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Of all the candidates vying for the party leadership, Lisa Nandy appears to have put the most thought into why Labour was so badly beaten in the general election. She has been saying it for a few years too: the party has lost touch with a large slice of its working-class base in the North and the Midlands. 

That is surely understood by now. What is more controversial is Nandy’s conviction that Labour would be honouring its own past (and not just reconnecting with lost working-class voters) if it became more “socially conservative”.

Social conservatism tends to be something of a hollow phrase when Labour politicians use it – probably because it’s difficult for a social democrat to stare unblinkingly into the face of social conservatism without feeling at least some revulsion for what it might mean in practice. What happens to gay marriage? What happens to ethnic minorities? What happens to corporal punishment in schools – and, indeed, what happens to capital punishment in the state?

When Nandy talks about social conservatism, she tends to steer clear of these questions. She shifts the conversation to ‘community’ instead.  The social conservative, in her prospectus, is dedicated to giving post-industrial and non-metropolitan towns more power and “preserving the elements of working-class community… that anchor people.”

The idea of empowering communities is interesting, though far from straightforward, and I’ll come to that shortly.

Is social conservatism part of the Labour tradition?

But first, what should we make of Nandy’s idea that Labour would rediscover its lost soul if it went down the social conservative route? Last summer she told a reporter at UnHerd that “social conservatism has always been a very, very strong part of the Labour tradition,” and that it represents “a very strong strand of socialism and especially working-class socialism.”

You can sympathise with Nandy here. The idea of social conservatism is not immediately attractive to most Labour party members and nor would it appeal to the party’s new ‘heartlands’ in London and the university cities. So what better way to dignify the term than describe social conservatism as a return to Labour’s socialist roots?

But is it true? Well, the term ‘social conservatism’ was never used by the Labour party in the past. Its minting is fairly recent. But it doesn’t really describe any elements in the Labour tradition or British socialism either (or even “working-class socialism” if there is such a distinct entity). The Labour tradition was economically radical, but also socially progressive – or socially disruptive, which is even trickier for Nandy.

Throughout its history the party has certainly had to deal with a good deal of social conservatism in its working-class vote, but it has rarely sought to appease it. Labour people were typically impatient with the “cake of custom” and what they imagined to be the reactionary consequences of ingrained habit in working-class communities. These customs and habits were something to be overcome, not flattered. Likewise, working-class culture held few attractions to them and where things like pubs and taverns were concerned, socialists tended to want to reform them away or, particularly in Scotland, ban liquor altogether.

One of the hardest sells was over compulsory secondary education to the age of 16. This was a Labour policy since 1918 that promised to blow open the communities its MPs represented but which – notoriously – was opposed by a high percentage of its working-class supporters.

This was especially the case in Lancashire where Lisa Nandy has her seat – mainly because keeping kids in school threatened to deprive working-class families of the income derived from ‘half-timers’ in the cotton mills. Many a Lancashire Labour MP banged their heads in frustration over this, including Allen Parkinson (Wigan’s Labour MP between the wars), a former coal miner and school governor.

But the party did not relent. Labour’s educational reforms might have been “elitist” in the sense that they lacked popular backing, but there was absolutely no way they were going to be dropped. Secondary education was considered to be a good thing for working-class children, regardless of whether their parents wanted it or not. And it would be made compulsory under Labour.

This is the kind of attitude – educative if you are being generous, elitist if you are being unkind – that led the Harold Wilson governments to support a raft of liberal reforms on race relations, family life, homosexual rights and gender equality which did not command widespread support in its heartlands. Many working-class communities, indeed, were hostile to the changes. But Labour’s instinct, honed over the years, was to plough ahead, do the right thing, and trust in the educative power of legislation and the advocacy skills of all its members – from MPs, to local councillors, to union reps.

The idea that Labour existed to ‘preserve’ working-class communities would have made no sense either. In fact the word ‘community’ had little traction in Labour circles. ‘Modernity’ did far more of the heavy lifting. Even George Lansbury, the most sentimental leader Labour has ever had, could become pitiless when considering ‘community’. “I do not want Dowlais or Merthyr, Poplar or Canning Town, the Black Country or the coalfields of Lanarkshire or anywhere like that re-planned” he wrote in 1934. “My object would be to sweep away these and similar places.” The pit villages, too, would all have to be “abolished” when a Labour government assumed power. Miners would move lock stock and barrel to newly-built garden cities. 

Is social conservatism the same as devolving power to communities?

What Labour wanted to do was empower workers, not necessarily communities. It was the mine and the factory that British socialists hoped to democratise, not the town or village as such. This brings us back to Nandy’s signature policy of wanting to devolve power to local assemblies, which was also articulated in the UnHerd interview, and subsequently in her BBC cross-examination by Andrew Neil.

In both instances, Nandy was eloquent and interesting. But each time she dodged the question of what would happen if a newly-empowered community obeyed its social conservative instincts and voted for something that the Labour party fundamentally disapproved of. Would refugees be forced out of a particular town?  Would wind turbines be taken down?

Nandy declined to answer these questions, saying instead that if working-class communities like her own were given more power and more authority it would activate their liberal and universal instincts. The refugees would be welcome and the turbines would continue to rotate.

This is a nice thought. It may even be true. But it isn’t social conservatism.

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