Very few people are born Liberal Democrats, and leadership hopeful Layla Moran is no exception. Her English father “has always been a Labour man all his life, and still describes himself that way”.
He will vote for Moran, but “still very considers himself indebted to the Labour Party because his family was very working class, he was first in his family to go to university, and felt like the legs-up he’s had in life were because of policies that they put in place in the 1960s and 1970s in particular”. It was at university that he met her mother, who is Palestinian, and was “always political” but not party political: “My first memory of her was shouting at the television screen because she hated Thatcher so much; she absolutely loved Shirley Williams, which is, I think, partly why Shirley is one of my political heroes even to this day.”
Williams, who broke away from Labour to found the SDP in 1981 and is still one of the most popular figures within the Liberal Democrats, is backing Moran’s leadership rival, Ed Davey. So too is former leader Tim Farron, like Moran a popular and respected figure on the party’s left, as is Daisy Cooper, another major figure on the Lib Dem left. Farron has warned that the party should not position itself to the left of Labour, as has Vince Cable, another former leader. Both Farron and Cable’s remarks were seen as coded criticisms of Moran, who told Business Insider she would be “more radical than Labour and I will be unapologetic about that”.
So would she take the party to the left of Keir Starmer?
“What I was expressing there was that we need to appeal to the young vote again,” the Oxford West and Abingdon MP explains. “When I was at university, it was cool to vote Lib Dem, and the reason why was because of the stance that Charles Kennedy took, and I felt very much like he was talking to my concerns. But actually, at his core, now I realise what it was, I just think I didn’t have the words for it then: it was because he was a liberal.”
Moran believes that the party must emphasise that liberalism means “freedom to” as well as “freedom from”: that means talking about education and climate change, but also about business and the economy. “When people try and shove liberalism on that left-right axis,” Moran says, “It doesn’t ever quite fit.”
Does that mean the party should have a core vote strategy – of seeking to increase the number of people who, as with the big two political parties, strongly identify as Liberal Democrat? That’s the position the party’s president, Mark Pack, has long argued for, as has the former Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth, who is one of the contributors to Build Back Better, the pamphlet Moran edited on the party’s future that was published last month.
“I think actually we achieved some of that with the Remain stance that we took over the past few years, and we did see our share of the vote increase more than any other party at the last election,” Moran says. “The issue that we have now, however, is that we need to make sure that that is concentrated in the right seats, so that it can also convert into parliamentarians.”
She thinks the party should be the “candle-holder for Rejoin, one day”, but says her current priority is “to rebuilt trust with not just the Remain vote but actually across the whole of the country”.
One other advantage of developing a proper core vote is future-proofing the party against a future coalition, though both Moran and Davey have ruled out a coalition with the Conservatives after 2024. Moran, who was not an MP during the coalition and spoke out against the Health and Social Care Act 2012, came close to quitting the party over its support for the tripling of tuition fees when it was in coalition. As a parliamentary candidate in Battersea in 2010 she had, along with all other Liberal Democrat candidates, signed a pledge committing not to vote for any increase in tuition fees, and the party’s formal position was to abolish them.
“I was absolutely distraught, because I had signed that pledge in good faith,” she remembers, “But also, you know, my belief is, if you invest in education, then that’s a great thing and that’s what the party said it would do. The problem was, I, at the time, didn’t understand the intricacies of what was going wrong in university finance, and that was the problem that the government was trying to fix, and actually, now I’ve understood it better, to be perfectly honest I am not for lowering fees to zero, because we need to support our university sector. I think we’d be better off having a graduate tax, looking again at the amount of interest, for example, that students pay, and having higher maintenance grants; that’s what I would do now.”
What kept her in the party? Among other things, the pupil premium, a Lib Dem policy for extra funding for disadvantaged pupils introduced by the coalition in 2011. What happens in classrooms is of vital importance to her: after studying physics at Imperial College, she became a school teacher and her experiences there, coupled with a master’s in education, made her realise that “these days, it’s not the social mobility that my dad experienced; where you end up now is so much more linked to what your parents do and how much money they have than at any time in our history”.
So why rule out coalition with the Conservatives again – given that she believes that the arrangement improved the quality of the coalition government?
“I think I cannot in any good conscience, looking at how Boris Johnson is handling this crisis, say that I could ever give him a second term in office, and to that I have been absolutely clear: I will not prop up Boris Johnson,” she says. However, she leaves the door open to a coalition with a different Conservative Party.
“To the ‘do coalitions work or not?’ [question], actually I continue to believe in non-tribal politics. I still want to see a change in the voting system towards PR, and I still think that coalition government, if it can work in this country one day, is in the best interests of the country. If you look at how stable the government was in 2010 to 2015, especially given the economic shock that it had faced, actually, it was a great way of bringing people together: the problem was, there were lots of mistakes and we would learn from them for the next time. So I don’t rule it out completely, but I would rule it out completely with Boris Johnson.”
To get into that situation, however, the party needs to revive – and Moran’s task is to convince Liberal Democrat members that she is the person to do that.