Britain's Labor Party drops its call for nationalizing industry

April 28, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Goodbye socialism. Hello capitalism.

The political party that brought Britain government-run mines, government-run medical care and government-run trains is now embracing the free market.

The Labor Party, out of political power since 1979, is to give up its pledge to nationalize major industries, the pledge almost every member knew as "Clause 4."

When the party convenes tomorrow, Clause 4 will be replaced by a jargon-filled statement that is about as controversial as a Chamber of Commerce manifesto.

The party that once called for the "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange" will now extol the virtues of a dynamic economy, just society, open democracy and healthy environment.

The old Clause 4 that spelled out Labor's aims and values fit on the back of the party's membership cards. The new Clause 4 takes up one typewritten page, required countless rewrites, needed to be promoted in a six-month campaign before party members informally accepted it and, to some critics, is nearly incomprehensible.

"It's gobbledygook," says Chrissie Maher of the Plain English Campaign. "It's all mushy. Just words. It might as well have been written in a foreign language."

Despite the criticism, the new Clause 4 is expected to be approved, and passage will mark a milestone for Labor and its leader, Tony Blair.

Nicknamed "Bambi" by his critics, Mr. Blair is the smooth-talking new face of Labor. He has occasionally been compared to President Clinton: Both are Oxford educated and married to attorneys; politically, both are right of center in their parties and have been accused of standing for little other than gaining power.

Mr. Blair has decided that Labor's shedding of its socialist past is a necessary step toward obtaining parliamentary victory, the first in more than a decade. Polls forecast that Labor will have landslide victories in local races next week in England and Wales.

And if parliamentary elections were held now, Labor would win by 30 points over the ruling Conservatives, according to a poll for The Times of London.

Prime Minister John Major must call for the next general election before May 1997.

Labor has clung to the language of Clause 4 through economic ups and downs and a world war. The clause was originally drafted as a democratic answer to the Russian revolution.

By the mid-1950s the commitment to nationalizations was already a handicap, but no leader was able to cast aside the famous clause -- until Mr. Blair began the fight last October.

"It's not very satisfactory to have words that are historic that nobody really notices," says Donald Dewar, a Labor member of Parliament.

But for David Winnick, a prominent Labor defender of the old order and member of Parliament, the revision of Clause 4 is a sellout.

"The new Clause 4 is meant to be quite meaningless," he says.

Without a commitment to nationalization, says Mr. Winnick, the rivalry between Labor and the Conservatives will resemble the divisions among the American Democrats and Republicans.

"In America, the two main parties accept the basic system," he says. "They would argue about who would be more efficient in government. Here, the tendency has been for a Labor government to nationalize a number of industries."

Even though he faces impending defeat, Mr. Winnick salutes Mr. Blair for skillfully championing the new Clause 4.

"Tony Blair will get the credit," he says. "He will be seen as taking on the left and winning.

"He has in mind to change the political map."

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