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With the coalition government in a perpetual state of crisis and Ed Miliband failing to drum up anything other than confused sound bites, we could be about to enter a defining period of change for UK politics.
For Nigel Farage and the United Kingdom Independence Party, the sea of apathy emanating from UK voters is an opportunity to insert themselves into the main event of British politics. Earlier this year at the local elections, UKIP secured 25% of the popular vote and amassed 130 councillors across the English shire, proving that for many people, they’re the solution to the problems plaguing life in the UK.
While usually we’d expect the right-wing rhetoric of UKIP to resonate with an audience of ageing Conservatives, there’s evidence to suggest that young voters, increasingly marginalised by policies curtailing education and employment opportunities, may be turning away from traditional party politics too.
Do we want to have a thriving, bustling youth wing of the party? Yes, young legs and energy for by-election campaigns and all the rest of it would be a tremendous asset.”
Young Independence (YI) is the youth wing of UKIP and aims to act as the mediator between young people in the party and the decision makers who influence policy. According to Rob Comley, chairman of YI, membership to the youth wing has doubled in the past year to over 2,000, which makes it the fastest growing youth wing in British politics.
Those turning to YI claim to be doing so in the hope of revolutionising the political system in Britain, re-implementing grammar schools, reducing the size of government and, of course, curbing immigration. However, as we’ve come to associate with UK party politics, dissent is never too far away.
In January of this year, Young Independence chairman Olly Neville was controversially removed from his position in the party after coming out in support of gay marriage. Despite UKIP claiming to allow members to speak freely on political issues, the organisation’s National Executive Committee came down hard on Neville for breaking rank on party policy.
Speaking to the London Evening Standard last month, Nigel Farage said of YI: “I think it’s patronising to speak to young people any differently. Do we want to have a thriving, bustling youth wing of the party? Yes, young legs and energy for by-election campaigns and all the rest of it would be a tremendous asset. Are we succeeding with our youth wing? Partially. Partially.”
It seems that the party still aren’t quite sure how to convert organic youth support into influence, or if that’s their priority at all. We speak to ex-YI chairman Olly Neville on the rise of UKIP, the reasons behind young people abandoning traditional politics and the real story behind his sacking from UKIP.
SQ: What was it about UKIP that drew your intrigue?
Olly Neville: When I was first looking at party politics, UKIP had a radical manifesto. It was bold and pushed the boundaries on things like low taxes, low spending and civil liberties. UKIP were pushing forward, while the other parties were playing it safe. They weren’t afraid to come out and say what they believed in.
There were of course a few dodgy issues. They had the burkha ban and anti-immigrant rhetoric. What pushed me over the edge was the young people, who online, were vastly more liberal and forward-thinking than the main party. There was a big gap between Young Independence (YI), which really was one of the strongest classically liberal groups in UK politics and the main party itself, which can go off on a bit of a tangent.
Okay, can you explain what the role of Young Independence is and how it relates to the activities of UKIP?
Young Independence is the youth wing and has positions from chairman through to secretary. It should co-ordinate young people in the party, so that they all have a point of contact. It organizes events, helps out on campaign days and is basically a way for the party to engage with young people and attract them to run things like university societies.
Within UKIP historically, YI hasn’t been looked on all that seriously. Initially it was because UKIP took off amongst older voters and ever since then there’s been a bit of looking down on ‘kids in politics’…especially because many of the YI members didn’t fit in with the ideology of the party’s older members. There was a different outlook on the world but that might now be changing. The chairman of YI now seems to be looking to integrate it more with the party.
They fired me and it was completely for my support of equal marriage…”
Is YI actually representative of young people’s views or is it just a PR machine for the party to take advantage of?
A lot of the people inside it are very representative of young people. There were a lot of strong thinkers who had a more liberal outlook on immigration, facial coverings…whatever. Of course UKIP use it as a PR engine, as all other parties do, but if any group within UKIP was in touch with the thoughts of society, it was YI.
Okay. Now tell me about your run in with YI because your tenure as chairman was ended abruptly earlier this year.
