For some voters, a mixed-race candidate for UKIP doesn’t quite add up. “UKIP? But they’re against immigrants, aren’t they?” one might say. This is not true, says Stephen Woolfe, the MEP for North West England and the party spokesman for Economic Affairs and Migration. UKIP is not against immigration nor the immigrants themselves.
Born in Manchester in 1967, Stephen Woolfe comes from a working-class family. When his parents’ relationship ended, he and his siblings were taken to live with his grandmother until his family could acquire a council house. The family slept in a single room and as a child Woolfe was washed in the kitchen sink. His mother worked in a biscuit factory, cleaned the local bookmaker’s and manned a shoe shop all at once to make ends meet. By his own admission, Woolfe didn’t have much, but his family ensured that he came away from his childhood in the possession of two distinct things: a determination to work hard and an education. “I was always being given books. We read; my mum would read to me at night.” Woolfe secured a scholarship at an independent school, St. Bede’s College and went on to study Law at Aberystwyth University. From his youth, Woolfe learned the value of hard work and the possibility to better oneself.
In Woolfe’s youth, no one would think twice about his being “half-caste.” It was the unchallenged language and understanding of the day. Nowadays it is essential for diversity to feature in politics; “but the question is whether we force it through.” Woolfe argues that diversity must not be deliberately engineered – people should ascend the ladder through personal merit, not by their religion or colour.
Woolfe first supported the Labour Party and through connections with the Young Fabians, he managed to attend a parliamentary debate between two Labour giants, Tony Blair and Tony Benn. Blair refused to sit with the socialist stalwart. It was here that Woolfe lost faith in the Labour Party. Woolfe recalls:
I probably was a bit outspoken. I managed to get two questions in; perhaps the first was not so pleasant. I asked Tony Blair, “Why do so many people call you a mealy-mouthed meandering moderniser?” He was very quick and sharp and said, “How many years did it take you to think that question up?”
Tony Benn provided a brilliant answer instead, but his time in the spotlight was over. Woolfe came to believe that the Labour party had “lost its soul” in the 1980s, mutating into a party of university-educated, narrow-minded men.
Moving between jobs as a barrister and a compliance officer for a stockbroker in the city, Woolfe took an interest in the Conservative Party, but “unfortunately” he met the future leader of the party, David Cameron, in person.
The similarities between David Cameron and Tony Blair were just, to me, almost unreal. Not necessarily the height and shape, but the demeanour, the character, the words, the language, the tone, the phrasiology… it was like they were both the same sides of the same coin.
Leaving Labour and Conservative, Woolfe was convinced he was “out of politics” but his conscience remained. Working as the Chair of the Hedge Fund Lawyers’ Association, he became alarmed at increasing regulation coming from the European Union. Woolfe’s unhappiness with the EU was noticed by a colleague of Lord Malcolm Pearson, the then leader of UKIP. Pearson invited Woolfe to dinner in the House of Lords with other Eurosceptics such as Dan Hannan. One day, Woolfe received a phone call from Nigel Farage, who asked him to speak at a UKIP event.
UKIP MEPs are not always well-received in the European Parliament – in fact, some MEPs refuse to speak to the UKIP cohort. On immigration, Woolfe is critical of his party’s behaviour. UKIP should never have specified Romanians and Bulgarians. The party is neither anti-immigration nor anti-immigrant. Woolfe seeks instead, a skills-based immigration policy that is blind to the nationality of immigrants.
Meanwhile, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union looms. The official campaigns for Britain to leave and to remain have let the British public down, Woolfe argues. They have become ridiculous, treating the public like children and submitting them to fear and scaremongering. Woolfe claims no skill in clairvoyance, but predicts that the public will vote for Britain to leave.
The referendum will be a defining moment in the life of Woolfe’s party too. If the public backs ‘Brexit’, Woolfe argues that UKIP can and will capitalise on the decision. There is a growing division of disgrunted Labour voters whose support UKIP can gain, especially in the North. But what if Great Britain chooses to remain? UKIP will enter a period of self-reflection, exchanging ideas and examining itself. Woolfe is confident that it will remain true to its liberal values and regenerate. Nigel Farage resigned and reappeared as UKIP’s leader shortly after the 2015 general election – would he be gone for good and replaced by Woolfe if Britain stays in the EU?
Last week Stephen Woolfe spoke to students and members of the public at the York Union’s last event of the academic year, titled ‘Stephen Woolfe MEP: The Futures of Great Britain and UKIP’. The York Union has kindly provided The Yorker with a selection of photography from the event, which can be seen below: