The Liberal Democrat leadership hopeful on working with Labour, rejoining the EU and where the party needs to pitch itself
Layla Moran is cooped up in her flat as the Liberal Democrats embark on one of the oddest party leadership elections of the modern era.
Labour’s recent contest was cut short by Covid-19, but Keir Starmer was widely seen as the leader-elect by the time it struck. The Lib Dems’, however, which pits 37-year-old Moran against acting co-leader Ed Davey, will take place almost entirely via Zoom, with a lengthy series of online hustings, both geographic and thematic, before voting concludes at the end of August.
For Moran, a former teacher and ‘natural extrovert’, it’s frustrating, although it has allowed her to address far more members and associations than a traditional contest would. And this is a contest – one arguably more important than it might appear – with a genuine debate over strategy and where the battered party now pitches itself.
‘My slogan is ‘Move Forwards Together’, ‘move forward’ meaning we have made so many mis-steps now between 2010 and 2020 it’s been a real rollercoaster ride for the Liberal Democrats for all sorts of different reasons,’ muses Moran as we meet via the now-ubiquitous video-conferencing site, ‘but bluntly, what I think has been going wrong is that successively we have lost, and then gained and then lost again trust and credibility with the electorate.’ For context, Moran is bidding to be the party’s fourth permanent leader in five years – UKIP levels of turnover.
‘That applies partly to coalition but actually I would argue it also applies to the 2019 general election, and there’s a feeling in the electorate – and this comes from their mouths, not necessarily commentators or what I think personally – that the Lib Dems, first of all, at various points have said that they were gonna do something and then did something else.
‘And that confuses people, it makes people feel like they can’t trust us. And for young people and Labour-facing voters, that is coalition. And you certainly hear it a lot from Labour activists. ‘Yellow Tories,’ they will cry as they come and campaign against us in seats that only we can win against the Conservatives.’
Against Brexit and Conservative voters ‘who we desperately need to win over’, she says, the issue is the controversial decision last year to go into the general election on a pledge to unilaterally revoke Article 50, a decision she backed. But for the electorate ‘what they saw in their hearts was anti-democratic and that was why they punished us in the way, partly, that they did’.
On the issue of the Lib Dems voting to help Boris Johnson get his election in 2019, now widely derided, she says: ‘Hindsight is a beautiful thing and clearly it was the wrong thing to do’. She was ‘very, very uncomfortable’ with holding an election at that time, she says, ‘and I remember speaking up against it and saying ‘I’m not sure this is the right thing to do, this is giving Boris Johnson what he wants’ and my instinct is always to not give Boris Johnson what he wants. That’s my first instinct politically.’
If this is a change vs establishment election, Moran was widely seen as the change candidate – she only entered Parliament as MP for Oxford West and Abingdon in 2017, while 54-year-old Davey served as energy secretary in the coalition.
Going into the contest she was arguably seen as the frontrunner, but her campaign has seen a wobble over the past week, triggered by questions over an interview to a business website in which she appeared to dial up the left-wing rhetoric. Talk about being ‘even more radical than Labour’ and appearing to appeal to disaffected Corbynites with ambitions of it being ‘cool to vote Lib Dem again’ worried some. One MP, Daisy Cooper, a rising star in the party widely seen as a perceived ally, declared her support for Davey. Moran is very keen to put the record straight.
‘If you look at actually what I said in those quotes, as opposed to the framing of the piece, is that I wanted to be more radical than Labour,’ she says.
‘But that doesn’t mean left. That means radical liberal. And if you look at, in the past, when the Lib Dems have done well – under Paddy Ashdown, under Charles Kennedy, under Vince [Cable], actually, who isn’t necessarily associated with [the] far left at all, they will often talk about radical liberalism.
‘What I will concede is that I needed to make clearer that I was talking about liberalism. And so there was a misunderstanding. But I never – and I think this is really important to say, and I want to absolutely clarify this for anyone who is confused – I do not want us to be on the left of Labour, I have never said that.
‘What I have said is I want us to be liberal. And some of that is going to be, you know, centre-left progressive politics. It’s about having a strong welfare state, it’s about focusing on education – the three pillars of my campaign are education, the environment and the economy and we have to make sure we are talking about these bread-and-butter issues, these broad issues which are going to attract the best number of voters from all sides.
‘And if you look at Oxford West and Abingdon, that’s what I did. You know, I won over voters from the Labour Party, sure, by talking about a progressive alliance of voters where we needed to beat the Tories, but we couldn’t have overturned a 10,000 Tory majority in 2017 without winning over lots and lots and lots of Tory voters. And you do that by talking about broad issues. So, to clarify: I want us to be liberal. Not left and not right.’
In 80 of the 91 Westminster seats where the party is currently in second place – and it’s worth remembering the party increased its vote by 4.2% in December, punished by first-past-the-post – their main rival is a Tory. So it’s perhaps little wonder that those opposing Moran seek to portray her as a left-winger.
