Steven Woolfe: “We have to understand that we do want immigrants in this country”

Ukip's migration spokesman Steven Woolfe on racism, "old Ukip and new Ukip", taking on Labour, and renationalising the railways.

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The caricature of Ukip as a party of posh white people from the Tory shires lingers. Steven Woolfe, mixed-race and from a council estate in Moss Side in Manchester, does not fit that image. Add in his agreeable manner – knowledgeable, self-controlled and quietly combative – and it is clear why Woolfe is such an asset to Ukip.

Four years ago, Nigel Farage recognised as much. “My wife and I were watching Spooks on Sunday night on the BBC,” Woolfe recalls over coffee in Liverpool Street. “I got a telephone call, and it was Nigel Farage at the end of the phone. I said ‘are you joking?” He was not, and soon offered Woolfe – not even a party member at the time – the role of Ukip financial affairs spokesman.

Woolfe is better known for being Ukip migration spokesman, a role he assumed this July. He brings a powerful back story to the role. At his primary school in Manchester in the Seventies – he was in the same class at primary school as Noel Gallagher, “a straightforward bloke” who he “quite liked” – Woolfe was the only mixed-race student.

He suffered racial abuse. “My hair was different, my colour was different. I was often beaten, called names, and that went on through the teenage years,” he remembers, talking slowly. “In those days bullying was proper bullying. You were taken around the corner and given a real good kicking. I had all of that.”

He believes that the experience informs his politics today. “We are significantly in a different world from that – thank God we are,” Woolfe says. “I don't want to see segregation because segregation results in things that happened to me. I want to see integration but integration can only happen over a period of time where we manage to make communities bed in with each other slowly and more acceptingly rather than piling everybody in very quickly. That's where my political differences are with some other parties over integration.”

This leads me to ask about Farage’s comment that he feels "uncomfortable" hearing foreign languages spoken on trains. “If you ask Nigel again now, he would probably turn around to you and say, ‘maybe there was a better way of trying to explain what I wanted to say’, ” Woolfe says. “I understand those who are elderly and live in certain communities who might feel that way. What Nigel did there was listen to what other people had said about what it was like. It was inelegantly translated, that meaning.”

In his role as migration spokesman Woolfe vows that the party’s “message about immigration is not to be, as some people saw it at the last election, that they felt we were targeting groups. We’re not and it won’t happen under my watch.” He asserts: We have to understand that we do want immigrants in this country.”

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There have been a lot of grand claims recently from Nigel Farage about Ukip’s assault on Labour. This is not just bluster, either. Before January 2013, Ukip took just one Labour vote for every nine Conservatives ones. Since the start of last year, they have taken six Labour supporters for every nine former Tories.

Woolfe, who grew up in a family of Labour supporters on a Manchester estate, is well-placed to help reach out to disaffected Labourites. “It was inculcated as an idea that only the Labour party could look after and support the working class, the hard workers, the poor,” he recalls. “I was still what would be regarded as an old-fashioned socialist because I also saw my stepfather lose his job at 55 during the Thatcher period and never worked again. I saw the real devastation that happened to men when they didn’t have a job.”

It was when Woolfe moved out of Manchester that he turned against Labour. He came to see the party’s attitude to the working class as, “all about giving grants and funding – effectively giving donations to people but not encouragement to get out.”

As with many Ukippers, he “couldn’t understand” the decision to abolish grammar schools, which he sees as offering a similar pathway to disadvantaged young people as he received by earning a scholarship to a private school, before he studied law at Aberystwyth University. And after voting for Tony Blair in 1997, he came to loathe the New Labour project, especially Blair and Peter Mandelson. “It was incredibly saddening for somebody who’d read Tony Benn’s arguments for socialism to realise that these people were in it for themselves.”

While working in the city, Woolfe’s politics shifted to the right. “I started to understand how important a role business plays in communities and helping people have jobs,” he says. After his stepfather died, Woolfe moved away from London. In 2006, he joined the Conservative party, becoming a councillor in Colwyn Bay. Initially he was attracted by David Cameron’s promises of “cutting taxation, allowing a smaller state, but more importantly allowing us a vote on the terms of the referendum on Europe.”

