Clause IV

What was clause IV?

This article historically refers to part of the 1918 text of the UK Labour party’s written constitution, which had set out the aims and values of the party. For the first time, the party officially stated its socialist element in an official document.


The original version of clause IV of Labour’s constitution – drafted in November 1917 by Sidney Webb, the co-founder of the London School of Economics and early member of the Fabian Society – was adopted by the party in 1918.

The clause stated:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

This clause was seen by by supporters as a straightforward commitment to nationalisation or the “common ownership”, yet became a point of controversy later in 20th-century Britain.


What is its significance?

The reason why clause IV was historically noteworthy was because it was seen as the party’s commitment to socialism. Press at the time wrote of how significant the new constitution of the post-war political party was. In an article in the Manchester Guardian, it was said this was the first time a party had declared it’s “definitely socialistic” principles.

Labour’s 1918 constitution. Manchester Guardian, 27 February 1918. Read in full.

Growth of opposition

Yet the belief in this core principle began to be challenged within the party. After losing the 1959 general election, and in the era of the cold war, Hugh Gaitskell, the then Labour leader, thought public opposition to nationalisation had led to the party’s poor performance. He proposed to amend clause IV.

The left fought back, however, and defeated moves for change: symbolically, in fact, it was agreed that the clause was to be included on party membership cards.

Factors such as the economic crisis of the 70s, defeats suffered by the trade union movement, and the decline in influence of the British Communist party, led to a strengthening in the position of Labour party members who were opposed to Marxist ideology.

So what was the ‘clause IV moment’?

This time-honoured commitment to mass nationalisation was overhauled 20 years ago when Tony Blair, then Labour leader, won a controversial vote to amend clause IV.

The vote, held at the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, where the original clause had been adopted in 1918, marked a momentous victory for Blair and the New Labour project.

Winning this vote among members was seen to be a green light for the Labour leader to modernise the party, making it more attractive to “middle England” ahead of the 1997 general election.

Speaking afterwards, Blair said:

Let no one say radical politics is dead. Today a new Labour party is being born.

For those on the leftwing of the party, however, the vote only confirmed how willing Labour was to abandon its socialist past to get elected. At the time, the Defend Clause IV campaign said: “There is little in Blair’s proposed new clause to which Liberal Democrats or even many Tories could not subscribe.”

In the amended, and current, values the constitution of the Labour party states that it is a democratic socialist party that believes “power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few”.

Its text crucially now states that the party is committed to a “dynamic economy”, with the new clause IV stating that:

Labour will work in pursuit of these aims, with trade unions, co-operative societies and other affiliated organisations and also with voluntary organisations, consumer groups and other representative bodies.

This therefore signalled the shift in Labour’s values. In its 1996 manifesto New Labour, New Life For Britain, the party set out its “third way” or centrist approach to policies.

It was repackaged as newly reformed party, which had adopted a red rose as its logo in 1986, that had altered clause IV and now endorsed market economics. Many political commentators see this ideological shift as key to Labour’s successive electoral victories from 1997 to 2010