It is nearly a year till the general election, but Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat challenger in Oxford West and Abingdon, is already working 100-hour weeks.
“As an MP that’s what you have to do. So I look at it relatively pragmatically: if I can’t hack it now, what business have I got being an MP?” asks Moran.
Moran, also a full-time physics teacher, is standing against incumbent Conservative Nicola Blackwood, who won her seat in 2010 by a majority of less than 200. Oxford West and Abingdon had previously been held by Lib Dem Evan Harris for thirteen years, and before that, the seat had been Conservative for decades.
“It is probably the most winnable seat the Lib Dems have in the country,” says Moran on the phone from the Liberal Democrat office on Park End Street, Oxford. “It helps that both the main contenders will suffer the opprobrium of being the party of government, but in Moran’s view, the infrastructure of the campaign is equally crucial. “Ours is significant,” she says. “We’ve got literally hundreds of volunteers.”
This confidence is somewhat at odds with a recent poll by Lord Ashcroft, in which the Conservatives were found to be considerably ahead in Oxford West and Abingdon. But Moran is not concerned: the electorate “have had five years more of literature from Nicola Blackwood… so to be behind at this stage doesn’t surprise me at all.”
In fact, Moran does not predict the Lib Dems will be ahead in the polls until the night they win the election. “This seat is won on whether Labour voters decide they want to kick the Tory out,” she says. “If you look at the Ashcroft poll, there were still high numbers of Labour voters who have said that if it was tomorrow… they’d probably vote Labour. But if you press them a tiny bit they say, ‘You’re right, we need to kick that Tory out.’
“That message, en masse, has not gone out yet, and it won’t do, until weeks before the election – because that’s when Labour voters will suddenly be pragmatic. But right now, they can afford not to be.”
I’m literally not local to anywhere tweet
Moran far from stumbled into the gruelling work in which she now finds herself. She is not the lifelong party member called upon by her peers in a moment of constituency need. Her situation is, instead, the near-fulfilment of her purpose in getting involved in a political party at all: for Moran, politics has always been a means to becoming an MP and, therefore, being able to effect change in our society.
Her master’s degree led her to look at how statistical data on education was being used by policy-makers. “I quite quickly came to the conclusion there wasn’t all that much correlation between what policy was being adopted, particularly by the UK government, and what the data says is probably the best thing to try,” she says.
“Britain has some quite bad data associated with it for how closely [educational] outcome is linked to where the child comes from socioeconomically – that link… is very much a driver for why I want to stand as an MP, because to me that’s just not right. It shouldn’t matter who your parents were or how much money you had when you were five years old as to what happens later on in your life,” Moran continues.
A thorough analysis of literature from the parties – “as you’re probably gathering, I’m quite analytical” – led Moran to conclude that the Liberal Democrats were for her. As she herself admits, standing as a Lib Dem is not usually the quickest route to Westminster, but “it was certainly the most genuine way, based on what I believe, and what I thought was best for education at the time.” She has since come to embrace Lib Dem views beyond just those on education.
Selected in 2012 as the Lib Dem candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon, shortly before which Moran had moved to Oxford to take up her teaching job full-time – “I moved here regardless… and was not going to leave if I lost” – Moran professes to be “very” local to Oxford. “So much of localism is about what you do for your community,” Moran says. “Come the general election, I will be judged on what I actually manage to achieve on the ground for people, even as a candidate.”
The issue of localism is particularly tricky for Moran, who is half Palestinian and has never lived in any one country for more than five years. “When you ask where I am local, I suppose the answer is nowhere – I’m literally not local to anywhere. But do I feel like I belong in Oxford, and this is where I want to be.”
Oxford West and Abingdon is a varied constituency. It includes nine colleges of Oxford University, and affluent parts of north Oxford, as well as numerous outlying villages. Abingdon itself is separated from Oxford by a twenty-minute bus ride. This geographical diversity is perhaps reflected in the diversity of voting tendencies that make this seat marginal.
“Oxford West and Abingdon, I hope, will remain marginal, not necessarily as a slight of how I’ll do as an MP, but I personally like the idea of being in a seat where I will always have to win [the electorate] over,” says Moran. “It means the electorate has interesting and disparate views, and your job is to bring all these people together behind whatever is happening in the community, and that in itself is an interesting challenge.”
But, for now, Moran’s challenge is her campaign. Are those 100-hour weeks negatively affecting her social life? “Absolutely,” she says, laughing. “Not in a woe-is-me story [though]. My family are very supportive and proud… There are other professions where people work very hard, too: lawyers, doctors, and so forth.”
She continues, “You can be a normal, intelligent, driven person, and be a parliamentarian – or a candidate, at least – you’ve just got to work hard. It’s completely doable, and the more people who puts themselves forward for it, the better the country will be.”
“I’m a normal person who works really hard,” she reiterates, “and it’s tough, and sometimes at the end of the day I’m really knackered and I like to have a glass of wine.”