Bradford-born Lord Greaves: We rebuilt the Lib Dems with grassroots campaigning before, we can do it again now

It is difficult to find anyone with more liberal blood running through their veins that Tony Greaves.

The Bradford-born peer has been involved in the movement for 60 years, since long before the modern Liberal Democrat Party - of which he remains a member - was conceived.

And it is by looking back at those days of grassroots of liberalism and community campaigning that the modern day Lib Dems can start to build a movement again, according to the veteran activist.

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Proudly described as a “radical”, 78-year-old Lord Greaves said he first became interested in politics at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, in Wakefield, with a group of friends.

Bradford-born Lib Dem peer Tony Greaves. Photo: Liberal DemocratsBradford-born Lib Dem peer Tony Greaves. Photo: Liberal Democrats
Bradford-born Lib Dem peer Tony Greaves. Photo: Liberal Democrats

“The late 1950s, which seems like prehistoric times now, was a time for me when the Tories had been in power for quite a long time,” he said.

“Most of the 1950s in a very general sense seemed old fashioned for the day and the economy was beginning to get out of control, and the Labour Party did not seem to be very effective, it was full of internal disputes - surprise surprise, never happens now does it?

“The Liberal Party was reviving and had a particularly attractive, intelligent and charismatic leader called Jo Grimond, and we thought that it was something to attach yourself to in a very vague sort of general sort of way.”

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Lord Greaves, who now lives in Colne, Lancashire and can see the Yorkshire border three miles away from his home - went to Oxford University and met more liberal friends, attending meetings, and ended up joining what was then the Liberal Party in 1961.

“I actually joined in Wakefield,” he said. “And I remember it was a real coalfields pea soup. It was December and someone sold me a copy of the Liberal News and it advertised a Christmas fair, and I went along to the Methodist Hall in the middle of Wakefield and had to negotiate the street from street lamp to the next streetlamp, it was that bad, but then it was in those days.”

Although Lord Greaves’ parents were not especially political, his grandparents on his father’s side had been active liberals in London’s East End, and joined the Independent Labour Party when it formed in Bradford.

While on his mother’s side his grandfather, a schoolmaster in Eccleshill, was a right wing Conservative.

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“I really don't know if these things matter in particular in people's genes,” Lord Greaves said.

“But there is certainly history on both sides.”

Describing his politics as that of a “left-wing liberal, not a socialist” Lord Graves said he still very much thought of himself as a radical.

He was chairman of the Union of Liberal Students and then active in the Young Liberals, which he said had “a reputation for being radical, and was often dubbed ‘Jo’s Red Guard’”.

“So I was involved in quite a lot of leftish campaigns like anti-apartheid, and we were active in getting the Liberal Party to campaign activity against the war in Vietnam,” Lord Greaves said.

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It was that type of community organising epitomised in the youth wings that he carried over when helping to merge more traditional liberal ideas with the radical campaigning.

And eventually he moved the motion at the 1970 assembly to commit the party to pursuing community politics.

“It took some time to get it really entrenched in the party,” he said.

“But with the help of really vigorous active campaigners in different places, we made great inroads and persuaded the party to rather than just be a fairly academic policy-interested party, forming lots of policy discussions and so on, to become a much more radical active campaigning movement.”

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He added: “We really transformed the party and turned it into much more of a radical - certainly an active campaigning movement - on local level.”

Lord Greaves said the party then started having success in local elections, something party leader Sir Ed Davey was keen to stress was still a point of pride for the Lib Dems today.

Lord Greaves became a councillor himself, on Lancashire County Council for 25 years, and also on Colne Borough Council and then on Pendle Borough Council, on which he still retains his seat.

And he set up an office for the Association of Liberal Councillors (ALC) in Hebden Bridge in 1977, becoming its first full-time member of staff.

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“The idea of it was a base for campaigning, liberal, radical progressive organisations, community-based organisations, North of England organisations,” he said.

“We turned the ALC into a national liberal campaigning movement,” he said.

“We produced lots of cutting edge things in those days, monthly newsletters and things like that, long before the days of the internet.”

By the 1980s, Lord Greaves had been drafted in to help facilitate a merger between the Liberal Party and the SDP, after years of a difficult alliance, and even contributed to the preamble of the party’s constitution which remains today.

“It was, in many ways, very traumatic,” he said.

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“The party’s got to merge, popularity disappeared through the floor, and it was very, very difficult rebuilding again. The rebuilding that took place again came from the grassroots, from the base of councillors and local campaigners.”

And he said there was a resurgence, but the coalition period of 2010 - 2015 was “very, very difficult” for the party, with the Liberal Democrats now facing another exercise in rebranding and appealing to voters again.

“The party's grassroots operation is nothing like it was 20-25 years ago,” he said.

“But it is still there in substantial factions, where it exists, and that is what is going to give the party the chance to rebuild.

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“And if the party doesn't do it that way and throws it away, then I think the party will disappear.”

He added: “I’m not sure the party has adopted it wholeheartedly, but it’s there, yes.”

“What we really have now to do is show the people in the party, and the new people in the party who joined the party over the issue of Europe, we've got to persuade those people to hang in and hang on as they say, to turn their attention to local politics, local concerns, and local grassroots work to build us a progressive grassroots movement again.”

On the impact the Lib Dems can have now, with a much diminished number of MPs, Lord Greaves points to the upper chamber where he says politicians are more collegiate and listened to.

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And recalling his own ennobling in 2000 he laughs as he remembers then leader Charles Kennedy calling him from a car travelling down London’s embankment and regularly going through tunnels and cutting out, making it difficult to understand at first what he was being offered.

But he said he was proud of his work in the Lords, despite the party’s wish to reform the second chamber.

He said: “The coalition was very interesting because as Government members of the Lords we got far closer to what was happening in departments than before.

“And the Tories used to be furious with us, because we were one of the Government parties we had direct access to departments, we used to go and have meetings which were Liberal Democrat meetings with the Liberal Democrat minister and civil servants.”

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But he conceded that was not likely to be the case again any time soon, and said: “We're not going to have the balance of power at the next election, because we won't have enough MPs.

“So we've got to start campaigning for things we believe in, as we did on Europe generally, rather than just putting candidates up and saying vote for us.

“Consequently that will also result in having more people elected because people will know that if they're voting for us, they’re voting for real campaigns, not the platform politics of writing manifestos, saying in an ideal world when we win this is what we will do.

“While having manifestos and elections is necessary and valuable, it is far from being efficient.”