Steven Woolfe: I will make Ukip the new home for Labour voters
The Ukip MEP discusses his plans to replace Nigel Farage - and growing up near Noel and Liam Gallagher.
The Woolfe family is divided. A question of great importance to many Mancunians has split them right down the middle.
Steven Woolfe and his brother support Manchester United, but his sister and other brother swear allegiance to the blue side of Manchester. How they reconcile this is anybody’s guess, but as a leading figure in Ukip, Woolfe is no stranger to internal squabbles.
The 48-year-old barrister is the frontrunner to become leader of the party, but not everyone is playing nicely. Before our meeting, leaked emails claim Woolfe has failed to maintain his party membership, with a lapse allegedly stretching from December 2014 before being renewed in March 2016. Party rules dictate candidates must have been a paid-up member for more than two years to be eligible to stand.
But, and it is a big but, he insists he has been a member during the period in question, adding:
“We’ve made it absolutely clear; I’ve been a member since 2010. I’ve been elected since 2014. I’ve been working really hard, I’ve paid fees in order to be able to be a member when asked, and you need to be reminded when that happens when you’re a busy person just like any other club. The fact that our party has not been able to record properly, or in the right box, or in the right column so that people now can come out with these stories is pure fact to show that we have not yet got our systems in place and our controls, for not only me, but for other people too.”
Would he be prepared to launch a legal challenge if he is deemed ineligible to stand in the leadership race? Woolfe indicates there would be no need to make such a move.
“I don’t think it’s an issue,” he says, reluctant to delve further into the matter.
The 48-year-old grew up in Manchester’s Moss Side. The Woolfe family then moved to the suburb of Burnage, before receiving their own council house. It was a “great” moment, Woolfe reflects.
The barrister is vying to replace Nigel Farage after he stood down in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union. His upbringing contrasts starkly with that of the outgoing leader, who is the son of a stockbroker, educated at private school before following in his father’s footsteps and working in the City of London.
Woolfe is a less conspicuous figure than the chalk-stripe suited Farage. Considered a highly capable member of the Ukip team, he has served as the party’s migration spokesman since 2014, and shared the economics brief with Patrick O’Flynn in the run up to last year’s election. With Farage’s departure, he stands as the frontrunner for the party’s top job. Is he capable of channelling some of Farage’s unique appeal?
“Nigel is a one-off. He is an exceptional individual that managed to transform British politics. You very rarely get to see that sort of politician, and I’m certainly not that type of individual,” he concedes as we sit in the courtyard of an upmarket Westminster hotel.
“What I am is somebody that really believes in this country, who’s come from the background that I’ve had, been very fortunate to work hard, study hard, get the results to become a barrister out of that environment and effectively have my own British dream, like so many have been fortunate in this country to do.”
The “British dream” remark may evoke bygone US presidential elections, but Woolfe’s message is simple: now Brexit is on its way, he wants to pitch Ukip as the party of improving "social mobility". Indeed, it is a phrase he raises on multiple occasions during the course of our 30-minute conversation. Seven, to be exact.
He is concerned others may not be able to follow his own rise from council estate to the Bar, partly because of a lack of investment outside London and the south-east.
On policy, Woolfe, who has served as MEP for the North West since 2010, targets house building, improvements in social services with particular focus on mental health, and a taxation system “that benefits those across the spectrum and not just those in corporate Britain”.
Firmly in his sights, then, are disgruntled Labour voters across vast swathes of England and Wales. Should Labour HQ be worried? Woolfe argues Labour MPs have “basically disowned” the party's members, with Ukip set to profit at any future election.
“The Labour parliamentary party also is so insular, they’re actually ignoring their own members, their own members want Jeremy Corbyn but they’re trying to oust that leader. So they’ve become so divorced from their members and their voters that Ukip have said 'we don’t have their money, but we listened to you when they were insulting you',” he says.
“'When Gillian Duffy was being insulted by Gordon Brown, we were listening to your concerns, we didn’t have the money, we were knocking on your doors. You told us about these problems and we put them on our manifesto.
“'We will go about that vigorously to show them that for all those people their new home is Ukip.'”
