The environmental pretensions of the Liberal Democrats

Written by Caroline Hayes

Edited by Spencer Fitz-Gibbon


Second edition, September 2004

First published May 2003



Green Party of England & Wales

Promoted and published by Spencer Fitz-Gibbon for

The Green Party, both at 1a Waterlow Road, London N19 5NJ

Tel 020 7561 0282 Fax 020 7272 4474






  1. LibDems on aviation: Flying round in circles
  2. LibDems on incineration: Do they want it or not?
  3. Sheffield - A "litmus test" LibDem local authority
  4. A selection of LibDem environmental follies in the regions
  5. LibDems on GM foods: Sitting between chairs
  6. LibDems on animal protection: Don’t really see the point







The author would like to thank the following for their support in the preparation of this report: Adrian Ramsay, Andy D'Agorne, Bernard Little, Caroline Lucas MEP, Chris Keene, Danny Bates, Cllr Darren Johnson AM, Grace Gedge, Graham Wroe, Cllr James Abbott, James Brydell, Janet Alty, Cllr Prof John Whitelegg, Justin Wilkes, Lydia Howitt, Cllr Rik Child, Dr Spencer Fitz-Gibbon and Stephen Whitehead.


S1 The Liberal Democrats claim that green thinking is at the core of their policies, but their actions do not match up to these claims. Often the Liberal Democrats have been found to say one thing in one area and a different thing in another. They are also guilty of switching policy to suit the occasion. Some have accused them of hypocrisy, and a lack of principle.

S2 Although the Liberal Democrats have admitted that air travel is an unsustainable form of transport with severe local impacts, they have supported airport expansions, voted against tough noise limitation laws, argued that air travel should be made ‘more affordable’ (presumably to encourage people to fly).

S3 LibDems sometimes follow their manifesto by campaigning against waste incineration, yet on some occasions they’ll argue for it. Ironically in the 2002 local elections they lost control of Sheffield council by arguing for a new incinerator, and gained control of Hull by campaigning against an incinerator.

S4 The LibDems once called for a moratorium on roadbuilding, but they strongly supported the infamous Batheaston Bypass and the Newbury Bypass, and are currently supporting other roadbuilding schemes around the country, instead of promoting Green alternatives.

S5 The Liberal Democrats are uncertain when it comes to genetically modified food. While some LibDems campaign against GM food, others see GM food becoming an essential part of the national diet. Charles Kennedy has accused Labour of refusing to ‘go the whole hog’ on GM foods – but by ‘whole hog’ he means the halfway house of a mere moratorium.

S6 Liberal Democrats seem unable to understand why animals need greater protection. A popular council motion to provide Norwich with an Animal Protection Officer was rejected by the LibDems. They saw no need to create such a role, even though the London Assembly created one after pressure from the Green Group.

S7 Liberal Democrats promote economic globalisation and the desires of big business over the needs of the environment time and again. Their commitment to a neoliberal big business agenda seems to prevail over all common sense. It certainly prevails over a unified commitment to their principles, and leads many to believe that they are not a party to be trusted.



"Liberal policies are lent coherence only by their incoherence."

The Times


I1 The Liberal Democrats will do just about anything for a vote. In an attempt to appeal to the environmentally conscious, they have ambitiously added an array of green initiatives to their policy programme. Though they often say the right thing in detail, in general they have yet to grasp the plot. Their natural stance as a party with free trade and big business as its first priority continues to prevent them from putting green ideas into practice in a coherent way. As the past has clearly shown, their self-proclaimed position as the only party with viable measures for protecting the environment is one that is marked by hypocrisy and what many Greens see as a shocking lack of principle.

I2 The Times wrote: "Liberal policies are lent coherence only by their incoherence"(1). And indeed - be it promoting decentralisation while kowtowing to a highly centralised European Union, backing down on party pledges to legalise cannabis and then embarrassingly covering up the confusing change in policy by describing it as a "nuanced position"(2), or being opposed to nuclear reprocessing plants but in favour of maintaining UK nuclear weapons, the Liberal Democrats have repeatedly revealed themselves as shameless poseurs.