When he returned to London, working as a general counsel for a hedge fund, that Woolfe’s Euroscepticism intensified. “A piece of regulation came into the City of London from Europe that I could see would actually damage fund management,” he recalls. “I could see that it would damage this industry – and there’s a million and a half jobs connected to it and vast amounts of money that paid for our hospitals and schools.”

It was this belief that led Woolfe to take an interest in politics again. He tried to lobby the Conservatives about his opposition to the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive, but to no avail. In 2010, Lord Pearson, who was Ukip leader in 2009/10 while Nigel Farage concentrated on his constituency fight, invited him to a lunch in the House of Lords. “That reinvigorated something inside me. I thought I’m not on my own in thinking this,” Woolfe recalls.

A few weeks later, Woolfe was asked to speak at the Ukip conference in Torquay. He had had enough of politics – “I’d been disappointed twice, I didn't want to be disappointed a third time” – and was also worried that Ukip was racist. After his mother persuaded him to go, Woolfe found the conference “enlightening and inspiring”, likening the free-spirited debate to his family dinner table.

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As the recent tensions over Ukip’s economic policy, between those who emphasise low taxation and the smallest possible state and those who favour a redistribution of wealth, have highlighted, the party retains its penchant for frank discussion today. 

Woolfe, who was economics spokesman until Patrick O’Flynn took over the role this year (though he retains the financial services brief), accepts as much. “People call that Red Ukip versus kind of Blue Ukip,” he says. “That’s a perfectly natural tension and I’m pleased about it.” He accepts that, “there’s going to be challenges between what people like to call old Ukip and new Ukip”, but insists that, “the brilliance about between a broad church is we can have these internal disagreements and still get on with each other.”

In the internal Ukip debate, Woolfe is regarded as well to the right. He “certainly comes from a hawkish perspective”, one senior Ukip source tells me. “He’s firmly based in the classical liberal tradition.”

Yet Woolfe does not talk like this, outlining a populist strand of economic thinking akin to that of O’Flynn. “Patrick is certainly alongside myself in that we recognise that there is a huge number of people who have not benefited from the growth. If that makes us left-wing then so be it,” he says. Of the "Wag tax", floated by O’Flynn for 48 hours before Nigel Farage formally repudiated it, Woolfe says: “I want Patrick, as our chief economics spokesman, to keep coming up with ideas like that. And if they don't work then we should be able to have a healthy debate.”

While Woolfe supports scrapping inheritance tax – “a tax on aspiration and the ability of people to regenerate wealth who never had it in the first place” – he tries to zigzag between the two strands of Ukip. “I’m firmly of the view that being fair doesn't mean that we have to give up principles of trying to make our smaller government or reduce taxes where we can.” He describes the proposed tax on the turnover of a company as “very interesting” and calls aggressive tax avoidance “against the spirit of the law.”

Woolfe also declares himself open to one of the key strands in the Green Party’s assault on Labour’s left flank: renationalising the railways. “There’s an argument, in some ways, for saying that one could renationalise the railways,” he says, while stressing that the topic does not fall under his brief. “If you look at the French and the German nationalised railways, they’re actually here, acting like private companies. So why is it that they’re able to make successful businesses, which work on a capitalist method of being able to acquire and buy railways, and we’re not? Why is it that we seem hamstrung to be able to trust our own business people to get involved in some form of nationalisation or a co-operative?

“I do think that we should be considering, and there should be an open debate at the moment, whether we should have nationalisation or [run the railways] through an organisation like a co-op.”

In a party trying to move beyond its over-reliance on Farage, Woolfe is emerging as a pivotal figure. Though he will surely not become an MP next year – Ukip only won 862 votes in Stockport, where he is standing, in 2010 – Woolfe is rapidly becoming a leading voice in Ukip in England and beyond. He leaves our meeting to get the train to Brussels – Ukip’s policy of trying to engage more with the EU in action. If Ukip is to remain a part of the political landscape, Woolfe will surely be a big part of its story.  

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.