cannot be said to be a major disruption to commu­nity life; nor can non-violent direct action – which is all that the overwhelming majority of the protestors have engaged in – be considered either a threat to public order or intimidatory.

Of course, the policing of protests such as that in Brightlingsea is expensive. Essex police estimate that the policing of the Brightlingsea demonstrations has cost them an extra £2 million, while recent parliamentary answers reveal that the total extra policing costs incurred by the live animal export protests has been more than £6 million. It is also obviously true that police who are at demonstrations are not catching criminals, doing their paperwork or helping old ladies across the road.

Sometimes, however, the exercise of fundamental democratic rights – and there are few more fundamen­tal than the right to free assembly – means that money and police time must be spent in ways the police find wasteful. And if the police really cannot afford the money or the hours involved in dragging non-violent protesters from the paths of sheep lorries, they should simply tell the would-be exporters that they have more important things to do than expedite their business.

Friday, 7 April 1995


An updated version of Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey's Moscow Gold? supplement to the New Statesman will soon be available as a Kindle book.