Layla Moran interview: ‘By voting for the bedroom tax and tuition fees the Lib Dems lost our principles’
Layla Moran made her pitch as a 'clean break' with the past as Lib Dem leader (PA)
Layla Moran has strongly criticised the recent leadership of the Liberal Democrats for presiding over a decade of decline — and implicated her rival Sir Ed Davey in the party losing the trust of voters.
The party hopeful makes her pitch to offer a “clean break” with the past an interview with PoliticsHome, as she declares: “By voting for things like the bedroom tax, by voting for tuition fees, there is a perception among the electorate that we lost our principles.”
And she sets out her stall to Lib Dem members for the final time as the leadership contest draws to a close, saying that she is the candidate to get young people back on board.
“I've got the credibility to be able to do that, on behalf of the Lib Dems, in a way that I don't think leaders in the last five, 10 years have been able to because of things like tuition fees,” Moran says.
The 37-year-old ex-science teacher has been battling with former Cabinet minister Sir Ed (pictured below) to take over permanently from Jo Swinson, who stood down in the wake of the 2019 general election — the third in a row where the party returned just a handful of MPs.
But the contest has been heavily disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, delayed, then postponed until next year, before being rearranged to finish at the end of August.
Campaigning has also been different to previous contests with town halls over Zoom and remote hustings, but Ms Moran believes the new reality might have helped her to speak to even more people than usual, as well as improving accessibility.
“I have really been enjoying it actually, and I've been really heart-warmed by the number of people who have come on board the campaign. We've created a real buzz,” she says.
“I think there's a lot of momentum with the campaign right now, especially among our younger members and our newer members which is fantastic.
“And I think the reason for that is that we are offering something new, offering change for the party.
“We've seen now 10 years of decline, the latest poll I think had us on 5 or 6% depending on which one you're looking at at the moment.
“And I think people can really see that need for change, which is what I represent so I'm really excited for it to be over next week, it has seemed like it's taken forever.”
Asked why members should choose her over Sir Ed, who was energy secretary in David Cameron’s coalition government, the Oxford West and Abingdon MP says: “At the next election the key thing that we have to achieve is to stop Boris Johnson from getting back in to Number 10.
"That has to be the top strategy. But we aren't going to do that unless we regain our strength.
“And what I am, is, I represent that fresh start. I wasn't a part of when that decline started, which was during Coalition.
“I am now looking forward to how we can reconnect with voters, I think we've had a really clear message from voters over the last 10 years about them not thinking that we're on their side, them not thinking that we're competent, they don't trust us.
“And it's unfair in the eyes of many Lib Dem voters and members, but we also have to appreciate that unless we listen again, we aren't going to reverse that decline.
“Electing me is a clear signal that we have listened that we are listening, and that we are serious about rebuilding the policy.”
The shadow of the Coalition has hung over those Lib Dems who were involved in it in recent years, with Swinson having to repeatedly defend her time as a junior minister during last year’s election campaign.
It is something Moran is keen for the party to move past.
"[The Coalition is] always thrown back at you. You always end up taking a defensive stance"
She tells PoliticsHome: “What Jo faced was every time she wanted to make a progressive argument, a liberal argument where she talked about a key part of our party's philosophy, protecting the most vulnerable, making sure that we're protecting the disabled communities, making sure that we are protecting carers.
"If you're talking about things like that then how do you square that with having voted for the bedroom tax and cutting Carers' allowance?"
Moran adds: "It's always thrown back at you. You always end up taking a defensive stance, and it may not be fair because of the context of Coalition, and there are difficult decisions that needed to be made.
“But unless we are indicating to people that we've understood that by voting for things like the bedroom tax, by voting for tuition fees, there is a perception among the electorate that we lost our principles. And they, as a result, don't trust us.
“It's not fair, but that is the perception, and they've been trying to tell us that for a long time, By electing me it is a clean break, it is a fresh start, and that is what we now need.
