Greens and Lib Dems - From Limehouse to Campbell and beyond

By Rupert Read

Twenty-five years ago, I was a 15 year-old in a state of high excitement. It was an adolescent love-affair - but not with any girl or boy. I was falling in love with - rather, I was infatuated with - the Gang of Four, and the idea that appeared in public for the first time 25 years ago today: the idea of a new social democratic party, and of the 'realignment' of British politics.

A fortnight later, along with 25,000 others, I rushed to sign up, in response to the ad that the Limehouse Declarers placed in the Guardian. I really thought we were going to break the mould of British politics.
'Neither left, nor right, but forward'. I still thought so when, a year later, courtesy of my mother, I received a photo signed by Roy Jenkins, a card to accompany my biggest and favourite 16th birthday present:
gift-membership of the Social Democratic Party. Two years later I went up to Oxford, and duly worked to try to get Chris Huhne elected to Parliament there. I spent time with him and other then-colleagues
(including Andrew Adonis (now Lord Adonis), another former social democrat, who we tried to get elected to Oxford City Council), and in due course was elected President of the 300-strong 'Oxford University Social Democratic Club', during my time at Balliol College (Jenkins's old College), and was even briefly elected Treasurer of the national Young Social Democrats. I enjoyed going to Party Conference, and like most people there drank a lot of booze, very late into the night (including on one occasion with Charles Kennedy.).

After the merger, my optimism waned somewhat, and I abandoned British politics to do a Ph.D in America, despairing at the seeming impregnability of Thatcher. What I only finally came to understand during my seven years in America -- where I saw at firsthand the environmental and social devastation wrought by the market unleashed -- was the extent to which 'social democracy' could never offer a solution to the problems besetting a country and a world in the grip of capitalism. In the States, I saw 'the future' -- and saw that it was dire. I came back to Britain in 1995, radicalised, forewarned (by firsthand experience of the 'New Democrats') about how dismal New Labour would be. And determined to try to play (if I possibly could) a role in turning history in a different and better direction. I tried to persuade Paddy Ashdown et al to outflank Labour on the Left, urging that this was a historic opportunity to do so. But the Liberal Democrats preferred to pursue the same old strategy of opportunistically trying to be all things to all voters, to garner the tactical votes of disgruntled Labourites or Conservatives.

The last straw for me was the election of Kennedy as Leader in '99. I had pinned my fast-dwindling hopes for the LibDems as a radical force in British politics on the candidacy of Simon Hughes for the leadership. Hughes had made clear that he was the 'left' candidate, in the coded way these things are done in the LibDems (Hughes was the 'inner city' candidate). Kennedy by contrast was classic social democrat. He embodied the reasons for the creation of the SDP. The SDP's historic mission was to domesticate BOTH the Labour Party and the Liberal Party:

The Labour Party would either become a small Left sect, or it would essentially cave in to the agenda of the SDP. It is the latter that has happened, clearly, with the rise of New Labour. In the process, much that was great in the Old Labour Party has been suborned: its commitment to socialism, and to nuclear disarmament, and its serious doubts about the capitalist version of the European project, for instance. When I think of all that, I deeply regret, and sometimes feel ashamed, that I was part of that process. That the SDP broke the power of the ideas of fine organic intellectuals such as Michael Foot and Tony Benn, in Labour. It paved the way for the dominance of market ideology in Britain. It helped ensure that, in Peter Mandelson's ugly view of the world, "We are all Thatcherites, now".

So far as the elite in the Liberal Party were concerned, the creation of the SDP was an opportunity to suborn once and for all radical liberalism. This has precisely occurred: the left libertarians in the Liberal Party, the elements of the Liberals who were deeply serious about civil liberties, about living more ecologically, and about nuclear disarmament, were gradually crushed by the weight of the newcomers from the SDP.

Seven years ago, then, I resigned from the LibDems, the moment Kennedy was elected, and for the first time in my adult life was a member of no political Party. I did not expect that state of affairs to change. But, once outside the LibDems, I saw even clearer than before the devastation that neo-liberalism was wreaking on our society and our planet: and I saw clearly that New Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives alike shared an agenda of neo-liberal globalisation, of what Colin Leys rightly calls 'market-driven 'democracy''. I felt, especially as the gravity of the threat from global warming became clear to me (I was helped by being a Lecturer in the University of East Anglia, home to the world's leading climate scientists), that I could not sit by, and fiddle as the world burns.

