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Five quotes about centre-left politics in Britain

Denis Healey, 1959 Labour Conference speech excerpt from his autobiography, The Time of My Life (1989):

"I pointed to the growing gap between the Labour activist and the voter:

    'Hugh Gaitskell was absolutely right when he said yesterday that what gets cheers at this conference does not necessarily get votes at elections. If it did we would have won Devonport [the seat which Michael Foot had just lost]. There are far too many people who … want to luxuriate complacently in moral righteousness in Opposition. But who is going to pay the price for their complacency?

    You can take the view that it is better to give up half a loaf if you cannot get the whole loaf, but the point is that it is not we who are giving up the half loaf. In Britain it is the unemployed and old age pensioners, and outside Britain there are millions of people in Asia and Africa who desperately need a Labour Government in this country to help them. If you take the view that it is all right to stay in Opposition so long as your Socialist heart is pure, you will be 'all right, Jack'. You will have your TV set, your motor car and your summer holidays on the Continent and still keep your Socialist soul intact. The people who pay the price for your sense of moral satisfaction are the Africans, millions of them, being slowly forced into racial slavery; the Indians and the Indonesians dying of starvation.

    We are not just a debating society. We are not just a Socialist Sunday School. We are a great movement that wants to help real people living on this earth at the present time. We shall never be able to help them unless we get power. We shall never get power unless we close the gap between our active workers and the average voter in the country.'

Thirty years later I am still making the same speech."

Roy Jenkins, BBC's Dimbleby Lecture excerpt, 22 Nov 1979:

"The paradox is that we need more change accompanied by more stability of direction. It is a paradox but not a contradiction. Too often we have superficial and quickly reversed political change without much purpose or underlying effect. This is not the only paradox. We need the innovating stimulus of the free market economy without either the unacceptable brutality of its untrammelled distribution of rewards or its indifference to unemployment. This is by no means an impossible combination. It works well in a number of countries. It means that you accept the broad line of division between the public and the private sectors and don't constantly threaten those in the private sector with nationalisation or expropriation.

You also make sure that the state knows its place, not only in relation to the economy, but in relation to the citizen. You are in favour of the right of dissent and the liberty of private conduct. You are against unnecessary centralisation and bureaucracy. You want to devolve decision-making wherever you sensibly can. You want parents in the school system, patients in the health service, residents in the neighbourhood, customers in both nationalised and private industry, to have as much say as possible. You want the nation to be self-confident and outward-looking, rather than insular, xenophobic and suspicious. You want the class system to fade without being replaced either by an aggressive and intolerant proletarianism or by the dominance of the brash and selfish values of a "get rich quick" society. You want the nation, without eschewing necessary controversy, to achieve a renewed sense of cohesion and common purpose.

Betty Boothroyd on Tony Benn in 1981, The Autobiography (2001):

"Tony [Benn] proved a valuable supporter of mine when I became Speaker, and I acknowledged his seniority and his right to express minority opinions by calling him regularly to speak. But we were at loggerheads in those desperate times. Declaring my support for Denis [Healey], I objected to candidates who offered simple solutions to complex problems and who promised to transform society in a matter of weeks. 'In a democracy, political life is not easy. Nor, in a democracy, is intensity of commitment a substitute for the wider breadth of support needed to return a Labour government.' I mentioned no names, but did not need to."

Chris Mullin, A View From The Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin; Preface, xii (Spring 2009):

"What kind of politician am I? Had I been asked when I first went into Parliament, I might glibly have replied that I saw it as my mission 'to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable'. But over the years I have learned that there is more to politics than that. If you are to stand a chance of forming a government and to do that you have to take with you a swathe of the comfortable. It follows, therefore, that in an age of majority affluence, any serious politician has to spend a fair amount of time attending to the needs of the comfortable. Today, if I were asked to define my politics, I would reply that I am 'a socialist with a small "s", a liberal with a small "l", a green with a small "g" and a Democrat with a capital "D"'."

Alan Milburn, Centre for Social Justice speech, 24 Jun 2015:

"Political parties have to exist for a purpose and so do party leaders. Without it they are nothing. Great leaders always have a big purpose. For Churchill it was victory in war, for Thatcher victory against a stifling state. For Blair it was victory against old-fashioned attitudes and institutions that held our country back. Today, to be blunt, voters are no longer sure what Labour is for. They do not see a compelling core purpose. In that regard we are not alone. Across the developed world, the Right is in the ascendancy buoyed by the collapse of communism, the grip of globalisation and the fall-out from the financial crisis. The Left has been wrong-footed, uncertain how to apply our traditional values in this new world. As always we get into trouble when we confuse the ends we believe in and the means we deploy. The one remains fixed - our commitment to fairness and justice, our insight that we achieve more together than we ever can alone. But the other - our means - has to be flexible if we are to succeed in the modern world. It is this calibration between what is fixed and what should be flexible that the centre-left has found most difficult to get right. And I think explains why across the developed world it has been losing more elections than it has been winning."

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