Notes to Introduction

(1) "Why I can't stand those smug Liberals", Daniel Finkelstein, The Times, 24 September 2002.

(2) "LibDem leader backs off cannabis pledge", Anne Perkins, Political Correspondent, The Guardian, 21 September 2002.

1. LibDems on aviation:

Flying round in circles


"For environment policy, the LibDems have a large rhetorical fig-leaf with not very much behind it."

Spencer Fitz-Gibbon, Green Party Executive


1.1 Aviation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and has severe adverse effects on human health, wildlife and the land in regions surrounding airports. The Liberal Democrats are right when they state in their policy paper Transport for People that the use of aeroplanes is to be limited and that other sustainable forms of transportation are more desirable – only they do not pay much attention to this themselves.

1.2 Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, who has claimed that "green thinking permeates our policies", toured cities throughout the UK on his 2001 general election campaign in which he presented his green agenda not by bus, not by train, but by plane! Former LibDem environment spokesperson Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who left partially owing to the LibDems’ lack of commitment to the environment, commented: "It's a telling fact that the party with the biggest 'green' pretensions should choose the most environmentally damaging mode of transport to launch its campaign."

1.3 Short-haul flights using huge amounts of fuel are unnecessary and hazardous for the environment. Limiting them, however, is hardly compatible with the business world motto of "time is money". The LibDems wrote: "We are concerned that short-haul and domestic flights are growing at the expense of environmentally more friendly rail travel"(1). But former LibDem environment spokesperson Simon Hughes apparently missed his train a few years ago when he flew from London to Manchester to address an international environmental conference for 10 minutes on the importance of protecting the environment and then flew right back.

1.4 The impossible marriage between promotion of trade at all costs and a sustainable environmental policy becomes evident when one regards the LibDem approach to the expansion of airports. While the Liberal Democrats may be given credit for endorsing a fuel tax on aeroplanes, their continued support of airport expansions for purely economic reasons stands in stark contrast to any kind of green policy. LibDem councillors were enthusiastic about the second runway at Manchester (apart from LibDem councillors in Stockport, which lies under the flightpath) and the expansion of Exeter airport.

1.5 In their policy paper, Transport for People, the Liberal Democrats wrote: "The development of regional international airports has a positive impact on regional economies competing for international investment". Here the LibDems place economic concerns above the welfare of the environment and the health of the people living in those affected regional areas. Perhaps they do not understand that aviation has a major economic downside (2).

1.6 While admitting that: "Aircraft noise is a major problem for many communities" (3) and claiming that: "We would ensure that restrictions are imposed on the expansion of night flights where these will have a negative impact on residential areas", UK LibDems in Strasbourg voted at EU level against tougher noise restrictions (4).



  1. Liberal Democrat Policy Paper, Transport for People.
  2. See the Green Party’s report Aviation’s Economic Downside at

(3) Transport for People ibid.

(4) Dr. Caroline Lucas, MEP Weekly Bulletin 92, 15 March 2002.


2. LibDems on incineration:

Do they want it or not?


"The Liberal Democrats don't seem to have any principles when it comes to waste management and will say anything they think gains them electoral advantage."

Stephen Tindale, Executive Director of Greenpeace


2.1 In stark contradiction to their own avowed pro-recycling and anti-incineration policies the Liberal Democrats previously in power in Sheffield supported building a massive waste burner in spite of fierce local opposition. As Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: "The choice between incinerators or recycling in Sheffield is a litmus test of the Liberal Democrats' environmental and community commitments. It is the height of hypocrisy to have pro-recycling and anti-incineration policies, but then do the opposite in councils which they actually control.''

