A boy born in Moss Side in Manchester, who moved to Burnage while waiting for a council flat in Withington after his old house was knocked down. His mother worked three jobs so he was often cared for by his grandparents and, after he was laid off, his stepfather. This boy, with a black American grandfather, was mixed race – the only mixed race boy in his year – and he was brutally bullied, called names, excluded and beaten just for being who he was. During times of respite he would watch the old serial Crown Court with his grandparents, sowing the seeds of desire to learn the law. From a family that had never been to university, that boy became a law student. That law student became a barrister. That barrister became the frontrunner to lead UKIP. A striking story: it belongs to North-West MEP Steven Woolfe.
His intellectual gifts were evident from a young age, taking him from a state-maintained school to the independent St. Bede’s College on a scholarship, to study law at Aberystwyth, to Inns of Court, and finally to the Bar – a working class man making his way through what were some of the most exclusive circles in the UK. He started work as a Criminal Law barrister in the Inner Temple, coming eventually to work as a counsel to a hedge fund. Interminably entwined with this ascent is the tale of his political transformation.
Like many in Manchester, he was born to a family of Labour supporters. One of his formative experiences was watching his stepfather lose his job at 55. His stepfather would never find work again, showing Steven in full the damage unemployment can do to a life. He grew disillusioned with Labour after leaving Manchester; coming to see them as all about giving grants without providing the means or encouragement to actually get work and get out of poverty.
In London he came to see understand importance of the role business plays in communities and in providing employment, and this brought him into the Conservative fold. When he briefly returned to Manchester from London after stepfather died he was the Conservative councillor for Colwyn Bay, until he moved back to the City. It was back in London that he would make his break from the Conservatives.
The Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive, a dictate from Brussels that would and did do immense damage Fund Management, an industry employing 1.5 million people, awakened Woolfe’s Euroscepticism. He lobbied the Conservatives to stop it, but it was to no avail. He was let down a second time.
Not long after this he was invited to a lunch in the House of Lords with Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the 2009-10 leader of UKIP. A few weeks later he was asked to speak at UKIP conference at Torquay in 2010. Woolfe was cautious, not wanting to be let down a third time and worried that UKIP might be racist. In the end his Mother persuaded him to go, and he felt inspired by the free-spirited debate he encountered there. After this he was quickly taken on by Nigel Farage as Economics Spokesman. He was then made UKIP Migration Spokesman – promoting a vision of a fair immigration system based on merit, not race, religion, colour or creed. He spoke at a UKIP public meeting in 2014 promoting UKIP BME candidates, where his impassioned rebuke of a leftist who heckled him as an ‘Uncle Tom’ marked him out as one to watch.
In this time he cut his teeth on larger electoral contests. He would run unsuccessfully for the GLA in City and East and PCC in Greater Manchester, finally breaking through as MEP for the North West – 3rd on the UKIP list – and then running unsuccessfully for Stockport at the General Election. Now, with Nigel Farage resigning, Deputy Leader Paul Nutall ruling himself out, Suzanne Evans suspended and MP Douglas Carswell unpopular in the party, he is well placed to storm into the leadership of UKIP – a party which during his membership has grown from a fringe group to the third force in British politics.
Noted for his winning manner, Steven Woolfe comes across as knowledgeable, confident, and quietly combative – a charismatic standard bearer for upward-mobile, colour-blind, patriotic populism. That he is someone who rose from a humble background makes him, in his own words, a living embodiment of the British Dream, who can be related to and identified with, and an inspiration to others from similar backgrounds. Such a man could speak to the alienation, aspiration, resentment, patriotism, hopes and dreams of those who feel left behind and plenty who don’t. That potentially makes him a serious threat to the political establishment that his party and he seek to upend. Indeed, unless the Conservatives or Labour can meaningfully answer the concerns of those considering UKIP, they may soon find the Woolfe is at the door.