Labour’s Original Clause 4 (Public Ownership)

The Origins of Clause Four

by Pete Whiteleg

This year’s [1994] Labour Party Conference appeared to be taking a fairly predictable course, no major policy upsets, no damaging personality clashes. In many respects it was looking as if it may be one of the most anodyne Conferences in recent memory. For the most part Tony Blair had remained aloof from the proceedings, with the media mainly fawning over the new “Clintonised” and glowing Cherie Blair. The launch of “New Labour” had appeared blemish free.

On the Tuesday Conference was expecting great things from Tony Blair, his first major Conference speech, his opportunity to outline his political objectives for a re-emerging and forceful Labour Party. Everything appeared to be going exactly according to plan, the spin doctors appeared to have done their job well. Then, about two thirds of the way through the speech came the paragraph that was to send shock waves through the Party and open divisions like never before.

“I believe it is time we had an up to date statement of the objects and objectives of our Party. John Prescott and I, as leader and deputy leader of our Party will propose such a statement to the NEC.”

Blair’s agenda was now all too clear. Clause 4, the central pillar of Labour’s Constitution since 1918, was to go. At the end of his speech, the usual standing ovation. But, as one delegate so accurately put it, the greatest sound in the Conference hall was not that of the applause, but of pennies dropping at the realisation of what Blair had said.

Confirmation, if it was needed, came on the Thursday in a speech given by the outgoing General Secretary, Larry Whitty.

In this “farewell” speech, Whitty made what 1 can only describe as the outlandish, and false, accusation that the acceptance of Clause 4 in 1918 was the result of a middle class stitch up, perpetrated by a few middle class activists, and was essentially undemocratic because no debate or vote was recorded in 1918.

Clause 4, or to be accurate Clause 4 part IV, (there are seven parts to Clause 4), has been the central constitutional pillar of Socialism within the Party for the past 76 years. And except for one or two occasions (1960 being the last) has only been known to most members as the wording on their membership cards.

Clause 4 was drawn up at the very inception of the Labour Party proper . Until 1918 the Party was a federation of affiliated organisations, each with its own structure and rules. A contemporary press report at the time gives the organisations and their members as: 120 trade unions with 2,400,000 members; 240 trades councils and local Labour Parties; Independent Labour Party, 33,000 members; British Socialist Party, 10,000 members; Fabian Society, 2,140 members; Women’s Labour League, 5,500 members; Tunbridge Wells Co-operative Society, 2,608 members.

If the Labour Party was ever to gain power it was necessary to weld these organisations into a single unified body with a single electoral programme.

The Party also had an uneasy and complicated relationship with the Liberal Party. It had participated in Lloyd George’s wartime coalition cabinet. That co-operation broke down in 1917 with the resignation of Arthur Henderson. The overwhelming majority in the Party now believed that Labour needed to create its own identity with a clear ideology and a new constitution.

The drafting of the constitution was referred to an NEC sub-committee of eight. The key members of this committee being Arthur Henderson, Ramsay Macdonald (later the first Labour Prime Minister), and Sidney Webb. Arthur Henderson was now the driving force behind the constitutional developments. Henderson was a Non- Conformist trade unionist (Iron Founders), born in Glasgow but brought up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His early political life was as a “Lib-Lab”, but his experience of coalition in Lloyd George’s cabinet had made him determined to fashion Labour into a separate political force.

Webb, on the other hand, was the intellectual guru of the Fabian Society who, in 1916, had been persuaded to become the Fabian representative on the Labour Party Executive. Webb was soon accepted as a member of the inner core. In Arthur Henderson (who had succeeded Macdonald as Party Secretary) he found someone he could work with effectively, just as he had once done with Shaw in the Fabian Society.

With Henderson and Macdonald he drafted Labour’s war aims, and he and Henderson drew up the constitution for the Labour Party, under which for the first time it would be able to recruit individual members and create its own organisations in the constituencies. The sub-committee reported to the NEC in October 1917, and the constitution as a whole was referred to a Special Conference in Nottingham in January 1918.

The main draft of the constitution given to the NEC in 1917 did not concern its ideological outlook but was, instead, concerned with its organisational structure.

Originally there were two drafts of Clause 4, part IV.

The first being:

“To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry by the common ownership of all monopolies and essential raw materials.”

And the second:

“To secure for the producers 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 and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

The first draft was Henderson’s and the second was the proposal from Webb, and the one which was finally adopted. However, records of any discussions as to why do not exist, but it was later reported dial Henderson was not worried one way or the other which proposal was adopted. Just as there are no records concerning any discussion of Clause 4 in the minutes of the NEC meeting in October 1917, there are also no records of any debate concerning Clause 4 at the Special Nottingham Conference in 1918.