“Because unless we rebuild some of that credibility and some of that trust, then we are going to find that that decline we're seeing in our poll rating is unfortunately I think just going to continue.”
Moran also wants to change the perception the party is only interested in niche issues, saying: “I think we all need to recognise that there are lots of people who think that we are a party that only cares about London and the southeast, the Metropolitan elite, you can only really vote for us if you've got two degrees, and we only care about the social issues.
“And actually this is exactly the perception that I want to challenge - because yes all of that, actually standing up for minorities and standing up to underrepresented groups is an important part of being liberal.”
The Lib Dem leadership hopeful is keen to tie liberalism to the fight against inequality, saying the “best way you can do that is to talk about education, is to talk about the environment, is to talk about the economy".
"And so in this campaign that actually has been my focus - let's get back to the bread and butter issues that people really care about, that's how we're going to win back the majority of voters that would consider voting for the Liberal Democrats," she said.
She is also hinting at a shift in direction for the party, floating a new ‘Lib-Lab pact’ with Labour, loosely based on the planned agreement between then-leaders Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 election.
"Labour need to take a cold, hard look at the UK electoral map"
She says: “I think Ashdown-Blair is a really good example, because a lot of that was very behind the scenes.
"It wasn't any kind of an official pact, but it was a pragmatic understanding that under first-past-the-post, if you are going to get rid of Boris Johnson and this shambolic Conservative government - which is a big motivator I'm sure for a lot of people out there - then the best thing that you can do is to vote for the most likely candidate to do that."
And she adds: “Now the Lib Dems are a second in dozens of seats where we can do that where Labour doesn't feature.
"And I think that actually having an understanding between the parties, very grassroots, very bottom-up…these are the kinds of local movements that we need to create so that, seat by seat by seat, where it works on the ground, we can take the seats off the Tories.
“But the other dynamic I think it's worth highlighting is the Scottish dynamic, because the reason why this is so important to Labour is that their relative weakness in Scotland means that frankly, they need to take a cold, hard look at the UK electoral map and realise that it's in their interests for us to do this.”
Moran would like to see "some kind of signalling from me, and from Keir Starmer that actually our common enemy right now is Boris Johnson”, but she is adamant the Lib Dems should not be seen as “the little sister” to Labour.
“I don't want to be the little sister to any party, actually what I want to do is to create a Liberal Democrat party brand that actually is what it used to be,” she adds.
“It plays its own part as a moderating force in British politics, it stands up for ordinary people. It empowers them to have the security to lead the life that they choose. And it's a brand frankly that hasn't been heard for a very long time.”
‘A LOT OF ANGER’
Whatever form this pact takes it won’t be put into action for a while, with the next election not due for another four years.
But Moran is keen to show she is in it for the long haul after a quick succession of leaders for the party since the bruising 2015 election.
“I don't want to be a short-term leader,” she says.
"I recognise the position that I and the Liberal Democrats are in; we are the fourth party in Parliament"
“We've had too much turnover now, I think if I'm elected I'm going to be the fifth leader in as many years, we have to stop this. I want to be a leader looking towards what the next decade and beyond.”
In the short-term though, Moran hopes to build on the cross-party alliances formed in setting up the coronavirus all-party parliamentary group - which she chairs - to work with Tory MPs once Parliament is back up and running and influence the direction of a Government which, despite its 80-strong majority, has been forced into a number of major climbdowns.
She tells PoliticsHome: “I think there's a lot of anger we're seeing over education, we're seeing over test, trace, isolate.
“And I think actually the dynamic in this Parliament is going to be less about winning and losing votes, it's actually going to be about influencing backbench MPs to make the cases to the whips to avoid those votes happening, and actually influencing policy in the first place.
“That's exactly what I want to do. And it's worth saying, I recognise the position that I and the Liberal Democrats are in; we are the fourth party in Parliament.
“The only way that we're going to affect real change is by working with other people and that's not just Labour MPs and SNP MPs and Plaid MPs and Green MPs, it’s also Conservative MPs.”