Sacred Cow Is Ditched By British Labour Party

LABOUR Party leader Tony Blair says it is a defining moment in his party's long and turbulent history. His left-wing adversaries within the Labour movement are calling it the end of socialism in Britain.

Mr. Blair says the achievement that made his party ''fit for government in the 21st century'' is Labour's decision to ditch a long-standing commitment to the Marxist idea of ''common ownership'' of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.

By a majority of 21 votes to 3, the committee endorsed the need, instead, to encourage a ''thriving private sector'' in a ''dynamic market economy.''

By getting such overwhelming support for rewriting Clause 4 of Labour's constitution, Blair says he is now confident that rank-and-file members will endorse the change at a party conference on April 29. Left-wing party activists and trade unionists insist that they still intend to fight the change, but most are privately reconciled to having lost a highly symbolic battle for what Blair himself has called ''the heart and soul of the Labour Party.''

But for the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, ''The new Clause could have been written by Conservative Party officials.''

Before submitting his redraft to the executive committee, Blair had widely canvassed for the 340-word formulation on Labour's aims and values among party activists and supporters.

At a party conference in Scotland March 11, delegates strongly backed his market-economy formula, despite an attempt by left-wingers to get it thrown out.

Before the committee vote, Labour officials disclosed that soundings among rank-and-file supporters and trade unions had garnered wide support.

After the vote, Blair said the new statement was a ''modern vision of democratic socialism.''

Blair and his supporters have made no secret of their fear that as long as the old Clause 4 remained in the constitution -- and was printed on party membership cards -- the Conservatives, despite their current unpopularity, could win the next general election due in about two years' time.

The existing Clause 4 was drafted in 1918 when the fledgling Labour Party still regarded itself as a heavily socialist movement. In the 1950s, Hugh Gaitskell, a moderate Labour Party leader, tried to have the commitment dropped but was defeated.

Since then, Labour has continued to fight general elections on the promise that it would nationalize or renationalize key industries. Along with opposition to membership of the European Union and commitment to unilateral disarmament (both now dropped), the old Clause 4 was widely seen as an albatross around Labour's electoral neck.

The cutting of Labour's links to Marxism seems likely to have an impact far beyond Britain. The tenets of British socialism were adopted by left-wing parties in many parts of Europe, and in countries such as India and Australia where the parliamentary tradition remains strong.

Welcoming the new formulation, the left-leaning Guardian newspaper editorialized: ''This is Labour's break with Marxism. It is British Labour's equivalent of the German Social Democrats' Bad Godesberg Declaration of 1959.'' At Bad Godesberg, the Social Democrats turned their backs on state socialism and embraced a mixed economy.

Labour's new Clause 4 omits any specific commitment to full employment, but proposes that ''power, wealth, and opportunity'' should be ''in the hands of the many, not the few.''

''Thomas Jefferson would have written it more elegantly,'' says political analyst Peter Riddell, but the formula ''marks a clean break with Labour's past.... A powerful weapon in the hands of Conservatives... to frighten voters has been removed,'' he adds.

Leading Conservatives argue the new Clause 4 does little to change Labour's basic political approach. Michael Portillo, the employment secretary, said it consisted of ''weasel words'' that could not disguise Labour's ''commitment to higher taxes and government intervention.''

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