2.2 The emissions and toxic ash from the Bernard Road Incinerator in Sheffield continue to pose a health threat. Sheffield’s recycling record is one of the worst in the UK. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace offered to pay for national waste experts to develop an alternative waste strategy for Sheffield, to avoid incineration without increasing the cost to council taxpayers – but this offer was rebuffed by the LibDems. Now that Labour is in power in Sheffield, the LibDems are criticising them for their policies on waste incineration!

2.3 One branch of the Liberal Democrats that ought to take a green stance on incineration is the faction that calls itself the "Green Liberal Democrats". Mark Hinnells is the Vice Chair of the Green LibDems and is a member of the party’s policy working group. In Autumn 2002 he wrote an article arguing the case for increased use of incineration (1). He claims that recycling "is not always the best environmental option" and that "the benefits of [energy-from-waste] (2) are significant". (Energy-from-waste is a concept in which waste materials are incinerated with electricity as a by-product. Thus the metals, plastics, paper, fabrics and glass, instead of being reused or recycled time after time, are destroyed forever, along with biodegradable materials that could have been composted.) Mr Hinnells also argues that power generated from incineration should count as renewable energy, thereby giving the green light to unscrupulous councils to take the easy option of burning their waste whilst claiming to be environmentally aware. It seems astonishing that an environment spokesperson should argue the case for incineration.





(1) "A burning issue: energy from waste", in Challenge, the magazine for ‘Green Liberal Democrats’, Autumn 2002.

(2) energy from waste, or incineration for power.

3. Sheffield - the litmus test

"The choice between incinerators or recycling in Sheffield is a litmus test of the Liberal Democrats' environmental and community commitments. It is the height of hypocrisy to have pro-recycling and anti-incineration policies, but then do the opposite in councils which they actually control.''

Charles Secrett, executive director of Friends of the Earth


3.1 If Sheffield is any indicator of LibDem performance on green issues then Greens are not impressed. As a leading Green campaigner in Sheffield has said, "On a wide range of issues, they [the LibDems] pushed policies encouraging more trade and attracting investors unnecessarily at the expense of sustainable development. Under LibDem control, the environment remains an afterthought"(1).

3.2 One need only think of the fact that while LibDems were in power in Sheffield:


(1) Bernard Little, Sheffield Green Party.

(2) Sheffield Star, Business section, 2 May 2001.


4. Examples of LibDem environmental policies around the UK


"It's unacceptable for the Liberal Democrats to lecture other political parties on the environment and then fail to apply those principles in places which they actually control."

Stephen Tindale, Executive Director of Greenpeace


4.1 In LibDem-run Norwich, the City Council agreed to sell off 75.1% of the airport, giving private shareholders the ability to pass special resolutions without consulting the council, thus preventing any hope of controlling airport growth or of the council insisting that the airport apply the highest standards in terms of minimising environmental impact.

4.2 In Norfolk LibDem councillors supported the dualling of the A11 and A120 (Essex to Stansted) and the expansion of Norwich International Airport.

4.3 In Eastbourne LibDem borough council leader Beryl Healy called for the widening of A27.

4.4 In York, the LibDems supported the approval of Coppergate II, a shopping development that will massively increase the retail space in the centre of York resulting not only in the demise of more traditional stores in the city centre but also in yet more traffic, not to mention the detrimental effect on the historic Cliffords Tower. Furthermore, they criticised Labour for limiting the amount of visitor parking space in the city centre. How "green" is that?

4.5 The LibDems on the Shepway District Council in Kent supported the Lyminge Forest holiday village development, a project which will destroy 300 acres of deciduous woodland.

4.6 In 2000, Oxford City Council LibDems pushed for daytime reduction of car park charges to attract more car-borne shoppers to the city centre and opposed reduction in levels of city centre public car parking.

4.7 Rather than improving public transport links to surrounding towns (as suggested by the Green Party) Oxfordshire County Council LibDems supported the expansion of park-and-ride car parks around Oxford.

