TONY BLAIR, the leader of Britain's Labour party, stunned and angered traditionalists at the party's annual conference Tuesday by calling for a historic economic policy shift to the center.
In a bid to end 15 years of Conservative party rule, Mr. Blair advocates abandoning one of Labour's socialist totems: Clause 4. The clause makes state control of industry and commerce a central policy objective.
The text of the clause is printed on every Labour membership card. But Blair's advisers say its presence there deters many potential members from joining the party.
Blair argues that scrapping Clause 4 of Labour's 76-year-old constitution is vital if Labour is to regain political power. But party traditionalists claim that he is betraying socialist values. Past attempts by reformers to get rid of Clause 4 have always been defeated by Labour's rank and file when put to a vote. But Blair appears to have the backing of powerful union leaders this time around.
Blair and a small group of reformers say they plan to publish a draft statement of Labour principles in a few weeks and call for a debate throughout the party about its future economic doctrine. They will then ask for the party to adopt a new constitution at its conference next year.
Blair, addressing his first party conference since his election earlier this year, received a huge ovation when he declared: ``This is a modern party living in an age of change. It requires a modern constitution.''
But opponents of reform later swore to fight the attempt to update Labour's doctrine and image. Ken Livingstone, a left wing Labour member of Parliament, said dropping a commitment to public ownership would be ``exactly the same as if somebody came along to the British Army and said, `We think you should march into battle without the Union Jack [the British flag] because it's outmoded.' ''
Dennis Skinner, a left wing member of Labour's national executive board, staunchly opposed Blair's move, saying attempts to change the constitution could lose the party the next election.
Blair and other modernizers take a directly opposite view. The Labour leader told the annual conference that he favored a series of economic policy changes, including a tax system that would help the poor and needy and revitalize British industry.
To change popular conceptions that Labour stands for outdated economic and political values, he insisted, it was essential to adopt a constitution that ``says what we are in terms that the public cannot misunderstand and the Conservatives cannot misrepresent.''
Blair, who took over the Labour leadership following the death of John Smith, another reformer, used his conference address to sketch a broad strategy for regaining office at the general election about two years from now.
Claiming that Britain was weary of the present ``inept'' government, he argued that Labour must change its image if it is to be assured of popular support among middle- and lower-income voters who voted for the Conservative party in the 1992 general election.
Despite the fury his assault on Clause 4 evoked among left wing party members, Blair appears to have a good chance of getting his way. Powerful trade union leaders said Tuesday they were willing to back the change.
Paul Gallagher, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, may have summed up mainstream union feeling when he said: ``Scrapping Clause 4 is very much on the agenda. There are no sacred cows.'' Trade union support for a rewritten constitution would ensure its passage when the issue comes to the vote at the next party conference.
Advisers close to Blair say he intends to argue that the Clause 4 commitment has become merely symbolic. During the 1980s, Labour went along with Thatcher administration policies, which privatized large chunks of British industry, including oil and gas production, British Airways, and the country's principal airports.
Blair is expected to attack current plans to privatize the Post Office and is hostile to selling off the national railway, known as British Rail. His more traditional stance on these issues may help to convince Labour's ``hard left'' that his policies differ significantly from those of the Conservatives.
Media reaction to the new Blair economic message was almost universally favorable. The London Times editorialized: ``The decision to abandon Clause 4 removes a central proof of past insincerity.''
The Financial Times, in the past often hostile to Labour economic policies, said: ``In setting out a broad framework within which the process of change must continue, Blair has made an impressive start.'' It added: ``He is to be congratulated.''