It’s a busy life for a candidate fighting for a marginal seat – Layla Moran, physics teacher and Liberal Democrat, knows this better than anyone at the moment. Our meeting place demonstrates this, as we grab a half hour over her pub lunch.
“The campaign is going amazing!”, she gushes, proud of the fact that Oxford West and Abingdon currently boasts the country’s highest Lib Dem membership. It’s a membership that’s still growing, with Layla telling me that the area has experienced a “20% increase in the last year and a half alone”. With the party boasting multiple victories in the constituency’s recent local and by-elections. Even on the way to meet Layla, this support was evident in the multiple signs in front gardens blazoning her name in support. “It’s one thing to be supportive; its another thing to be supportive in neon yellow!” she laughs, “I think it shows the strength of community support we have, its wonderful”.
The importance of the Oxford West seat is definitely at the forefront of the party’s consciousness right now, with Nick Clegg himself making an appearance in the area at the beginning of the campaign launch. “This is a centre left constituency.”, Layla declares adamantly, her face serious and intent. “The majority of people are not happy with Nicola Blackwood’s stance on equal marriage, they’re not happy that she’s helped by fox hunters to win her campaign, and they’re not happy that she voted against more information for women that wanted to have abortions.” Although these are issues that often divide opinion, Layla makes it clear that she does not agree with any of these practices, and she hopes that the electorate agrees. “It’s down to me or Nicola, who’s going to represent you and your views better”, she asserts, making it obvious that she feels she is the candidate able to do that. “I personally feel that as an MP here my personal values will chime much better with people”, she asserts.
Layla, like so many Liberal Democrats, is keen to distance herself from the Conservative leg of the coalition government. “It has been incredibly uncomfortable being with the Conservatives, and that’s an understatement of a word.” Despite this, Layla values the imput of her party over the last few years. “It would have been much worse without us”, she states simply, in a very matter of fact manner. As such, she is trepidatious about the prospect of May 7th birthing a Tory government, noting with sincerity that she is “very worried about what the Conservatives are saying”. We go on to discuss cuts to the education budget and a lack of investment in early years education, both of which are policies that she vehemently opposes.
This leads us on to a more topical discussion point, and one relevant to the vast majority of students – that of tuition fees. It’s Layla that brings this up, actually, introducing the topic with a bold “I’ll bring up the elephant in the room”. She does this, however, with an initial reference to her main perceived rival – “I would not have voted for that rise. That’s a key difference between me and Nicola – she did, and I did not.” Layla explains how she feels her party managed to avoid further damage, by their contribution to ensuring that the fees were capped at £9,000, rather than the unlimited upfront fees that some politicians were advocating. She’s also quick to point out that the second part of the pledge was a deal that universities charging the highest rates would have to improve their access programmes to “make a more progressive and fair system”. “Oxford has been doing an incredible job of doing that” she acknowledges, specifically naming Somerville, which falls in her constituency. You get the feeling that this definitely isn’t the first time she’s felt obliged to defend the rise, referring to the party’s 2010 headline promises and pointing out that tuition fees were never up there with the greats.
“I totally get how people feel that they were let down. I, frankly, felt a bit left down and I almost left my own party,” Layla muses. “But, there is a reason that I’m still a Liberal Democrat. We are a party that stands for human rights and equality, and we stopped the Tories from doing some incredibly dangerous things.”
Looking locally, Layla has some big transport plans. In a city so dependent on bikes, one thing she wants to push for is “better cycling facilities”. This doesn’t just seem to be a pipe dream; Layla cowrote the Lib Dem policy alongside her Cambridge counterpart. “The two constituencies are linked in many ways”, she explained, “The policy includes much more investment in cycling, but also segregated cycle lanes and that kind of thing.” Already, Layla appears to have put her words into actions; she is currently leading a campaign to create more than 150 bike spaces at the new Oxford Parkway, and she claims to have “pointed out” to the local council that their previously warm plans for cycling have been around without implementation for a while.
But, what for young people here specifically? Aside from wider plans to create a discounted bus pass from a reduction in the winter fuel allowance (but only for higher rate pensioners), Layla explains the relevance of the party’s plan to create the ‘Help to Rent’ scheme – a series of government loans specifically intended for students who are struggling to put down deposits. “We need much more affordable housing in Oxford”, Layla recognises, fully aware of the somewhat high fees paid by students across the city. “A lot of students can’t afford that big lump sum. They just don’t have it. A lot of people borrow it from their parents, but why should you have to rely on your parents?”
“I think that it would be a really empowering policy for young people”, Layla continues, “they should be allowed to make their own choices and decisions”. Given the pressures of Oxford and the prominent place that the Counselling Service has in the lives of many Oxford students, we move the discussion onto mental health. Layla is eager to get across the party’s policy, that mental health will be prioritised by the NHS in the same way that physical health is – including waiting times for appointments and patient care following suicide attempts. “The colleges are generally supportive of their students”, she concurs, “but they don’t have the capacity to offer that kind of support that students need.” We talk at length about this issue, focussing not just on the reasons for which mental health treatment should be prioritised, but also touching upon people Layla has known in the past who would have benefitted from these ideas.
I ask Layla why she thinks left parties are attracting young, first time voters in droves. She considers it for a while, before answering in thoughtful terms: “I think young people are dreamers, in the best possible sense of the world. They want a world that is peaceful, and tolerant, and one where everyone has opportunity.” It’s clear that Layla feels her party would be able to offer this in a way that other popular left-wing parties could not. “It’s not enough to have lofty ideas, you have to deliver it. The problem we have with a lot of the left of politics – with Labour and the Greens – is that their plans are often undeliverable without huge amounts of borrowing, which affects the economy. I still believe we can achieve that world”, she hastens to add, “but it might take a slightly longer time, because we need to do it in a fiscally responsible way.”
Layla Moran sees “a stark choice” for voters within Oxford West and Abingdon. “It’s either going to be a right wing, Conservative MP, which is what people have now, or me – who is very pro-progressiveness, LGBTQ rights, Left-leaning. I genuinely believe I would represent students in Parliament better than the current MP would.” She says, evidently earnest. However, although Layla is firm and clear in her opinions on her marginal opponent, she admits that she doesn’t want to run a smear campaign: “I don’t want to have to campaign like that to people, that’s such a negative message.” In doing so, she raises questions about the wider problems facing our country and its political future. “Part of the conversation we need to have with students here is the fact that the first past the post system is broken. If people want a left leaning government, they have to kick out a Tory MP. That’s the fastest way of doing it. If they vote Labour or Green, they’re letting her back in.”