4.8 LibDems in Newbury championed the Newbury Bypass despite the fact that 70% of the traffic in Newbury had been local before it was built and, on projected traffic growth figures, the bypass would only accommodate 5 years' growth. (The Green Party opposed the bypass and proposed a package of local traffic reduction measures to alleviate congestion instead.)

4.9 In Lancaster the LibDems supported the Northern Bypass. LibDems have also supported new road schemes recently in Cumbria and Greater Manchester.

4.10 In Bath the LibDems were enthusiastic about building the Batheaston Bypass.

4.11 In Manchester, LibDem councillors warmly supported the second runway at Manchester Airport and the continuing growth of the airport, from 15 million passengers per annum in 1995 to a projected 41 million in 2016. In Liverpool the LibDems have been enthusiastic about expanding Liverpool airport.

4.12 LibDems on Devon County Council backed the Exeter Airport Expansion.

4.13 The LibDems on Lancaster City council opposed a motion introduced by Green councillors calling opposing water fluoridation in the city – although fluoridation, as well as being a failed health measure that infringes human rights, involves dumping hexafluorosilicic acid (a highly toxic waste product from the phosphate fertiliser industry) into the environment, where it’s one more pollutant affecting plant and aquatic life.

4.14 Although the LibDems’ national spokesperson on transport called for congestion charging to be extended to the whole country, the LibDem candidate for London mayor in 2004 promised to relax congestion charging rules, and LibDems in Edinbugh, Manchester and York have opposed congestion charging.

4.15 Although the LibDem leadership has called for Britain to adopt a "comprehensive zero waste strategy", in the whole of England and Wales only four councils controlled by the party have signed up to the plan.

4.16 These actions are not isolated exceptions. They demonstrate the norm in LibDem thinking, which is usually to do whatever they think will get them the most votes. If that were their intention it would at least be an honest proposition to put to the electorate – but to behave like this while claiming that "green thinking permeates LibDem thinking" is blatant misrepresentation.


(1) References: research by local Green Parties, Green Party central press office and private sources.


5. LibDems on GM foods:

Sitting between chairs


"Principles of freedom of access are central to the economic as well as the political sphere; free markets are a part of liberalism because they represent the extension of the concept of freedom into trade...Other mechanisms are needed to ensure that individuals have access to the things which markets are unable to provide."

"Our Core Values", in Liberal Democrat policy paper It’s About Freedom


5.1 In a Green world, GM foods would be banned and for good reasons. Genetically manipulated foods represent a risk for both human health and the environment, the extent of which cannot yet be properly assessed. And in fact even Labour environment minister Michael Meacher has said GM foods are simply unnecessary. But here, as with most Green issues, the Liberal Democrats seem to be split between concerns about the free flow of trade (we are talking about a huge industry) and those revolving around the possibly harmful effects of GM foods on health and the environment. Yet again, they are sitting between two chairs.

5.2 Listening very carefully to LibDem party members discussing the issue of GM foods, it becomes shockingly clear that it is once again the economy and not the environment or human health at the heart of their concern and their policies. Malcolm Bruce MP, Liberal Democrat shadow DEFRA Secretary, commenting on reports that twelve fields in England had been contaminated by unauthorised GM material, said: "This incident highlights the need for strict monitoring of GM trials. The challenge for companies involved in GM is to inspire confidence in the public and it is news like this that will undermine public feeling. If companies are unable to manage test crops then it does not bode well. Further testing is needed and should take a very cautious approach." Testing and caution – not because the fields are contaminated, not because of potential risks unauthorised GM material poses to health, but because consumer confidence and purchase of GM products are not to be adversely affected!