Woolfe’s parents were born in Manchester. His half-brother Nathan played football for Bolton Wanderers and Stockport County as a striker. He talks of his upbringing with fondness, and when asked to clarify the other burning question for all Mancunians, 'what is your favourite band from the city', he is quick to answer Oasis. This is for good reason: it transpires Woolfe grew up down the road from the Gallagher brothers, and was in the same class as Noel in primary school. Were they friends?
“I knew them growing up, we would be able to talk and have a chat to each other, as well,” he says, hesitant to depict them as anything stronger. They did not play sports together - apparently the Gallaghers were more interested in their instruments (funny, that). Instead, Woolfe became quite the capable footballer, and break-dancer, he reveals, laughing nervously as I ask if he keeps up the vocation.
“No, I think I’d break my hands and wrists… I am too much accident prone for that,” he modestly replies.
Woolfe is the best known of those to declare they are running to become Ukip’s next leader. He is up against Ukip councillor Lisa Duffy (backed by Suzanne Evans), with MEPs Bill Etheridge and Jonathan Arnott also in the mix.
For all Farage’s achievements at the helm, he also bequeaths a divided party. Farage supporters, including party donor Arron Banks, have lined up to back Woolfe’s campaign. Other notable figures however, including Patrick O’Flynn and Douglas Carswell, look set to take their support elsewhere. Given the fractured relations between senior figures, how can he unite the disparate ends of the party?
“Look, all political parties have factions. That’s part of being a grown up party,” he says, citing Labour and Tory splits as evidence.
“So I expect that if I become leader not everybody is going to like me, not everybody might like my particular policies that I want to pursue. But I want to say is that if we’re going to be grown up and succeed at as political party that gets more than a Douglas Carswell, more MPs, then we have to put those factions aside and unify as a party in order to send that message out.”
He is clear that Ukip must keep such infighting behind closed doors from now on. Though the party “won’t be as entertaining in that sense”, Woolfe says they owe it to their voters to be “more responsible”.
Farage has insisted he is “not going anywhere” despite stepping down from the frontline. Surely it would be easier for Woolfe if he did clear off to allow him the space to carve his own niche and heal open wounds.
“I will define myself and carve myself as a leader anyway, anyone who knows me, as one person once said ‘if I had to have three footballers in midfield, it would be Ince, Wise and Woolfe’. That’ll give you the type of character that I can be if I need to be,” he says, defiantly.
So if he sees himself as the holding midfielder – the one dictating play, controlling the pace of the game, the choreographer – does that make Farage the flashy striker ready to steal all the glory?
“I’m certainly the guy that puts those hard tackles in, feeds the ball out, does the runs and occasionally puts the ball in the back of the net,” he says, extending an admittedly overegged football analogy.
“And I think with Nigel, we have to have him around,” he adds, referring to Farage as Ukip’s first party grandee. “I hope that he can be that person for me that I can go and seek advice to.”
As part of his plans to modernise the party, Woolfe says he wants to implement a cabinet structure rife with “individuals with different talents”. “One of the things they used to say about Nigel is that he was a one man band. That certainly won’t be the case with me,” he explains.
Woolfe is also looking to “reinvent, reinvigorate and transform” the party’s administrative processes and National Executive Committee. This ties in with situation regarding his membership.
Going forward, he says the party needs to review areas including on campaigning, fundraising and candidate training ahead of what could be an early election. If that comes up before 2020, or if there's a by-election, do not be surprised if Woolfe ends up running himself. He came third in Stockport at the 2015 election, and should it be the right fit, Woolfe would relish another crack at entering parliament.
“Oh absolutely, of course. I mean it should be one of the biggest honours that we have in this country is to actually become a member of parliament and represent constituents of all types and push an agenda that actually helps people as a whole and benefit them,” he says.
As for Brexit, Woolfe says he is already “nervous” about the Government’s approach to triggering Article 50, the legal process for leaving the bloc. Theresa May has signalled it will not be initiated before the end of the year. Woolfe will be ready to “start agitating” by January if still nothing has been done, though he is willing to give Brexiteers David Davis and Liam Fox the benefit of the doubt. For now.
Woolfe, like Farage before him, does not see the need to keep access to the single market, which he refers to as “old hat”. Pointing to the collection of mobiles strewn across the table in front of us, he suggests the single market is the “big thick Motorola of the past”.
Meanwhile if Woolfe gets his way, he will be the future for Ukip.
Pictures by: Euan Cherry/Photoshot