Layla Moran: “The Lib Dems must claim the vacant centre ground in British politics”
Former maths teacher Layla Moran is one of four first-time Lib Dem MPs and the party’s new education spokesperson. She talks to John Ashmore about feminism, party leadership and why the school system doesn’t add up
Layla Moran has done great things for the Liberal Democrats before even getting to parliament. The teacher-turned-politician achieved one of the party’s best results on election night, unseating health minister Nicola Blackwood in Oxford West and Abingdon. She’s still adjusting to the “whirlwind” of becoming an MP and shadow education spokeswoman, though an eclectic CV suggests Moran is used to adapting to new circumstances.
As the daughter of an EU diplomat she spent her childhood all over the world, with stints in Ethiopia, Jordan, Jamaica and Belgium. She followed a physics degree at Imperial College with teacher training and a master’s in comparative education, before spending nine years teaching, including at Queensmead, a comprehensive in west London.
Moran also has the distinction of being the first ever MP of Palestinian descent and the great-granddaughter of acclaimed Jerusalem diarist, Wasif Jawhariyyeh. She seems keen not to be pigeonholed as the Palestinian MP, though, stressing that her background is “incidental” to her work as a constituency advocate. As for the situation in the Middle East, her emphasis is very much on reconciliation.
“When I see factions within my party or other parties fighting, when I see disrespect towards Jewishness as much as I see disrespect towards the Palestinians, all I can think is this is just not helpful.”
As one of four newly elected female Lib Dem MPs, she is understandably disappointed that Jo Swinson has decided not to throw her hat in the ring to succeed Tim Farron as party leader. On the other hand, she insists this is not a setback for the cause of women in politics.
“A lot of people are saying it’s a step back for feminism that she’s not standing. I think that’s entirely the opposite. I think the point of feminism is you support women in their choices and, in her case, it was clear from the blog post she wrote that it was a very considered choice. She didn’t rule herself out immediately, she clearly took a lot of time to think about it and the best thing I can do as a fellow female parliamentarian is to support her in that choice.”
Moran says that while she hopes to see Swinson run again in the future, whoever does lead the party faces a big task in claiming the empty centre ground of British politics.
“I think whoever comes next in the leadership, their job will be to help the public understand what our core values are, what liberalism means, what social liberalism means… and to re-energise that movement within the UK for the centre ground, which seems to have been absolutely vacated.
“We haven’t yet made the inroads we need to claim that space. So whoever comes in, that to me is the major challenge and that’s what I’m looking for in the next leader – someone who can do that most effectively.”
As for the education brief, a combination of personal and professional experience has given Moran a unique perspective on the challenges facing English schools. “I have lived in a number of countries growing up, some of which were incredibly poor, including Ethiopia and Jordan, which don’t have many resources and have huge inequalities. It wasn’t really until I did a master’s in comparative education that I appreciated how bad inequality is in this country. That was the first time I really thought to myself ‘Wow, there is still a lot of work to do in the UK’. It’s not just about places which don’t have very much money. We shouldn’t have a situation where we’re leaving the poorest behind and that’s what got me angry.”
She wants to see control of the school curriculum wrested back from Whitehall, with a much greater emphasis on expert research in formulating policy.
“Teachers are sick of changes coming every two years – or whenever there’s a new education secretary – which aren’t evidence-based, that are basically ideologically driven and don’t match what they think is best for learners in their classroom.
“I’d like to see a stronger link with evidence for what works in education, working more closely with bodies like the Institute of Education, universities, the Education Endowment Fund, people like that who look at what actually works and do proper research, and then for that to be listened to in government. There seems to be a growing distance between what research shows works, versus what the government’s actually doing and pushing.”
In an era of dodgy, debatable statistics, Moran hopes her science and maths background will stand her in good stead in parliament.
“I never thought that being numerate would be so useful in such important positions, but I think that is something I will bring to the house. An understanding of causation and correlation is helpful and, because I have taught it, perhaps I could explain those things in the house in a way that is useful, rather than just pointing out that they’re wrong.
“So, yeah, I definitely hope to make the case for why numbers are worth listening to, but in the right way and not just used as a tool to further your ideological aims.”