Layla Moran, a physics graduate from Imperial College London is currently running for Parliament in the ultra-marginal seat of Oxford West and Abingdon. Last weekend the Imperial Liberal Democrats popped down to help Layla with her campaign. We caught up with Layla over lunch.
Plabon: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into politics?
Layla: I have a very international background, my mum is Palestinian and my dad is British, but he was a diplomat so I grew up moving around everywhere. I ended up settling in the UK for secondary education and went to Imperial to do physics. I was there from 2000 to 2003.
After that I went straight into the classroom and became a physics teacher, and it was teaching really that got me into politics. I ended up doing masters at the Institute of Education in comparative education, trying to apply the scientific method to social science. Having grown up sort of a bit of everywhere, I don’t think I’d quite appreciated how the education system in Britain grew up over time and learnt that actually a lot of what both the Labour and Tory governments had done over the last 20 to 30 years in the education system was the total opposite of what people wanted, which is the idea that if you are a child it doesn’t really matter where you are born; rich family, poor family, what colour your skin is, it shouldn’t matter, you should have the same opportunity as everyone else.
Unfortunately the education system in this country, by and large does not provide that, it tends to reinforce stratification in society rather than helping it. So at that point, I decided to become a MP, to affect change in education, as a lot of the policy is driven at that level. I looked across the manifestos and the policies of all the political parties, and I decided that in fact the Liberal Democrats had the best policy when it came to education.It was evidence-based policy, based on what works, not ideologically driven.
And so I decided I would rather spend the rest of my life fighting for something I actually believed in, than going with one of the major parties and almost guaranteeing myself a seat in Parliament. And that brings me very much to where I am now, where I am pleased to stand in a seat where I actually do stand a very good chance of winning and hope to be able to affect that kind of change when I become an MP.
P: How has your scientific background helped you in politics?
L: You’d be surprised at how many people in Parliament have no sense of numeracy at all. Not least not understanding what uncertainty means. A classic example of course being climate change deniers who seem to think that 5% uncertainty on models as complex as that is a bad thing. In fact, we all know that that’s a really good margin of error when you’re dealing with models that complex.
And at least being able to understand some of the underlying statistics to data, which is then used to drive policy, is all about. So on that level I found it very interesting going into politics because I look at it from that point of view: What’s the data telling me? What’s the direction of travel? How can we affect change and help use data to help us to make that change? So to that end I find the Liberal Democrats actually are very good at looking at policy and using policy at a grassroots level and making policy at conference through voting.
My physics background is hopefully unique and I’m hoping that’ll bring something different to the vast majority of lawyers and other social scientists who are there now.
P: Political apathy is generally quite high amongst students, especially at Imperial, which is a science University. How would you go about solving that?
L: I disagree with the question; I don’t think people are politically apathetic. I think they actually care deeply about a lot of issues, they’re just not necessarily party political and they are quite disillusioned with the current system. I do think that the way politics is happening in this country is changing, particularly with the use of social media and the Internet. People are much more in touch with MPs. From my point of view in Oxford West and Abingdon I think that means being a very present MP in your constituency.
I believe that it is your voters at the end of the day that are your bosses; there’s no one else who can hire and fire you, only them and you have to always remember that, so I intend to be a very, very conscientious constituency MP. But at the same time I think you need to be using new technology to actively engage with people on policy issues that you care about. For example, I do hope to be a champion for science, particularly the science budget in Parliament. At the moment we are the only party who have committed to ring-fencing it and
I would like to make sure that whoever ends up in government will ring-fence the science recession development budget. But in order to do that I’m going to need to lobby not just people within Parliament but to get people from outside Parliament with similar interests in to have their voices heard, and the best way I think of doing that is through things like social media.
So there is no quick-fix answer, I think it is changing over time but one thing I would encourage people to do is definitely go out and vote and even if you spoil your ballot I’d rather you just gave it a go and went and learned about the process and tried to look some people up.
P: What do you think is the greatest problem facing students today?
L: I think there are two aspects of it. Students themselves are definitely facing a cost of living crisis and that’s the thing I’m hearing about most, more in fact than lowering tuition fees. I think that’s a bit of gimmick that Labour have brought in actually. I would much rather any extra money to help students goes into beefing up maintenance grants, because so many students find that the cost of living in so many cities in the UK is unaffordable.
In the future though I think it’s definitely the fact that it’s so hard to get a job as a young person and when you leave University you’re quite often stuck in a catch-22 of you have no experience so they won’t give you a job to get the experience. This is why the starter jobs idea is so important. The way to do that is to definitely tackle the deficit, make sure you’re doing things that are good for business. We definitely need to do more to make sure that businesses are focussing on the 21- 25 year old bracket and not filling those jobs with people in their 30s who were made redundant during the recession. We need to make sure that it’s an equitable and fair hiring process.
This is why I believe that you should have age, sex and name redaction on applications because it shouldn’t matter how old you are, it should matter what your skills are as to which jobs you end up getting. That’s an example of something we’ve been pushing for within Parliament and we’ve got a long way to go but I think that something like that would really help not just young people but also people of ethnic “It was teaching that really got me into politics.” “You’d be surprised at how many people in Parliament have no sense of numeracy at all.” “Students themselves are definitely facing a cost of living crisis.” “The Lib Dems have very few safe seats. But I like the idea of fighting for what I’ve earned rather than being given anything.”