In fact there were four Conferences held in 1918 – January, February, June and November. The first three were held while Britain was still engaged in the War. At none of these Conferences is there any reference to a debate about Clause 4. The main debates concerned the Allies’ War aims, post-War reconstruction, anti- profiteering, housing and health care. The only debates about Labour’s constitution concerned membership and internal organisation.

Changing Labour’s constitution to include individual membership was not as straightforward as it sounds. Many, particularly in the trade unions and some Socialist Societies, maintained dial there was no need for individual members. It was perfectly possible for people to join a trade union or one of the affiliated Socialist Societies or the Co-op movement. It was Henderson who pointed out that:

“Agricultural constituencies had very little access to trade unionism or Socialist Societies, and yet they were in dire need of some form of Labour organisation. There was evidence dial they wanted Labour candidates. They were only likely to get it if we are able to say, ‘come along with us, our platform is broad enough and our movement big enough to take you all’. That was the way to success.”

[Until this point 78 candidates was the most the Party had managed – there were 750 seats.]

Henderson wanted constituency organisation and candidates in every constituency. He believed, quite rightly, it was the only way to achieve power. One of many arguments in support of Henderson was put from the floor by Mr. G. Oliver (Newcastle LRC).

“It was all very well to argue in the region of generalities, but what were they to do in Newcastle with four constituencies instead of two, with thousands of young men who had no political allegiances up to date, with women who were enfranchised for the first time. Were their early lives to be exploited in the interests of the other parties. If the constitution was not altered these young men and women would be garnered by the oilier parties. What was happening in Europe today was making Labour politicians by the thousands. There were new conditions and new hopes, they were in presence of new responsibilities; and to quote the Scriptures ‘the Fields are white with the harvest’, where are the reapers.”

The constitution was agreed.


A Working State

Labour was now able to set its own agenda, distinct from that of the oilier two parties. Britain had entered the War with a Government firmly attached to the principles of laissez-faire, free market economics.

Nothing was to interfere with the ability of capitalists to operate in the market place free from regulations or restrictions. But conditions during the War had necessitated change. Inexorably, because of the need to conduct the War, the State had taken control of much of our manufacturing industry, the ports, transport, and labour, and it had rationed food.

The slate and its apparatus had grown in size during the four years of war. Departments, which before the War had only a few hundred employees, now had thousands. Through these Ministries millions of workers were either directly or indirectly controlled, and the capitalists were, in part, prevented from making super profits.

In 1918, the Labour Party published a pamphlet by Sidney Webb which in many respects set the political agenda for years to come. An agenda that was only reached by the 1945-51 Attlee Government.

The pamphlet was entitled: Labour And The New Social Order. Report On Reconstruction. Much of it deals with the immediate concerns of post-War Britain. But it also contains the kernel of those beliefs embodied in Clause 4:

“[With the aid of the State] we must ensure that what is presently to be built up is a new social order, based not on Fighting but on fraternity – not on competitive struggle for the means of base life, but on a deliberately planned cooperation in production and distribution for the benefit of all who participate by hand or by brain – not on the utmost possible inequality of riches, but on a Systematic approach towards a healthy equality of material circumstances for every person born into the world.”

Webb goes on 10 maintain that securing employment for all must be made a “national obligation” and should in no circumstances be handed over to “committees of philanthropists or benevolent organisations”. And, he continued:

“It has always been a fundamental principle of the Labour Party that, in a modem industrial community, it is one of the foremost obligations of the government to fund, for every willing worker, whether by brain or by hand, productive work at standard rates”.

The Labour Party used to believe that government should take steps to prevent unemployment, rather than allowing unemployment to occur in vast numbers and then devise policies to suit.

The Stale could therefore ameliorate the wilder excess of capitalism. Britain could become a much fairer and wealthier place to live. The war had shown the Labour Party that the State itself, by controlling industry, could ensure a greater distribution of wealth throughout Britain. Profiteering could be curbed, workers would receive the correct wage for their endeavours and the bosses could not get super-rich on the misery of the workers.

Labour had now established itself as a distinct party with a new approach to politics. In 1932, Arthur Henderson, the prime mover in forming this identity, wrote a pamphlet entitled, Labour In Action. It sets out clearly and concisely the ideological backdrop to Clause IV. Below is an extract from the pamphlet.



“It is with the present and the future that we must concern ourselves.

“It is not only necessary that we ourselves should have clearly before us our aims and policies and the methods by which we propose to achieve them, but we must present them boldly and frankly to the public generally in order that they may understand the purposes we have set before us. We ourselves must now, and be able to explain to others, the broad plans we have decided upon, or may from tune to time decide upon, for accomplishing our task.