5.3 Although the Liberal Democrats have an official policy of "wait and see" on GM foods, the Welsh Liberal Democrats have an anti-GM policy. They have welcomed the Welsh Assembly’s ban on GM crop trials in Wales. Welsh LibDem Mick Bates said "It was a Welsh Liberal Democrat initiative to resist GM crops"(1). It was surprising, then, when Eleanor Burnham, Welsh Liberal Democrat AM for North Wales, and the party's environment spokesperson in the National Assembly for Wales, told the Liberal Democrats' federal conference in Brighton that "GM foods could very well become an essential part of our diet in years to come" and that "We mustn't be afraid of them but we must handle them with care until we know what they can do". Whatever role GM foods may play in our economy, it is clear that they are certainly not needed as part of a healthy diet. Economic possibilities cannot be placed above serious and irreversible health concerns.

5.4 Although the LibDems are right in calling for strict labelling of GM foods, they have indirectly supported their increased production. One need only look at Scotland where the LibDem MSPs’ votes were crucial in passing an act allowing GM crops to be grown and defeating Green Party amendments aimed at observing the precautionary principle.

5.5 Scottish Liberal Democrats voted against the Organic Targets Bill proposed by Green MSP Robin Harper. This Bill was an action plan to increase local organic production of foods, an initiative that would "result in thousands of tons of pesticides staying in their drums and significant gains for wildlife, animal welfare and jobs" (2). Why did the LibDems vote it down? The plan called for more substitution of imported organic produce with Scottish organic produce.

5.6 The LibDems’ stance on GM may only be a half-hearted moratorium policy, but they can’t even manage to unite firmly behind that! In the run-up to the 2004 European elections the Liberal Democrats’ Scottish leader Jim Wallace said at the party's Scottish campaign launch that Charles Kennedy's call for a GM moratorium was "meaningless" (3).


5.7 There are sound environmental and economic reasons why Greens want food to be locally sourced. Wales Green Party campaigns coordinator Matt Wootton explained: "There is nothing wrong with importing goods under fair trade terms and in a way that is environmentally responsible. Promoting local organic production for local needs where practicable would however support regional economies and reduce the unnecessary transport of goods over unnecessarily long distances – one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions" (4). The Green Party’s policy, as well as making for a more stable economy as producers supply relatively stable markets, would also minimise the economic impacts of climate change.


(1) 9th July, 2002.

(2) Scottish Green Party Website, reports, "Bill is defeated but wins action plan and targets!!"

(3) See Scottish Green Party news release, "LibDem Euro campaign in turmoil over GM crops," 13 May 2004.

(4) Internationalism and localisation – not globalisation, .


6. LibDems on animal protection:

Don’t really see the point


"The LibDems’ ‘commitment’ to animal rights has been exposed for what it really is – an empty promise deigned to capture a popular vote."

Danny Bates, animal rights campaigner and Green Party Policy Coordinator


6.1 Through the efforts of the Green Party Group on the London Assembly, the Greater London Authority appointed an Animal Protection Officer (the first ever) to implement measures for reducing the number of stray animals through a better neutering and spaying service, improving the quality of animal care in pet shops, and humanely controlling wild animals.

6.2 Norman Baker MP, Liberal Democrat Animal Welfare Spokesman, has said: "Liberal Democrats are committed to strengthening animal welfare across the board" and described animal welfare as a general election priority. But when the Green Party Group on Norwich City Council sought to introduce an animal protection officer, their initiative was dismissed by a Liberal Democrat who "did not see the need for introducing such a position, as in her belief the welfare of animals in Norwich was high enough" (2).


(1) .

(2) Danny Bates, animal rights campaigner, "A Green vote is a vote for animal welfare", Green Party website.

7. The LibDems in Europe:

Making the right noises, doing the wrong things

"The LibDems cannot claim to be making environmental protection a priority"

Jean Lambert MEP, Green Party


7.1 The LibDem group in the European Parliament is often portrayed as having a very green track record. However, it has, on a number of crucial occasions, acted in concert with Conservative MEPs to undermine environmental protection.

7.2 In March of last year half of the LibDem MEPs crucially withheld their support from an energy tax proposal that could have had a significant impact on Europe’s CO2 emissions. The motion failed by a very narrow margin.

