Layla Moran’s First Year in Office
"You’ve got to approach the world with the fascination of someone who’s seeing it for the first time"
Here at OX Magazine we tend to stay away from politics. There’s enough in this world that divides us without Oxford’s leading luxury lifestyle title preaching to its readers – we’ll leave that to the news media.
As you are undoubtedly aware, in these pages we provide a remedy to all the vitriol and viciousness of modern politics with a monthly dose of beautiful things and inspiring people. Thank goodness then that Layla Moran is the least vicious and vitriolic politician you could ever hope to meet. She is a passionate advocate on issues such as education and homelessness and a loyal and humble representative for Oxford West and Abingdon – Oxfordshire’s finest indeed.
My first question for Layla was in service of nothing but my own fragile sense of validation. We’d met before in 2017 at the Victoria Arms in Jericho shortly after she’d won her seat in parliament. My friend and I nervously offered her a drink as a small token of our appreciation for her campaign victory. I wondered tentatively if she remembered me. A flurry of affirmatives warmly wafted the other way down the phone line and convinced me that she’s the sort of politician that, though speaking to me in between meetings at Westminster, does not forget the little guy.
Admittedly this might be something approaching the purview of a local MP but there are few other constituencies that demand such particular representation. A short review of election statistics reveals Oxford West’s penchant for large swings and narrow victories. Layla won by a nail-biting 816 votes in an almost 15% swing away from the incumbent Conservative Nicola Blackwood. Where others might be apprehensive at such a tight margin, Layla embraces it. “This is a constituency that will swing and it reserves its right to change its mind, including when the incumbent is nearly 10,000 votes ahead, which is what happened when I overturned. I think that makes a good democracy. My only wish is that every MP had that because I think it makes me better.”
Confronting and embracing different viewpoints and experiences comes naturally to Layla. Born to a Christian Arab mother from Palestine and with an EU Ambassador as a father, Layla grew up all over the world including in Belgium, Greece, Ethiopia, Jamaica and Jordan. As such, she is fluent in French as well as dabbling in Arabic, Spanish and Greek. Describing herself as a “citizen of nowhere”, she feels at home in Oxford, “a city of the world. Oxford’s the kind of city that accepts people like me and embraces diversity,” she says, “I think of Oxford in those terms – somewhere you can walk down the street and hear seven different languages.”
Despite her father’s political pre-eminence, Layla’s career in Westminster came second having previously taught maths and physics at the International School of Brussels and at two schools in London. It was while studying for a master’s degree in comparative education in 2007 that she became politicised. “My anger was driven by the fact that I’d lived in places like Ethiopia, Jamaica and Jordan and I just couldn’t understand how on the one hand you have countries that have a genuine excuse for not being able to spend that much money on education and then you’ve got Britain that still has massive educational inequality.” Once roused into action her journey to the Liberal Democrat party was more methodical than ideological. “I was very systematic about which party had policies that are closest to what the research is, and it was very cold-hearted. I did a grid and I compared all parties.”
This rational, data-led approach is at the heart of Layla’s political outlook more generally. Recently she has confronted the lunacy of the Vagrancy Act, the repeal of which she has called for in a parliamentary campaign. The law makes rough sleeping illegal though it “would also apply to a drunk student sleeping on a park bench”. Layla calls the act positively “Dickensian” before outlining her more rational approach to tackling one of the city’s most alarming issues, including the realisation that a lot of rough sleepers are attracted to the centre from surrounding districts. “What I’ve learned from my work on the Public Accounts Committee is that we have a combination of lots of things that don’t quite work. And you’ve got certain people that fall through the cracks and they get to this desperate point and the reason they’re there is entirely avoidable at many different stages.”
Inevitably, and despite both of our best efforts, the conversation touched on the more divisive issues of the day (I won’t use the B word, I promise). Her outlook was much more positive than my rather pessimistic portrayal of a hardened left and more radical right. “I remain an optimist,” she intoned, “I think just because there are people at the periphery of these opinions that are really vocal right now, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone’s like that. I think most people are centrist, most people are a mix of views and most people can change their views – we’re just going through a bit of a phase where the people on the extremes are emboldened by each other and both are wrong in my view.”
The thought of a centrist utopia evoked the memory of Layla’s great grandfather, Wasif Jawhariyyeh who was a citizen of Jerusalem and one of its most important anecdotal historians. His memoirs, The Diaries of Wasif Jawhariyyeh describe a city in which the ethno-confessional boundaries often associated with Jerusalem at this time were in fact much more fluid. Himself an Eastern Orthodox Christian, he studied the Quran and attended both Muslim and Christian institutions, learning the languages of the Middle East and Europe. This sense of internationalism and multiculturalism runs like a river through Layla’s family. “We've always been the sort of family that will reach out and make links no matter who it is.” This reminded her of her favourite story concerning Wasif that her mother was fond of telling: “When he was older, they moved to Beirut for a while and while they were doing the move they lost Wasif – they didn’t know where he was, he’d gone off. Turns out that what he’d done is he’d found a local bin man and he was sat chatting to him on a wall for three hours whilst everyone else moved the stuff because he just found him so fascinating and interesting.”
This seemed like a fitting metaphor for Layla’s outlook as a local MP. “One thing I’m very conscious of is that people judge each other way too quickly. You’ve got to approach the world with the fascination of someone who’s seeing it for the first time, and appreciate you can’t judge people on that first pass.” Her non-judgemental outlook informs another of her political objectives – extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. This opinion is reinforced by her experience as a teacher in secondary schools. “I know that they think through what they think. It would be different if we had compulsory voting, but actually I would trust the 16 and 17 year olds’ opinions to be well-researched because they know they haven’t got the life experience so they will have just looked at the facts and made up their minds.”
Layla’s greatest political passion is education and she is now the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on the matter. Despite my knowing very little about education policy, I couldn’t help but hope for her to become education secretary one day. She gives hope to anyone who, in these uncertain and inflammatory times, wishes for a calmer political system, driven not by ideology and schism, but by rationality and openness.
Related Articles: OX speaks to Bill Bryson