'Gove is the worst thing ever to happen to education': Rising Liberal Democrat star Layla Moran on the state of education, Brexit and her party

Layla Moran has been an MP for about six months so naturally she thinks it’s “ridiculous” that she is already being talked about as the next Lib Dem leader. But 10 years as a maths teacher is enough for her to at least partly understand what lies behind the speculation. 

“Well, there are only 12 of us [in Parliament] aren’t there,” she says, laughing. “Not that many to pick from. But I’ve only been here five minutes. It’s very flattering, but It’s ridiculous. It’s crazy.”

It’s not just a numbers game, though. That it is Layla Moran’s name and no one else’s doing the rounds is because she is articulate, extremely intelligent, easy company, and she absolutely screams Lib Dem.

Where to start? She is young (she’s 35), she’s a teacher, she’s got a constituency full of academics in Oxford West and Abingdon, she has a Palestinian mother and a father who was a diplomat for the EU (she spent Christmas in Brussels, obviously).

But what political people know that perhaps the population at large does not is that Lib Dems do not pull their punches, and she doesn’t either. She thinks, “Michael Gove was one of the worst things to ever happen to the education system in this country,” she says. She thinks, “David Cameron is the worst Prime Minister this country has ever had.”

Pleasingly, Moran is not a fully combat-trained politician yet. So when I ask her whether she has her eye on the top job, she replies, “You say that like it’s a foregone conclusion that anyone would want to be Lib Dem leader.” 

The rather longer standing press aide on hand winces a little bit. It’s true of course. In the recent leadership “election” only one candidate stood, Sir Vince Cable, and he has almost stopped bothering to disguise the fact he wants to retire. Even so, this is still not a view that a political party’s rising star is meant to say out loud. She backtracks a bit.

“It’s not just leader of the Lib Dems. It’s the leader of any party. It’s not an easy job. Someone should want to do it, but I decided to be an MP for a very specific reason. In my head, I’m still a teacher. I miss the kids.”

But there are concrete reasons that large parts of the party faithful are quietly gathering behind the Moran banner. No small cause is her election victory itself. Oxford West and Abingdon used to be solid Lib Dem, before turning marginal more recently. It’s a seat full of academics that the Lib Dems prize greatly. Moran surprised everyone, not least herself, by turning over a 9,500 majority against a well liked Conservative candidate, Nicola Blackwood. 

“Oh I was very surprised,” she explains. “We were nine-and-a-half-thousand behind. We weren’t aware of where the wind was blowing. It really wasn’t until 4am that we were sure. At that point I was giving interviews about how great it was to come so close.”

Ms Moran makes no secret that education is her political cause. She gives long, detailed answers on the things that needs to be done, and she says her big ideas, to be announced at the party’s spring and autumn conferences will have to “make a splash.” 

As the party’s education spokesperson, last week she was happy to be dragged into the Toby Young imbroglio which, she says, “spoke to some bigger issues about cronyism”. 

“There are lots of great educationalists out there who really care about social mobility,” she says. “Why was it this guy, who’d made these comments that were so misogynistic and racist, why was it he, rather than someone who had spent their life’s work doing this? Just because he’s a well known writer, a celebrity, why should he be on this board?”

But her concerns run deeper than the latest scandal of the hour. That she is so dismissive of Michael Gove is because he “brought back learning by rote” at a time when “artificial intelligence threatens 20 to 40 per cent of middle income jobs.” 

“There is a clear need to rethink from the bottom up what education is for, and what it’s about and what we value,” she says. “We’ve got a system that is encouraging people to rote learn. What are robots really good at? Learning by rote.”

She explains that the education system of the future will have to leverage human advantage against robotics. “The one thing that robots really find difficult to do is to look someone in the eye and have a sense of how they’re feeling,” she explains. “We should be teaching that in schools.”

Still, to make a difference a party needs political clout. And the Liberal Democrats are lacking to a degree that is difficult to explain. Rarely a day goes by without someone seeking to set up a new centrist party. Huge swathes of the population are furious about Brexit, which the Labour Party is not making any attempt to oppose. But no one appears to be being driven in to the arms of the existing, centrist, pro-Europe party. Why?

“I think that is a really important question for our party to get to grips with,” she says.

But what is the answer?

“I don’t know, I honestly don’t know. I don’t know, I really don’t. I don’t think it is something that will be easily solved. I think it’s partly the Coalition [government]. The Coalition hurt us so badly, frankly. It has taken a long while to rebuild that trust with the electorate. It is not until we show them that we are a serious party of serious ideas. Actually I think the education stuff helps. It’s not all about Brexit. It’s about general credibility for the party.”