7.3 In September 2003 80% of the LibDem MEPs either opposed or withheld their support from a bill that banned the use of harmful pesticides near sources of drinking water. In effect they were voting for continued excessive levels of pesticides in our drinking water; something that has been linked to reproductive disorders, cancers and foetus abnormalities.



It’s about economic "freedom" –

not the environment


"The truth is that Liberal Democrats, (along with the other two neoliberal political parties) believe in the dogma of free trade more or less regardless of the consequences, and this will never fit with a green agenda for a socially just and sustainable future."

Bernard Little, Sheffield Green Party


C1 The Liberal Democrats pride themselves on their "honesty", but are they being honest with themselves? They reiterate that their green policies are not just "tacked on". But why is this precisely the impression they give? It can only be because their track record on green issues has clearly demonstrated this – supporting airport expansions and roadbuilding, indirectly supporting the production of GM crops and voting on a number of occasions against a variety of green initiatives at regional, national and international levels.

C2 It’s not that it isn’t a positive development to observe green initiatives being added to political agendas, but when the words are not followed by deeds, then voters are being misled. Some LibDems may honestly be concerned for the environment, but their party continues to put the market and free trade before such concerns. The dishonesty comes in when they try to masquerade as a "green" party.

C3 The essence of the Liberal Democrat ethos is not sustainable policy but liberalism: "freedom", and particularly "the maximum freedom to pursue own ends"(1). This is to be understood primarily in an economic context – they mean freedom for big business to reduce all barriers to trade, and freedom to encourage economic growth as a priority and to support the World Trade Organisation which has attempted to "liberalise" international trade without sufficient social and environmental safeguards. As an afterthought, the Liberal Democrats have linked the core principles of their mission for freedom to protecting the environment in a far-fetched, unconvincing manner that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And if they can’t protect the environment, they can’t hope to protect people’s freedom to breathe clean air or to have safe streets, or to protect society’s freedom from the ravages of climate change. In fact given these shortcomings, just how real is their understanding, even, of the "freedom" which is supposedly at the core of their ideology?

C4 Green politics is by its nature holistic, comprehensive, concerned with the interconnections between different policy areas. The Green Party is by no means anti-trade, but rather is against socially unfair trade and the "liberalisation" of trade which primarily strives to move "money in more and more circuitous routes all over the world...towards more and more competition between countries, more and more monopolisation by companies, ever-lower prices, ever-lower wages, ever lower environmental standards...a race to the bottom" (2). The Greens oppose the current dogma of "free trade" because it leads to unnecessarily severe environmental impacts and because it promotes instability in local and regional economies as capital moves to wherever production costs (in purely narrow financial terms) are lowest. LibDem politics is in this very important sense the very antithesis of Green politics.

C5 Liberal Democrats welcome economic globalisation: "Principles of freedom of access are central to the economic as well as the political sphere; free markets are a part of liberalism because they represent the extension of the concept of freedom into trade" (3). However, uncontrolled economic growth leads to unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, to climate change, to social inequality and to other social poroblems. And unrestrained trade leads to a host of social and environmental problems as well as economic instability. Truly sustainable policy requires an appropriate amount of control, appropriate limits on industries to pollute our environment. It also means the promotion and facilitation of Green alternatives to socially and environmentally damaging industries. The implementation of policies initiated by the Green Party would create hundreds of thousands of jobs (4), would combine prosperity with sustainability, and would improve quality of life in ways that the mere consideration of Gross national Product simply can’t measure.

C6 In the end, it’s about another Liberal Democrat slogan, "trust". Can we really trust the Liberal Democrats with our environment and our future?


(1) Liberal Democrat Policy Paper, It’s About Freedom.

(2) See eg Internationalisation and localisation – not globalisation, .

(3) It’s About Freedom.

(4) See the Green Party report Best of Both Worlds .