P: So you mentioned the issue of maintenance grants. However people who get good maintenance grants also get good bursaries from the University and good loans, so they’re not actually the ones in trouble. The trouble is in the middle where you have people who don’t get any bursaries, no maintenance grants just because, lets’ say, their parents both earn £21k and that puts them out of the bracket.
L: That’s exactly the population I’m talking about.
P: But then you have the issue of increasing the maintenance loan, increases the total debt and that creates pressure on the government to service that debt.
L: That’s right. I think it’s right. I personally would have been someone would not have voted for fees. I think you end up giving back much more into society when you have a degree than if you don’t; you earn more money so you pay more tax and over time that works. But we are not in a position where we are able to promise that in the next election.
But I do think it’s ok for the government to be putting up cheap loans so that people can get their first degrees. I’m also pretty proud that we made the system more progressive; there are more students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds going to University now than ever before, because they’re worked out that it’s actually better for them in the long term. But it’s not easy in this political climate.
P: Animal testing is currently a big issue at Imperial. What is your view on animal testing?
L: My view is that there’s a place for it, but it has to be done as an absolute last resort. I think that’s it’s true that there are some protocols that could be done with modelling rather than on the animals themselves, but I think that there’s undoubtedly a place for it.
On one hand, I am an animal lover and I hate to see that animals are used in anything, but also I do believe that if you are developing, for example, a vaccine for cats, you really ought to test it on cats. And a lot of these people who are anti any kind of animal testing forget that that applies as well to animal medicines. There are some no-go areas, anything to do with makeup, anything to do with anything cosmetic is totally not okay.
But when it comes to cutting-edge science, I do believe in science, I believe that science has a place in making the world a better place for everybody and that involves sometimes, in rare occasions using animals. Britain has a very good record on this, I have to say, and we’ve got some of the most stringent legislation in the world to do with animal testing.
The balance could still be that we have an even higher burden of proof that you need to use animals and I still think it needs to be under constant review with the way science changes and what we use if for. But by and large I am supportive in the right circumstances.
P: What is the Lib Dems policy that you most disagree with?
L: Not many. It used to be nuclear. When I first joined the party; I’m not exactly pro-nuclear, but I am pro-decarbonisation and I think that sometimes there’s a root for nuclear in the different models that we can look at, but now actually the party has come around to my point of view, which is great. I wrote the party’s policy on fracking, which is basically extreme scepticism, but as a scientist I am not going to say no to a test well, because I think you ought to see the extent of the problem.
So actually nowadays, I have to say, there’s not much. We don’t go far enough with education policy. At the moment our policy is that we are okay with free schools. The evidence suggests that free schools are detrimental to the system as a whole, and would like to see them gotten rid of completely, so I would like to see us pull away from those, as an example.
But it’s bits and bobs, there’s not very much that is substantive in the party that I don’t agree with anymore.
P: Parliament is a male dominated area and you’d be one of the few females there if elected. What would you do to address the gender balance in Parliament?
L: Well just being there, I hope, will help. I think one of the issues for a lot of women is that there aren’t very many people like them in Parliament, so it’s about partly creating a role model. That said, I’m not sure I would necessarily have gone for it in the way that I did if it wasn’t for people like Jo Swinson and Willot, who are young and had their families while they were in Parliament. You know, there’s another side to my life; I don’t think you should get rid of your personal life because you want to be a Parliamentarian.
It’s important to see role models like them who have done both, and done it well. So I don’t think there is an easy answer. Something to bear in mind is the reason the Lib Dems have such a poor record on this is because we don’t have safe seats, so I’m part of the leadership program in the party where minority candidates are helped; given extra training, and we’re told we are some of the best candidates in the party.Yet, we have very few safe seats. So this seat, which is basically on a knife-edge and will all depend on the size of the campaign is almost as good as it gets within the Lib Dems. It’s so uncertain. We don’t have the luxury of being able to parachute anyone.
But then I don’t think that’s a bad thing either, because I like the idea of fighting for what I’ve earned rather than being given anything.
P: Describe yourself with a movie or song title.
L: ‘Life is a Rollercoaster’ by Ronan Keating. I hate that song, by the way, but it’s a good title.
P: If money was no problem, what would be the first thing you’d do?
L: I’d buy a house. I’m so desperate to buy a house, and I can’t afford it. What they don’t tell you about campaigning is that it takes up a lot of your time and a lot of your money, and you don’t get paid as a candidate. So, by the end of this process, I will have nothing left in the bank. So yeah, if I won the lottery or something, that would be awesome, I’d buy a house, that’d be cool.
P: Were you part of any societies at Imperial?
L: I was University Quiz Master for a little while, which was super fun. On Wednesday night at the Union I would write the quizzes and then argue with people when they said my answers were wrong, so that was really fun. For a while I was part of the Jazz & Rock Society, but I went to couple of meetings and that was pretty much it.
P: House of Cards or Game of Thrones?
L: No! I can’t make that choice! That’s my answer.
P: Who is your favourite Doctor Who?
L: David Tennant. Big David Tennant fan.
P: Describe the four party leaders with a movie title.
L: Cameron – A Nightmare on Elm Street
Farage – Armageddon
Clegg – A Series of Unfortunate Events
Miliband – That Awkward Moment
To find out more about Layla’s campaign visit www.laylamoran.com