There’s something disarming about the way Francesco Lari, chairman of UKIP’s Nottingham City Branch, half-seriously apologises for only having time to have a quick 10-minute chat before he needs to get back to work. “As you can see, I’m not a professional politician”.
For any UKIP member, the student crowd is a tough one, but nevertheless he seems laid-back.
The lecture covered how UKIP was hoping to appeal to the wider public having just been on the winning side of the referendum. He spoke at length about attracting old, working-class Labour voters, disillusioned with the metropolitan elite and seeking straight-forward politics. Little was made of young people, however, so I quizzed him on how and whether he expected young people to become part of UKIP’s expanding strategy.
According to Francesco, engaging young people is part of a “wider problem in politics”. Perhaps it’s natural, he suggests, to develop an interest as you grow older. Still, he wants UKIP to be at the forefront of changing that.
“it’s basically a rebel party”
“I would really welcome more young people to get involved in politics, especially in active politics. Make no mistake, we do have young people involved in politics, we have a society in Nottingham Trent University, for example”. “For young people, I think it is a natural thing to be attracted by a party that is less structured – it’s basically a rebel party”.
UKIP offers young people freedom in a way other parties don’t (and arguably can’t). At a local level, the party has no whip. Whilst this has led to councillor gaffes that range from the ridiculous to obscene, Francesco thinks this will encourage young people. “We don’t have currently a student society for UKIP at the University of Nottingham… (if somebody is interested in establishing one) they are very, very welcome”.
Statistics on how students perceive UKIP are ugly. ‘Youthsite’, a market research company, showed that 80% of students believe UKIP is racist. For the urban, globalised, liberal millennials there can be few filthier adjectives used in politics. How can UKIP be a party of young people when many young people have such a poisonous view?
“It’s part of the problem. We’ve had members of minorities joining UKIP who came to me and said, “it’s completely different to what I’ve been told”. Comparing UKIP to Labour, Francesco recounts a defector who describes Labour as “regularly shunning members of minorities from the top jobs”, unlike UKIP members who have a “highway in front of them” to reach the top. Francesco accepts there may be a stigma but certainly doesn’t recognise its validity.
“European right-wing Eurosceptic ideological synergy”
Naturally, he moves to the European Union. “There is an extremely discriminatory system against people of minority backgrounds.” His argument is one that is held by many Eurosceptic’s: given that EU countries can’t halt movement between member states, governments make the barriers against those outside the EU grossly unfair. Talk of endless “red-tape” is familiarly UKIP, and reflects the sort of European right-wing Eurosceptic ideological synergy that makes moving from an Italian regionalist party to a British ‘civic’ nationalist seem more logical.
According to Francesco, total immigration must come down to reduce the pressure on those living on low-wages, but a higher proportion of that immigration ought to come from the rest of the world. But herein lies the problem at the heart of UKIP’s attempts to loosen what Lari considers the ‘racist’ stigma: on the one hand, immigration to the UK from beyond the EU must be easier – more balanced against the influx of “generally white” Europeans. Yet non-EU migration is already estimated to be, albeit marginally, greater than EU migration (282,000 to 268,000 EU migrants). The argument goes that these shouldn’t even be close – 750 million people live in the EU compared to just under 7 billion in the rest of the world.
But it’s UKIP’s total immigration target – it hovers around 50,000, just under 1/10th of the actual immigration total – that creates the fear of xenophobia (I note that 50,000 is not currently official UKIP policy, but it has been used in recent general elections). When your party essentially considers 9/10 new citizens unwanted and unwelcome, insisting more of the demographic of that specific 10% should be from outside the EU is unlikely to allay concerns.
“no ambition too high and no gaffe too impairing”
Perhaps by virtue of it’s friendly Italian delivery, Francesco Lari’s Euroscepticism grates less on my guarded, pro-European millennial ears than frankly most of the UKIP members I see and hear in the media. His description of UKIP as a party for young “rebels” is one I’ve never heard before and I find it hard to envisage any hipster appeal lurking within Nigel Farage, Suzanne Evans and Paul Nuttall. But UKIP revel in being the perennial underdog, with no ambition too high and no gaffe too impairing.
During his lecture, Lari said he believed Farage would be looked on in history as one of the most important British politicians in the post-war era. With the hindsight of a beaming Nigel stood outside ornate upper-floor Trump Tower doors alongside the President-elect, perhaps Francesco was right. Maybe UKIP will manage to shed its baggage, win over the young rebels – and give student UKIPers a UON society to boot.