LONDON — Steven Woolfe was not so long ago considered the closest thing UKIP had to a prodigy.
The Manchester-born MEP was highly-rated among party members and strongly tipped to eventually succeed Nigel Farage as leader.
However, he quit the party in October after a bust-up with UKIP colleague Mike Hookem left him hospitalised. As a result, he took a step back from the glare of the national spotlight, opting instead to represent Britain in the EU as an independent parliamentarian.
When I met Woolfe in the bar of a Westminster hotel last week it had been around seven months since images of him laying unconscious in the corridors of EU Parliament were splashed all over Britain’s front pages.
While his former party has continued to struggle with scandal and disorder, Woolfe has focused his energies on Brexit and ensuring Theresa May delivers the sort of withdrawal he feels honours of the spirit of the June 23 vote.
In fact, breaking away from UKIP has actually improved his reputation in the EU Parliament and made his job as an elected representative much easier, he tells me.
“Could I have become the leader of UKIP? Maybe,” he said.
“One of the things that has been very apparent to me as an independent in the European Parliament is actually how many of the other politicians and decision makers are now more willing to discuss issues with me openly.”
A new era of immigration policy
Woolfe is particularly concerned with immigration. He cites studies which he says show how large-scale migration to the UK has caused wage depression, job shortages, and the breakdown of social cohesion in British communities.
He has produced a report for staunch pro-Brexit group Leave Means Leave, detailing a British visa system that they want the government to implement post-exit, with the aim of bringing net immigration down to 50,000 people.
The model proposes a ban on visas for unskilled migrants for five years and only granting them to skilled migrants who have the following: a minimum annual wage of £35,000; sponsorship from their employers; at least five years of private health insurance arranged; sufficient amount of savings; and a qualification in speaking English.
“It has got an incredibly positive response from people. It’s still being talked about in the media,” he said.
The idea has been lambasted by opponents. The Lib Dems accused Woolfe and Leave Means Leave members like Tory MPs Owen Paterson and Dominic Raab of trying to “cripple” the economy by “keeping essential workers out.”
Yet, despite fierce widespread criticism, Woolfe is quietly confident that May’s government will eventually opt to adopt an immigration system not too dissimilar from his own after Britain formally departs the 28-nation bloc.
“The government’s view so far based on what I am hearing from those in the Conservative Party is that a British working visa system is fit to work. I’ve got a very strong belief that this sort of model is fair, flexible and forward-thinking. Whether the government adopts all of them I’d be surprised. I’d be utterly delighted if they do.”
He adds: “But there are lots of pressures being put on them [government] by businesses that seriously believe the only way to achieve profits in this country is by having large-scale migration that reduces labour costs.
“I think that is an immoral viewpoint in the modern world when you consider the impact it has had on this country and countries abroad.”
Under Woolfe’s model, industries like hospitality would be challenged to fill thousands of job vacancies usually taken up by migrant workers with British-born employees. The MEP tells me this wouldn’t be an issue as training programmes would be put in place to prepare native workers. I suggest that even if programmes were to be implemented, they would likely take months of even years to produce the number of workers needed to fill the gap.
Woolfe strongly disagreed. “What you’ve got there is the really extreme economic argument put forward by people like Jonathan Portes that all of those 1.5 million people will leave overnight. The NHS only lost 2,000 EU citizens last year but we also reduced the number of places available to nurses by 3,000 over the last few years. What I am saying is that if you are only losing several thousand EU citizens in this process over the next few years then they will easily be replaced by people already born here.
“Brexit is a chance to regain rust in politics”
“We have 8,000 16-25-year-olds currently out of work and a government program that encourages apprenticeships and improving skills would clearly be able to fill that Labour gap. Secondly, I’ve also proposed that students coming here could fill job spaces providing they had visas.
“I had several jobs when I was at university both at summer and over Christmas. So these arguments are extreme. There would no be that attrition of people through so many people leaving and we would be able to fill roles with improved programmes of training.”
I put to him that a transitional phase between Britain leaving the EU in March 2019 and the moment his training programmes begin to produce enough workers to fill the gaps would protect the economy from the risk of job shortages. However, like many other Brexiteers, Woolfe is suspicious of any sort of transitional Brexit arrangement.
“The problem with immigration is that if you have a transitional agreement that is ill-defined in terms of length and what the philosophy is then there is going to be serious feelings that the people who voted to Leave and those who are concerned about immigration who didn’t will once again feel betrayed by politicians. What we have got to try and avoid is this malaise in peoples’ belief that politicians are acting in their interests. That is why we are seeing voting numbers decline. Brexit is a chance to regain rust in politics.”
What if Theresa May decides to continue with the free movement of people as part of a transition deal?
“I take the view that the Conservative Party will win this election and if they win and adopt that approach they will see council seats lost and pressure placed on those MPs in marginal seats. It would give incentive back to UKIP. But also it’d allow the agenda to be regained by what I believe will be a reinvigorated Liberal Democrat Party and by that time a reformed and more buoyant Labour Party to take on the Conservative Party.”
“The north has informed me dramatically”
Woolfe, 49, grew up in a small, single parent home in Burnage, a then strongly working class suburb of Manchester.
Childhood informed his politics “dramatically,” he tells me. Before attending grammar school, he was one of few mixed-race pupils in a tough primary school (the same as Noel Gallagher) while at home his family just about managed to get by. “When you see people struggling to get by and the misery and upset it has an impact,” he says.
“Northerners have felt for decades that we have been ignored and isolated by the south”
“I was a child of one parent family. We lived on a council estate. We lived in the same room for four of five years during the eighties when the unions were forcing the lights to be out and we then followed it on with Thatcher who had policies that led to my father being unemployed in his fifties and never working again.
“I saw the way that men lost their jobs in swathes across the north and had no further opportunities.”
For Woolfe, the north-south divide is a very real cultural phenomenon that played a big part in the Brexit vote.
“Northerners have felt for decades that we have been ignored and isolated by the south,” he explains, a glass of red wine in hand.
“What we mean by the south is not just government but by those people who have tried to control political correctness. Tricky dickies — those who regard themselves as more superior to those in the north. Those who make fun of our accents; our street names; who take the mick out of Coronation Street. Brexit was the north saying that politically, economically, and culturally, there has been a rise of snobbery in the south within this political elite.
“It was the north saying ‘this is one country of all people and you need to start taking us seriously’.”
I invite Woolfe to expand on what he actually means by the north-south divide and how it helped Brexit. After all, Coronation Street may not be London’s soap opera of choice, but I wasn’t sure how this related to Euroscepticism.
“I mean when an audience member on Question Time complaints that less immigration will mean nobody will serve us coffees when people in the north have seen jobs lost and their wages decline. The type of person like Gordon Brown who described Gillian Duffy as a bigot for being concerned about immigration,” he adds.
“In northern working-class estates, they were the places that had most asylum seekers placed there. It wasn’t lovely areas where the MEPs who voted for these pro-immigration policies lived. The northerners felt that we were being ignored economically, philosophically, and culturally by a political elite and this was an opportunity for us to stop trying to give us crumbs off the table and this ridiculous idea that we have some sort of northern powerhouse.
“It’s also become very clear that the Labour Party that was once regarded by my family and others as the party of the worker had succumbed to that political elite where most MPs were going to Oxbridge and most support university-educated ideas. And now you have a divide. In working-class council areas, there might have been decent councillors out there but they have been ignored by the party who are selecting Blairites and those with the political elitist idea.”
He was keen to stress, though, that neither the Brexit vote nor his support for it was solely down to immigration.
“This is about much more than that [immigration]. This was about where we want to see ourselves in the 21st century. Whilst there is a group of people, especially here in London, that were doing very well out of globalisation, if you across to the north where have I have campaigned extensively, those people were not feeling it.
“Why are these people being left behind? It’s [Brexit] is a huge psychological shift and the great failing of the political failing of UKIP was the failure to understand that peoples’ attitudes to look outwardly in a positive vision for Britain. It’s also why it’s such a big mistake for the Liberal Democrats for nothing more than political gain and an extra 15 seats at the election to continue to divide between us and them, rich and poor, Remainers and Brexiteers.”
UKIP is heading for “breaking point”
Woolfe admits 2016 was a “mixed” year for him. In the early hours of June 24 he was pictured jubilant alongside UKIP leader Paul Nuttall but just months later parted with the party on terms that nobody could have expected.
He remains friends with some of his former colleagues but is frank about the party’s prospects going forward.
“I will be genuine about this. There are some lovely people who I have campaigned with for six years. The workers on the streets knocking on doors are among some of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. There are some MEPs and politicians in there that I have a huge amount of respect for.
“But they have lost their way, dramatically.
“They have allowed personal egos to think they are better than they actually are and much brighter than they are and to continue in roles that they would not be able to hold in other political parties.
They have an executive committee that was more concerned about keeping their own positions than what they had in their hands.
“I sadly believe that while they once had a golden opportunity to break into something special in this country, the next election will be the breaking point for them because it follows on local elections where I think they will lose hundreds of council seats.”
Will he stand to be an MP?
At 49 Woolfe has potentially got a long political career ahead of him should he choose to pursue it. In two years he will be without a seat in European Parliament but with friends in the parliamentary Conservative party and political passions that go beyond Brexit a bid to become an MP feels almost inevitable.
In two years he will be without a seat in European Parliament but with friends in the parliamentary Conservative party and political passions that go beyond Brexit a bid to become an MP feels almost inevitable.
“I’m never going to say no to that,” he says.
“I firmly believe in the way that we look after education is a scope for opening doors. I believe in the politics of democracy and liberty. I have specific interests in mental health care and disability. Things that are very close to home. For me, I will never close that door — but at the moment it’s not one that’s opening for me.”
Will he stand for the Conservatives?
“The party that I would join would be one that I’d have to believe can actually enact the kind of core principles that I’ve talked about. On education and immigration. An openness to democracy and trade,” he said.
“The Conservative Party has certainly moved in this direction. Theresa May has come out in support of grammar schools and will set out a programme to find out why young men are not getting into employment and education. She wants to hold a review into mixed race backgrounds and issues of mental health.
“All of these things would have been part of the manifesto that I would have set out for UKIP.”
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