In Steve Bell's magnificent 'If.' cartoons, Thatcher's Conservatives at their height were the Dinosaur Party, voraciously eating schools and hospitals, consuming and excreting the great history of public services in this country. And the SDP were of course the 'Sub Dinosaur Party', doing just the same, but with an allegedly human face. Nowadays, all three 'mainstream' Parties are Sub Dinosaur Parties, funded by big business, and privatising whatever they can get their hands off: and the actual differences between their polices are mostly within their accountants' margins of error...

And now, Sir Mingis Campbell is elected leader of the LibDems, in a 3-way contest in which Simon Hughes has, unfortunately, come a humiliating third. Campbell is a classic establishment figure, and famous, like John Prescott, for his flashy and expensive gas-guzzling cars. A clearer indication that the LibDems have no real interest in the (literally) burning issue of the day - combating climate change - could scarcely be imagined.

Meanwhile, Peter Tatchell, Simon Hughes's vanquished (gay) opponent in the bitterest of all the famous 1980s SDP/LibDem by-election campaigns, has joined the Green Party. And so have I. In fact, when I saw what the Greens were trying to do, in Norwich, where I now live and teach, I was so impressed that, gradually, against my intentions, I became more and more active in the Party. . A Party in favour of massive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050. A Party that says a green-left 'No' to the European Constitution, and a green-left 'No' to the centralising tendencies of the single currency (the 'Euro'), run by the ultimate deflationary central Bank. A Party that instead looks to localise economics and politics. A Party that would abolish the corrupt honours system, and that would democratise our semi-feudal state. A Party that repudiates neo-liberalism, that has many eco-socialists and anti-capitalists in its number.a Party that represents the best in all that the Left used to represent, without buying into the Left's bankrupt 'deprivation model' of contemporary society. Most of us are not deprived any longer; we are rather awash in pointless consumer goods, our lives devoid of meaning and social hope. It is this spiritual malaise, a malaise tied as much to growthist ideology as to economic inequality, that is one of the ultimate targets of Green politics. It is not just about saving the planet, not just about saving the whales, not even just about saving the humans. It honestly is about saving our souls, too.

Twenty-five years ago today, the Limehouse Declaration provided a burst of media excitement. But what a false dawn it proved. What a disaster, in its destruction of most of what was fine in Labour and in
the Liberals. And what a catastrophe, in its spiritual descendants: Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Ming Campbell all share the mantra that 'there is no alternative' to the 'free market', to 'globalisation' - to ecocide.

Perhaps I should have been wary, when the fledgling SDP decided on its Party colours. There were rumours, which delighted my enthusiastic teenage self, that the new Party, claiming (shades of Cameron!) to be eco-friendly, would adopt green as its Party colour. It should have been a big warning sign, when the leadership scotched that suggestion, and opted in asinine faux-patriotic fashion to take red white and blue as the SDP Party colours, instead.

25 years on, I am pleased to be in a Party that might actually break the mould. A Party whose colours are real; a Party that actually is, rather than merely pretending to be, Green.

7 years after Kennedy beat the 'left' candidate to the leadership of the LibDems, a right-wing establishment figure, Ming Campbell, has taken over there. How revealing: That the first thing Campbell does, on being elected leader of the Libdems, is to show his true 'Orange Book' colours, by calling for the privatisation of the Royal Mail, a Thatcherite policy already rejected by the rank and file in his Party.
Peter Mandelson once famously remarked that "We are all Thatcherites now". How true this is not only of the Tories and of New Labour, but also, evidently, of Campbell's LibDems.

It was for reasons such as this that I quit the LibDems, after Kennedy defeated Hughes in the last leadership contest. This time around, Campbell (and relative unknown Chris Huhne) trounced Hughes, still the only candidate with an ounce of radicalism or progressivism in his agenda. And so: Looking back on those heady SDP days, and on the time when I finally quit the LibDems, being in the Greens now feels to me, by contrast, like growing up. Or even, perhaps: like coming home.




April 2006

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