Andrew Whitaker: Jim Murphy’s Clause 4 Moment

Jim  Murphy will be able to use Saturday's conference as a rally of sorts. Picture: John Devlin
Jim Murphy will be able to use Saturday's conference as a rally of sorts. Picture: John Devlin
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The Scottish Labour leader’s rewriting of its constitution is a PR exercise by an astute politician, writes Andrew Whitaker

JIM Murphy is almost certain to win near universal backing at Scottish Labour’s conference this Saturday for the rewriting of Clause 4 – the party’s statement of its aims and values.

Billed as the “biggest change in Scottish Labour’s history” by Mr Murphy, the shake-up will see the party in Scotland make a specific commitment to being a “democratic socialist party and a patriotic party”.

Clearly the move is styled on Tony’s Blair’s controversial rewriting of UK Labour’s Clause 4 some 20 years ago in a radical change that scrapped the party’s commitment to public ownership and backed the market economy in a move seen as the launch of “New Labour” by the former prime minister.

But there are a number of stark differences between Mr Blair and Mr Murphy’s “Clause 4 moments” and attempts to remake their party.

Back in the mid-1990s, when Mr Blair unveiled his plan to rewrite Clause 4 – which appears on all Labour membership cards – his party was on the cusp of a return to power and riding high in the opinion polls.

The then youthful and slightly John F Kennedy-styled Mr Blair was effectively a prime minister-in-waiting – with the electorate by then thoroughly sick of the Tories.

By contrast, Mr Murphy, despite unveiling an impressive array of policies and putting in an effective media performance, is leading a party that looks almost certain to suffer massive and historic losses in Scotland to the SNP in May’s general election.

But what is perhaps even more striking is how little controversy Mr Murphy’s planned rewrite of Scottish Labour’s constitution has generated in contrast to that of Mr Blair’s reform.

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Mr Blair’s moving Labour away from its backing for public ownership provoked a substantial backlash, with some Labour MPs, party members and affiliated unions launching a high-profile internal campaign aimed at retaining the explicitly Socialist commitment. The acclaimed Socialist filmmaker Ken Loach even produced a documentary-style campaign film in opposition to Mr Blair’s plan, in which he forecast – not entirely wrongly – that it was the first step on a lurch to the right by the Labour leader at a time that was some years before controversial policies such as tuition fees and partial privatisations under New Labour.

The shake-up was also to provoke a left-wing split away from Labour, with former miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill launching the Socialist Labour Party some months later after failing to stop Mr Blair’s rewriting of Clause 4, which was penned by the influential social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb and introduced in 1918.

Yet Mr Murphy’s plan to give Labour in Scotland its own specific constitution to counter suggestions that it is less patriotic than the SNP appears to have attracted no internal opposition to speak of.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Mr Blair’s remaking of Labour 20 years ago, there was a genuine issue, with a real shift of the party towards backing for the market economy and some commentators would suggest to the right.

But with Mr Murphy’s new Clause 4 retaining much of what was written back in the mid-1990s by Mr Blair, it’s hard to see how the Scottish Labour leader’s rewrite is anything like as far reaching as that of the one pushed through in 1995.

Labour critics of Mr Blair’s reform such as the late Tony Benn and the former London mayor Ken Livingstone had a genuine case in their opposition to the party’s move away from public ownership and the abandonment of what was an explicit commitment to a more socially just society through the “best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”.

The wording of Mr Blair’s New Labour-style Clause 4 was arguably somewhat waffly with talk of how through the “strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”. Perhaps a statement of the obvious for any party of the left to make.

True, Mr Blair was able to secure backing for his shake-up of the party, with a special Labour conference in May 1995 decisively voting for his proposal. But there was a genuine controversy about what Mr Blair was putting forward and a genuinely radical remaking of Labour for good or ill.

It’s hard to see how anyone on the Labour left could really object to the words Mr Murphy wants added to Clause 4 such as that the “Scottish Labour Party is a democratic socialist party rooted in social justice, which seeks to represent the people of Scotland”. But it’s possible that some Labour and trade union members will not be hugely keen on having the words “patriotic” placed right at the top of a list of the party’s aims and values, not because such individuals want to be anti-patriotic, but because they would not see it as being central to the party’s politics.

Essentially when the Scottish Labour’s faithful gather to Edinburgh for its conference on Saturday, supporters are simply being asked to vote for a “Scottish amendment” to Mr Blair’s version of Clause 4.

Mr Murphy has already made a unilateral declaration of independence from the Labour leadership at Westminster, with his statement that “decisions on what the Scottish Labour Party does are for the Scottish Labour Party. I’m not going to seek permission or seek approval from anywhere else in the UK.”

So while Mr Murphy’s rewriting of Scottish Labour Clause 4 is not harmful to the party in any way and in some ways actually does him credit, it does not fundamentally amount to that much.

To a large extent it’s a PR exercise by an astute politician who will be able to use Saturday’s conference as a rally of sorts.

Mr Murphy inherited a party that is bloodied and bowed after crippling defeats to the Nationalists, with yet more humiliation likely at their hands on 7 May.

But in the policy field Mr Murphy has been quite bold, with some populist, but well thought through and reasonable initiatives such as ruling out tuition fees and a pledge to ban fracking – something that actually forced the SNP government’s hand.

Perhaps going further and embracing other policies, such as a compulsory living wage, would have been a better, more sturdy platform for Mr Murphy’s first Scottish Labour conference as leader rather than the reform of Clause 4, which has somewhat of a limited substance.