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Lord Tony Greaves

Guardian obituary

Tony GreavesTony Greaves, Lord Greaves, who has died aged 78, was a stalwart of the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats for half a century. Elevated to the peerage in 2000 on Charles Kennedy's nomination, he used his position in the Lords to extend his career of community activism and to try to promote a more radical kind of Liberalism in the upper house. While doing so he continued as a member of Pendle borough council in Lancashire, to which he had been elected on its formation in 1973, serving for almost 50 years until his death.

Born in Bradford, Greaves was a Yorkshireman transported to Lancashire by his employment as a teacher of geography and who made his home and his political base in the Pendle district. The son of Geoffrey Greaves, a police driving instructor, and his wife, Moyra (nee Brookes), he went to Queen Elizabeth Grammar school in Wakefield as a scholarship boy and traced his interest in politics to the sixth form there, "where we debated everything". By the time he arrived at Hertford College, Oxford, he had found himself in tune with Jo Grimond's Liberal party, which he joined in 1961, and went canvassing for the first time in the Liberal victory at the Orpington byelection of 1962.

After gaining a degree in geography at Oxford he took a diploma in economic development at Manchester University. From 1969 to 1974 he taught geography at Colne Grammar school in Lancashire, but it became clear that his commitment was to politics rather than teaching. In 1971 he was elected both to Lancashire county council and to Colne borough council, which later became Pendle borough council.

Under his local leadership the Liberal party and later the Lib Dems controlled Pendle, but his success in local government failed to transfer to parliamentary elections, and he finished third on the three occasions he fought in his home constituency - in Nelson & Colne in February and October 1974 and then, after boundary changes, in Pendle in 1983.

Having supported American draft dodgers in the Vietnam war and taken part in the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign against the visit of the apartheid-era South Africa cricket team, Greaves had been elected in 1970 as chair of the national Young Liberal movement. Most of the "red guard" of radical young Liberals had moved out of mainstream politics by that time, but Greaves stayed.

He had not long been in office when the Liberal party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, made the error of trying to force him to withdraw a pro-Palestinian motion from the Young Liberals' annual conference agenda. Greaves said "no" and a stand-off between the party hierarchy and the youth section continued for some time, although it was eventually smoothed over at the party's own annual assembly.

From 1974 onwards he made a living from a series of politically orientated jobs, initially surviving on the then meagre attendance allowances as a councillor plus his wages from a number of temporary jobs. From 1977 to 1985 he was employed by the Association of Liberal Councillors as its organising secretary, and in that role produced a series of practical handbooks that were well used by the burgeoning numbers of Liberal councillors. He followed this by managing the publishing arm of the party until 1990 and then had stints as a constituency agent while also operating as a secondhand book dealer specialising in Liberal history and theory.

For a five-month period from September 1987 he was a member of the Liberal party team negotiating a merger with the Social Democratic party (SDP), an undertaking that proved to be mentally and physically exhausting. He was unable to accept the final package and resigned from the negotiating team, speaking in vain against the merger of the two parties at the special Liberal Party assembly in 1988 in Blackpool. Together with the then chair of the Young Liberals, Rachael Pitchford, he co-wrote a diary of the whole process, published as Merger: The Inside Story in 1989.

Later on, Greaves joined the Liberal Democrats, although in 1996 he declared that "fundamentally I am not a 'Liberal Democrat' for .... I do not know what it means." He continued his efforts to secure "radical Liberal policies", and right up to his death was working on ideas to increase regionalism.

He was well liked by everyone with whom he worked, even though, in the words of one fellow Liberal Democrat peer, "he could be uncompromising, argumentative, curmudgeonly and stubborn." He was also mercurial, taking on causes with gusto and then moving on swiftly as a more urgent issue came up. Sometimes this meant that his considerable intellectual and analytical skills were underplayed.

He got away from politics by relaxing with his family, and, until his older years, spent four weeks each year climbing in the French Pyrenees. He married Heather Baxter in 1968; she was a teacher who shared his political views, had worked briefly in the local government department at Liberal party headquarters, and has been a member of Pendle borough Council for more than 20 years. He is survived by Heather, their two daughters, Vicky and Helen, and a grandson, Robin.

Anthony Robert Greaves, politician, born 27 July 1942; died 23 March 2021.