Tim Farron Wants To Be Britain’s Justin Trudeau
"Trudeau went from a position not much better than ours, leapfrogging a Labour party that was probably not as dysfunctional as ours, to win power," the Liberal Democrat leader told BuzzFeed News.
Just over a year on from the general election that wiped out 80% of Liberal Democrat MPs, the party's leader, Tim Farron, is in upbeat mood. For over two decades the Lib Dems were the third-biggest party in Westminster – but one crushing night in May 2015 saw their numbers slashed from 57 MPs in 2010 to just eight. Farron is confident he can lead them back to full strength – in a possible alliance with disillusioned Labour moderates – and he's drawing inspiration from Canada's electoral earthquake.
BuzzFeed News is speaking to Farron ahead of the Lib Dems' annual conference in Brighton, starting this Saturday, which will focus on Brexit and how the party can entice more pro-Europe voters from Labour. And there's one man clearly on his mind – Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.
"Trudeau was the leader of a party that was also small, also not guaranteed frontline coverage," Farron says earnestly over a cup of tea. "And remember as well two years ago the SNP had six MPs. Now that just shows you how things quickly can change. It’s not a prediction but it’s a possibility."
Trudeau's Liberal party stormed to victory in Canada's dramatic 2015 election, ending the nine-year reign of the Conservative party and pushing the New Democratic official opposition into third place.
"In Canada, if it had just been down to the New Democrats there’d still be a Conservative government in Canada now," Farron says. "But people who are progressives thought, You know what, the party that is behind the New Democrats are an almost, counter-intuitively, a better option – they can be a more unifying voice of progressive politics.
"And Trudeau went from a position not much better than ours, leapfrogging a Labour party that was probably not as dysfunctional as ours to win power. We need to convince people that that’s a serious proposition."
How does Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, reckon he compares with Trudeau, the self-declared feminist who happens to excel at both boxing and yoga? "Well he’s better looking than me and has a tattoo – I can fix one of those things."
Farron's aim is bold – to convince moderate Labour politicians and voters to join a progressive movement that can beat the Conservatives. And if that means a new party with a new name, so be it. What he doesn't want is a souped-up version of the Social Democrat Party (SDP), the party set up in 1981 by four disenchanted Labour politicians that eventually merged with the Liberal party to form the Liberal Democrats.
"I think what happened in 1981 was interesting and we could learn from it," he says. "I wouldn’t necessarily copy it. Forming the SDP was not a mistake but it’s not necessarily the model you’d follow now.
"Setting up a new party is a big deal, merging two parties later down the road is an even bigger deal – and maybe we don’t have time for all that if we don’t want to be landed with a Conservative government for a quarter of a century. Perhaps all the admin and awkwardness of setting up a new party is not what we need – but it’s up to them, I rule nothing out.
"And where we want to be is at the centre of a progressive movement that can provide an alternative to the Conservatives and can replace the Conservatives."
He believes there's no point becoming too attached to a party name if it fails to make a difference to voters, pointing to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a prime example. "We want to make a difference, and we’re seeing in the Labour party where dogmatic purity gets you," he says. "It robs the people you are for and the voice they need."
Farron is adamant that the momentum is swinging towards the unashamedly pro-European Union Lib Dems and away from Labour following Britain's vote to leave the EU in June. He says he's in talks with several former big Labour donors looking for a new home for their money.
And he doesn't deny that he's been speaking to Labour MPs about a possible alliance. "It’s not right for me to give a running commentary on what’s going on there and I don’t want to be a home-wrecker because I absolutely respect the tribal loyalty of people who have given their lives to the Labour party," he says.
"So it’s not for me to grandstand over their situation – but I’m all ears. Whatever happens, the best thing that can happen for progressive politics … is for the Liberal Democrats to build and to grow. So even if we don’t do a Trudeau, we can do an Ashdown [former party leader Paddy] – taking a few dozen seats off the Tories is entirely plausible."
He points to supermarket tycoon Lord Sainsbury, a former Labour minister, who recently handed £2 million to the Lib Dems. "There are other people we’re talking to, people who have been big supporters of the Labour party financially and in terms of kudos in the business community," he says.
Lib Dem membership is up 35% since the end of June, Farron claims, and local council by-election results since June have been "stunning". One such win for the Lib Dems in Sheffield last week was pounced on by Corbyn critics, after the Labour leader's team had boasted about attracting thousands to a rally in the city.
"It’s a reminder that people who join political parties are wonderful people, committed people determined to change the world – but they’re not representative of everyone else," Farron says. "Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to resonate within an echo chamber of a few hundred thousand people is impressive, but it is in diametric opposition to his ability to communicate with everybody else."
Farron describes the Lib Dems as "the most pro-European party" in Westminster – and the only one offering voters another referendum on the outcome of the Brexit deal. He says that while the party accepts the result of the referendum, people deserve a vote on exactly what Brexit means.
"The British people were not given a say on what comes next," he says. "They voted for departure, they didn’t vote for destination." Under his plans, if people accept the terms of the deal, then Britain will leave the EU. But if they don't, Britain will remain. "We’re the only party offering a vehicle to keep us in," he says.
Labour MP Owen Smith, who's challenging Corbyn for the leadership, has also pledged a second referendum. "If he does become leader of the Labour party, then this is bigger than one party and we would be very keen to work with him," Farron says. "If he doesn’t, people only have one place to go."
Farron says he's "never been more upset by anything in politics more" than the Brexit vote, which saw Britain opt to leave the EU by 52% to 48%. He heaps the blame on former PM David Cameron. "If you’ve spent 20 years making your name and building your party on the strength of lazily slagging off the EU at every given opportunity, it’s very hard to then convince people that it's going to be armageddon when we leave," he says.
Cameron quit as PM within hours of the referendum – and resigned as MP for Witney earlier this week. "He will be remembered as a worse prime minister than Gordon Brown," Farron says. "Because Gordon Brown made some attempt to put the long-term future of the country first – whereas Cameron’s never done a long-term thing in his life."
He's not convinced that Corbyn helped to keep Britain in the EU either. "I’m not going to call Jeremy Corbyn a pro-Brexiteer – I don’t know what he would have done if he wasn’t leader of the Labour party – but for sure he had the largest political party in Britain at his disposal and he chose not to use it," he says.
What's the last album you bought? Wildflower by The Avalanches. It’s really great, not as good as Since I Left You but it nearly is.
What's your favourite pizza topping? Something with loads of chillies normally.
Morning person or night owl? I guess more of a night owl.
Who's the last person who texted you? I could check, where’s my phone... [checks phone] The candidate for Eastbourne.
What's your favourite TV show? Father Ted.
Tea or coffee? Tea.
Twitter or Facebook? It tends to be Twitter but I like the folksiness of Facebook.
What's your favourite emoji? I don’t use them. Smileys occasionally.
What's the last film you saw at the cinema? Finding Dory, with the kids.
What's your favourite newspaper? Probably The Independent, though it's online.
Which MP would you least like to be stuck in a lift with? Ah, that’s a bit cruel.
OK, which MP would you *most* like to be stuck in a lift with? I’ve always liked the avuncular Gary Streeter [Tory MP for South Devon].