A couple of weeks ago, the Times columnist Danny Finkelstein, seeking to answer the great question of why Remainers aren’t flocking to the Lib Dems, argued that they weren’t offering anything material. Economic decisions taken in coalition, on raising tuition fees, freezing public sector wages and lowering public spending, had decimated their base. Students, academics, public sector workers and the like, are all now solid Corbyn.

“I’m going to pull you up on one word of that, “ Moran says. “Solid. I don’t think that’s true. And the polling is showing that.

“If you look at why people voted Corbyn at the last election, is he was really good at selling hope, we need to do more of that. Some people call it populism. I don’t agree with all the policies, but I do think the way he did it, the hopeful vision for the future that I would like to see the Lib Dems do more of.

“Secondly, there’s Brexit. Voters felt that Labour would be the party of the 48 per cent. And now it’s patently clear, they are not. They are coming out of the single market, out of the customs union.”

Current party policy is to campaign for a second referendum on the terms of the deal, the so-called “exit from Brexit”, but the window in which that could feasibly happen is rapidly closing.

Moran says that if it doesn’t happen, the party simply “starts campaigning straight away to go back in.”

“We are on the right side of history. Over the years we have shown that generally we are on the right side of history. We were on the right side of history on Iraq, which is one of the reasons I joined, so we will keep banging on about it. Second referendum on the deal. Exit from Brexit. And you know what, even if we don’t manage it, I’m happy to die trying. I’m so passionate about it.”

She says that this campaign to go back in, which is highly likely to happen, will have to “focus on the positives of EU membership” in a way that the referendum campaign did not. “It was the worst of politics,” she says. “ I was so embarrassed for our country, looking at it. I kind of didn’t enjoy being a part of it.”

Her father was the EU’s diplomat to Europe between 2012 and 2016, a comparatively rare Brit in the Brussels engine. In the wider Moran family, there is despair at the current conduct of the UK Government.

“I was in Brussels at Christmas, because that is where my parents are.” She stops and emits a surprisingly enthusiastic sigh. “It’s a mess. It’s a mess. The language [around the Christmas table] certainly wasn’t flattering toward the Government. Dad has now joined the Lib Dems having been a Labour man all his life because he’s so frustrated. He will shout at Corbyn as much as at May because of the ambiguity of his position.”

Around the table too was her Palestinian mother. Ms Moran doesn’t like to make much of her heritage, and finds the “UK’s first Palestinian MP” label attached to her quite strange.

“I am me. I am me. I never made a big deal out of it. But I appreciate it as a point of difference. That’s been a surprise actually, about being an MP, is me embracing my own identity in that way, because people keep asking me about it. It’s not until you talk about it that you develop your thinking about what it means to you.”

She has previously promised to stand “front and centre” of any protest that might greet a Donald Trump visit, which is postponed for now.

“My mother told me over Christmas that when Trump made that announcement to move the embassy to Jerusalem she hadn’t felt that awful about the state of the Middle East and Palestine since she was in Jordan, in 1967, listening to the World Service and they announced that the Arabs had lost the Six Day War. That was the last time that she felt this torn about the situation.

“I do feel that there are expectations on me from the Palestinian community, and from myself too. How can I be here, a hundred years after the Balfour declaration, and crazy-crazy Trump is in the White House. So I do kind of feel a heavy hand of history on my shoulder a bit. I am here maybe a bit to play a part. What I bring to the table is my own family’s story. When I talk about it people will hear the human side of who I am and my family. It won’t be something that’s happening to someone else.”

As we discuss the mysteries of why Lib Dem voters are not returning, it transpires Tim Farron has been back on the airwaves, explaining that he regrets being almost forced, during the election to say that gay sex was not a sin. It took Vince Cable a matter of minutes to disown Farron’s comments, which are, at the most generous level, not helpful to the Liberal cause.

If the Lib Dems are to hold out any hope of a comeback, these are setbacks they do not need. I asked a leading party insider if Moran really is the real deal. He said the party faithful is “crying out for a woman leader” and that it would be a “straight fight” between Moran and the current deputy, Jo Swinson, though first one or the other would have to decide if they want it.

“She is telegenic, she is articulate, she is young. She has brought fresh ideas, vigour, dedication, she is a proper campaigner. She has taken a seat that very few people thought we would win in 2017 – against a pretty good Conservative. 

“She has shown she can win in a tough fight, and during the referendum she was at it, delivering leaflets, knocking on doors. For Lib Dem members, there is no greater praise. Pavement pounding. Delivering leaflets. That is the Lib Dem way. They want people who have done what they do.

“And don’t forget, roughly two thirds of Lib Dem members now are post 2016 joiners. They will have seen Layla rise, from being one of them, to being one of the most high-profile people in the party.

“They don’t want some ex-Spad [special adviser]. Some London person. They want one of their own. That is what Layla is.”

The Lib Dems’ future is uncertain. But bright or otherwise, it seems abundantly clear that Layla Moran will play a very large part in it.


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