‘What that misinterpretation, wilful or otherwise – I think it was spun a bit by those who it suits to spin – what I also think for those who are just reading it and just assumed that it was left, people have forgotten what liberalism is in this country,’ she says.
What’s the difference between her liberalism and Ed Davey’s, I wonder? ‘You’d have to ask him,’ she says. ‘I mean, I think, you know, during this leadership contest, if there are differences, they’ll be explored.’
Moran is also eager to dispel some of the murmurings among those backing Davey that she will be a ‘woke warrior’ – my words, not hers – focusing on trans rights and statues, important issues but rarely those which come up on the doorstep.
‘I think we need to major on the things that matter to the broadest number of people, and you’ll notice in my three pillars of education, the environment and the economy, that’s what I’ve chosen to really focus on,’ she says.
‘But that doesn’t mean that we give up on those important progressive issues. And the Lib Dems have always been at the forefront of that bit of society – you know, we were one of the first ones who spoke about equal marriage.
‘I don’t think we should concede that ground. But I think there has been a perception that that’s all the party talks about. And I think we should be leading with things that are a bit more bread-and-butter.
‘And what I’ve found in Oxford West and Abingdon is that almost gains you permission, because you’ve gained the trust of those voters to talk about those other, slightly more conscience issues, and they go ‘maybe they’ve got a point, because they’re right on so much else, maybe I’ll listen to that too’.’
Moran, if elected leader, will not go into the next election, as Jo Swinson did, in a bus proclaiming her to be a candidate for prime minister (‘What I can tell you is I intend to maintain my credibility throughout the time that I’m leader,’ she says).
Which is why this election, with its electorate of around 120,000, is more important than it appears. Unless you believe that Keir Starmer will win back Scotland, his only realistic route to Downing Street is by the Lib Dems denying the Tories a majority by taking those target seats (43 of its top 50) which are Tory-facing and where Labour aren’t in the game. St Ives, South Cambridgeshire, Cheadle.
‘It’s definitely true to say if they want a majority government or a minority government or whatever it is, they need us,’ says Moran.
‘We need to start by building those relationships within the Labour Party, and it does come down, fundamentally, to trust and credibility with the Labour Party as well. It all comes back to these two words.
‘Because what they need to know is that we are a fighting force, a credible fighting force in those seats against the Tories. And, ideally, that they don’t come and campaign against us, you know, wielding pitchforks of yellow Tories and ‘we don’t care, you’re all the same’. We need to get to a point where there’s just some cool-headed pragmatism between the parties, that in places where either of us is best-placed to take seats off Boris Johnson then that’s what we do.
‘And that’s not what happened at the last election. And it’s deeply regretful, because there were places like Wimbledon, like Finchley and Golders Green, like Cities of [London and] Westminster, where that did happen, and it was shameful.
‘Now, how that’s gonna happen, I think, will be very similar, in some ways, to the strategy in the ’90s between Paddy Ashdown and Blair. I think that relationship is absolutely critical. I think the relationship between the Lib Dems and not just Kier Starmer but the people around him… is really very very important.
‘What I wouldn’t want to say at this point is exactly what it would look like, and it’s worth reminding people in ’97 it wasn’t any kind of formal pact at all. It was just an understanding of mutual benefit, that if you don’t mess each other up in seats where you can take the fight to the Tories, then that surely is beneficial for everybody.’
For a three-year MP, standing for the leadership is pretty assured, although the Lib Dems don’t have many MPs and many are even newer. She has, however, built up a reasonable profile.
‘I’m the only Lib Dem [since being elected] to go on Have I Got News For You, I’ve done Question Time, I’ve done all of the major stuff, and so clearly there is something about me that does attract that attention,’ she says.
She’s even worked with the Daily Mail, the mention of whom is a sure-fire boo at the party’s conference, in campaigning on food standards ‘Even Daily Mail readers care deeply about food standards, animal welfare and food standards,’ she says.
‘I’m different. I do politics differently. I think people also value that I’m a bit of a straight talker, that I’m open and honest about what I think. People can rely on me to give a pretty open answer about how I feel about something.’
Pretty open answer then – under her leadership, can she envisage the Lib Dems becoming explicitly the party of Rejoin?
‘Under my leadership?,’ she asks.
‘So… if you’re assuming my leadership will last two elections – 10 years, say? – I would hope that in 10 years time public opinion will have come round to that position.
‘What I can say to people is this: if I could take us to that position tomorrow and know that the country was on our side, then I would absolutely do that. Being part of Europe is part of my DNA. It was literally the first flag that I ever drew, because my dad went to join the European Commission when I was one. The whole of my childhood and his career was centred around the EU and what it did and what it stood for.
‘I will never, in my own heart, actually leave the European Union – it’s part of me. And as soon as we are able to come round to that position then I will take us there, for sure. But I don’t think it is prudent to do it now. Because it would lose us credibility, and we shouldn’t be doing it until we’ve made that case in the public for why we should.’
Woke warrior or the voice of reason, then? Either way, the Lib Dems’ gruelling leadership contest should stress-test both candidates to the maximum.