I was elected the chairman of YI back in November. I received about two-thirds of the vote and one of the first few media things I had to do was appear on BBC’s World at One on the radio. I had a 10-minute slot. They asked me for my opinion on gay marriage, an issue that UKIP were obviously opposed to. They didn’t want to see same-sex couples getting married.
I had a different opinion and in accordance with the UKIP party rulebook, which states that officers and position-holders were allowed to present their own opinion, I said that equal marriage was a good policy and something that I completely supported. As soon as that interview went out I started getting aggressive emails from the UKIP party chairman and members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) telling me that because gay marriage was such a vital part of their platform, I couldn’t disagree with it.
It was an issue of conscience when I joined the party. It’s wholly to do with two people in love and wanting to cement that. I wasn’t prepared to change my view for the sake of the party. They fired me and it was completely for my support of equal marriage but I’ve heard about six or seven different reasons, mainly because in the days after the interview the party realised just how popular gay marriage is. There was even a member of the NEC going round telling people that I was paid by Unite Against Fascism to sabotage UKIP. It’s downright bizarre.
…those policy areas attract the sort of people who often have views on other issues that are unpleasant or unpalatable.”
How has your view on the party changed in light of that episode?
I was quite disappointed in UKIP. I believed them when they said they’d be a new look at politics. Farage had constantly said ‘we want free-thinkers’ and while you do accept that politicians talk rubbish, I believed it. I was also disappointed because when I joined there was a legitimate chance that UKIP could carry on the trajectory it was taking and become a liberal party, not one that appealed for quick votes from angry elder Conservatives. Some of the strong policies that attracted me have fallen by the wayside for cheap vote-chasing.
Were you surprised at all when UKIP enjoyed as much success at the local elections as they did earlier this year?
UKIP will always have a surge in things like European and council elections. They get a lot of the vote because people are annoyed and people are joining the party because they’re furious that Cameron wasn’t ‘their brand of Conservative’. I’m not sure if they can carry this through to a general election when the public thinks it really counts but when the turnout is lower and people don’t think it makes too much difference, they’re in line to do well.
In a piece for the Independent you criticised party members for their behaviour. Why do you think there are so many gaffes?
There’s a range of reasons. Firstly, UKIP has a growing membership but it’s still small so any amount of weirdos and nutters are going to be in much higher concentration. Also, they don’t have the resources, ability or will-power to do a proper candidate check. They don’t actually have enough people in all the seats…when I was there they were begging people to stand.
Crucially, they’re moving towards a platform that attracts people with less-than-acceptable views to many people. When big campaigning points are strongly opposing equal marriage and strongly opposing immigration…those policy areas attract the sort of people who often have views on other issues that are unpleasant or unpalatable. They have to realise it’s a product of what they go on.
That type of thing can be quite alienating for our generation. In your mind, what are the main barriers to stop young people being more engaged with politics in this country?
Big parties don’t really cater to the slightly more radical views that young people have, that’s a big political disconnect. Also, party membership itself is quite a niche thing…and quite a boring one, too. You can see why lots of party members are older or retired people because it’s not fun. It’s a lot of leafleting and campaigning for people you may not directly know or even agree with but you need to do it because you share the same party banner.
The act of politics itself is not a big turn on for young people, who are doing exciting things. No party is looking to cultivate the youth vote. There’s more focus on the older vote because if you get that in the bag, you’ve got a good chance of winning. The people around the top echelons of party, who set the strategy, are typically 40-year-old males who don’t have any sort of connection with young people. They’re not a priority. I can’t see that changing.
What’s your plan from here on in…is politics in your future?
I’ve actually just started law school. I’m not doing anything involved in politics. I go to a few non-aligned political events and complain about things on the internet but there’s not much else I can see myself doing.
So has this fiasco killed any political ambitions that you once had?
I never really wanted to be a proper career politician but it really has shown me how dirty party politics is. To get ahead in politics is not very much about the issues but all about knowing people…it’s more like that there than anything else in the real world. It’s not about having exciting new ideas but about doing what people who are bigger than you tell them to. Political parties are such dirty institutions that I can’t see myself being involved with another one.