Scottish Labour needs a Clause IV moment

A re-stating of our beliefs and aims along the lines of the re-wording of Clause IV  is crucial in enabling us to move on from our defeat in May, says NOEL FOY


It can be said that the modern era of the Labour Party began when Tony Blair, in his first speech as party leader in 1994 said,  “It is time that we had a clear, up-to-date statement of the objects and objectives of our Party.”

Some six months on, a statement more in tune with our times replaced Clause IV of the party founding constitution, preserved intact and unchanged for some 80 years. That statement was clear, concise and unambiguous. It said who we were and what we stood for. Importantly, the statement was in a language and a vocabulary that could be understood by a generation coming to maturity in the closing years of the 20th century.

The significance of this ‘moment’ cannot be underestimated. It showed that the party was prepared to engage afresh in a conversation with a new generation to whom the concept of ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ was utterly meaningless, outdated, irrelevant and arcane. And this was done without in any sense betraying or selling short the history or achievements of our party.

This cultural, ideological and organisational revolution passed by the Scottish Labour Party. Collectively we stayed cocooned in a comfortable past, oblivious to the fact that everything was in a state of flux, including Scotland. We thought that the citadel of Labour was secure and impregnable and that we had the magic formula to secure success and go on as we were. Our people loved us, so why change?

This political, ideological and intellectual failure to modernise and adapt lies at the heart of our collapse. For years we have taken large parts of our support for granted and assumed that they would dance to the old tunes the instant they were played. Apart from being agin’ Maggie Thatcher, the bloody Tories and lining up the SNP along with them we had very little to say that really engaged and captured the imagination of post-devolution Scotland. To quote an old saw from Tawney, also penned in defeat, we knew everything about the state of the roads but had no idea where we were on the map.

In May 2011 something very significant happened in Scotland. We were beaten in every possible way – organisationally, in the media, core message, presentation, manifesto, literature, coherence, consistency. You name it, we got it wrong.

The SNP did better than us in every department. No question about it. Excuses or pleas of mitigation will not do. It wasn’t perfidious Liberals, it wasn’t the media, it wasn’t the leader and it wasn’t the list vote. The roots of our defeat go deeper than that. This surely is the starting point if we are to recover and get on terms with our Nationalist opponents. The question is how to use the experience of defeat to improve in each and every aspect that modern campaigning requires.

At the centre of it all there is surely a political and ideological vacuum. It is a vacuum on the left – where the heart of Scottish politics lies – and that vacuum is being filled by the politics of identity and the right which have, for the moment, out foxed, out fought and trumped the politics of Scottish Labour.

Karl Rove, a master political strategist who won the US Presidency for George W. Bush said this: “Our success springs from our ideas…we are a party of ideas – and ideas have consequences… for decades, Democrats were setting the agenda, the pace of change, and the visionary goals. Republicans were simply reacting to them. But times change – and this President and today’s Republican Party are shaping history, not trying to stop it. Together we are articulating a compelling vision of a better world.”

Note the last line and learn the lessons. Barack Obama did: he won and progressive opinion around the world cheered!  We can win too by articulating a compelling, inclusive and positive vision of a better Scotland and a better way forward than Nationalists can possibly offer.

This is why we need a ‘Clause IV moment’. We should spell out a new definition of what it means to be a democratic socialist in 21st century, post-devolution Scotland. Such a statement must be tough, robust and based on the unshakeable conviction that the politics of egalitarianism, solidarity and fraternity are universal and transcend the politics of identity, boundaries, borders and nationalism. Difficult yes, but not impossible.

When we have a new leader, whoever she or he is, we will need this statement as a firm foundation on which to re-build our party, galvanise our membership and rally all of those Scots hostile to the meaningless fragmentation, disruption and disunity on offer by Alex Salmond and his party.

No-one knows how long Noel Foy worked as an organiser for the Scottish Labour Party, but rumours abound that his relationship with Keir Hardie was tense. He’s now retired, lives in Haddington and is still fighting the good fight.

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7 thoughts on “Scottish Labour needs a Clause IV moment

  1. Couldn’t agree more Noel. It was clear to me after our horrendous night in May that we needed to rebuild from first priniple. It was inevitable that a blame game would be the kneejerk reaction to our failure to engage with the Scottish people.

    For me, the road to recovery must be fundamental. We need to begin by agreeing on the core values that bind us together as Labour Party members. These core values need to be re-examined and rearticulated.

    As a matter of survival, we must create the environment in which this debate can take place in a robust and challenging manner. This is the foundation we need to begin the process of creating policies which excite and motivate the Scottish electorate (and indeed our members). Structures, strategies and communication are all important, but are only there to serve the ambition of putting our ideas into action.

  2. Excellent article. I completely agree.

    I’d also like to add something, if I may.

    There’s a very interesting question asked in Quentin Tarantino’s film, Pulp Fiction, as part of a ‘getting to know you’ game: “Do you listen, or do you wait to speak?”

    For all the talk of politicians on all sides of wanting to ‘listen to the electorate’, how many of them genuinely do so, and how many are just waiting to speak?

    Any party wanting to genuinely win (back) public support needs to think about this question very carefully, IMO. Waiting to speak is almost reflex for far too many of them, because of the way parliaments work. But how can they have a conversation with the electorate if they are not listening, but merely waiting to speak?

    Labour is, by definition, the party of the working wo/man; the ordinary person in the street. But when was the last time Labour truly listened to what the ordinary wo/man in the street had to say?

    The Conservatives and the LibDems are guilty of this, too, make no mistake. But in Scotland, both parties are an irrelevance.

    Why do the SNP do so well? Because they seem to be listening. They have their main agenda, yes, but they are trying to reach that by reaching out to ordinary Scots in a way the modern Labour party has forgotten how to do.

    Labour once replaced the old Liberal party in one of the most successful political coups of all time, wiping it out down to a tiny rump of what it once was. Labour did that by speaking with the voice of the ordinary working person.

    But whose voice does Labour speak with now? Who are your true constituency? And whose voice do you WANT to speak with?

    All questions Labour desperately needs to answer, IMO.

    Until you do, the SNP will always have the upper hand.

  3. Wow, one of the best essays I’ve seen written about the future for Scottish Labour. We do need to stop being reactive and start to come up with winning ideas. Labour isn’t dead yet, but we will be if the next leader doesn’t realise and act on the points that you make …

  4. “And this was done without in any sense betraying or selling short the history or achievements of our party.”


  5. I align with elliot kane. We need to reconnect with core voters. We appear to have a fixation with one message for example. I want to debate an independent scottish labour party. I may be a minority of one but in any discussions I have had my views are simply brushed away. The concept may be too close to the Tory proposal for some but I think it has merit.
    The message – listen more!

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