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.