“In our efforts to obtain parliamentary opportunity and parliamentary responsibility we must constantly endeavour to impress upon our own supporters and upon the public at large the chief purposes for which Labour intends to exercise legislative and administrative powers.

“What, then, are the aims of organised Labour?

“I use the phrase ‘organised Labour’ quite deliberately. The Constitution set up by Annual Party Conferences laid down in explicit terms years ago that the Labour Party, in seeking to give effect to the principles and policies approved by the Conference, was to co-operate with the Trades Union Congress and kindred organisations. There must, therefore, be the closest collaboration with the General Council, representing the organised industrial workers, and with the Co-operative organisations, representing the great movement of organised consumers.

“However close and sympathetic that collaboration may have been in the past, we hope, in fact we are determined, that it will become even more intimate in the future, in order that the power of the workers as citizens, as producers, and as consumers may be effectively organised for the triumph of democratic principles and ideas.

“I cannot admit for a moment the suggestion that recent events call for any change in our fundamental principles.

“Indeed, circumstances and conditions – both national and international – have but confirmed us in our view, have given a new impetus to the need for bold and drastic Socialist remedies. They have made the call to an immediate and definite advance to Socialism more imperative than ever. Hard facts reinforce the essential truth of our position. Our Movement has, over a long period, insisted upon the absolute necessity of approaching national and international problems in a new spirit and with a realist outlook.”



“How could it be otherwise?

“Have we not always recognised that the existing form of organisation both of society and of industry must be changed because it has failed to satisfy the legitimate human needs and aspirations of the majority of the people? Convinced that this was so, the Trades Union Congress – with a knowledge of the long and painful history of the struggle of the Unions to win economic justice and security for the workers – declared long ago in favour of the Socialisation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.

“In 1918 the Labour Party included in its Constitution the declaration that one of its objects was to secure for the workers by. hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution of those fruits 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.

“That surely means that the aim and fundamental purpose of organised Labour is completely to transform the existing system by measures of Socialist reconstruction, to replace it by a new social order, and to substitute co-ordinated planning for the anarchy of individualistic and unorganised competition.



“We believe that the supreme purpose of an acceptable system of society is to ensure to all its members equality of opportunity not only to contribute to the spiritual, social and economic enrichment of the whole community, but to share in the enjoyment of the fruits of that common and collective effort.

“We cannot be blind to the fact that multitudes of men and women and their dependents are helpless victims of the present system, a system which denies them not only the enjoyment of tolerable conditions, but only too often also the opportunity to make their contribution to the commonweal.

“It dooms them to conditions of existence that are a standing condemnation of the system and a source of injury both to themselves and to the community as a whole.

“It is responsible for what is called the class struggle – a condition of society which inevitably arises from social and economic injustices that are inseparable from the operation of industries and services for private gain, and represent the violation of the principle of equal human rights.

“The Labour Movement must clearly aim at carrying through by legislation and administration in national and local life such changes as are essential to securing a higher standard of human well-being for the people.

“We must seize every opportunity to go boldly forward with schemes of Socialist reorganisation, and in addition, we must be unsparing in our endeavours to remove by all interim expedients the spectre of want and insecurity which has taken up a seemingly permanent lodgement in the homes of so many of our people.”

In the days when Labour was seen as a Socialist Party and a party of the workers either “by brain or by hand”, Clause 4 was never seen as a problem. Clause 4 was a constitutional objective to be achieved, not in the lifetime of any parliament, but the long-term objective of the Party.

Socialism was seen in terms of policies and the pronouncements of the Party’s representatives. I suspect that the major reason there was very little discussion of the wording of Clause 4 in 1918 is that it was uncontentious.

The Socialism of the Labour Party was not judged on the basis of its constitution, but by the speeches and actions of its leaders. It was policies that counted. Labour politicians and activists were openly Socialist and they preached Socialism. What did a 52-word Statement matter within Labour’s constitution? Labour wanted a new social order.

Tony Blair, on the other hand, does not speak in these terms. He talks in terms of Social-ism, and no doubt Social-ists. His brand of Socialism is talking politics over a nice cocktail party, or one of these expensive dinners at the Hilton with those nice men from the Institute of Directors or the City.

Tony Blair’s objective is change without principle, politics of the lowest common denominator. The framers of Labour’s original constitution, Henderson, Webb, and Macdonald, believed that a democratic and engaged State had a positive role to play in British society.

For Tony Blair, the ideas embedded in Clause 4 have become an embarrassment. He accepts the Thatcherite agenda of a minimal State and free markets and anything that gets in his way, or reminds him that it was not always thus with Labour, must go. His policies and rhetoric only making passing references to Socialism and, with a quiescent left and a supine National Executive Committee, Clause 4 is the final hurdle in creating ‘new Labour’.


This article appeared in January 1995, in Issue 45 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and