On October 17, 2016, UKIP MEP Steven Woolfe, who had been running to be the next leader of the party, withdrew his candidacy and quit, stating that “There is a spiral that is going on that’s bringing it down.” *story updated on October 18, 2016.
In June 2016, Magnum nominee Matt Stuart went to photograph the conference of the youth wing of Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), Young Independence (YI), examining the rise of young people’s involvement with the right-wing populist political party, somewhat overlooked by oversimplified press that would have the majority of Britain’s youth as left-wingers. The success of Jeremy Corbyn in becoming leader of the Labour party in 2015 is often attributed to the surge in young members who joined the party to vote in the leadership election, for example, despite the fact that the recent second leadership election saw the majority of the 18-24 demographic opt for his opponent Owen Smith. In addition, the Labour-supporting group Momentum has recently announced it is to start a children’s wing to boost the youth involvement in Labour.
"I just put myself in their place when I was fourteen and I was only interested in skate-boarding and just about going to school, whereas they’re interested in whether to ban the hijab, and import and export of goods and people"
- Matt Stuart
On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum UKIP has a youth wing, the Young Independence (YI), which is attracting new joiners as young as 14 to their ranks. Both parties position themselves as the alternative to the status quo that many young people feel doesn’t serve them. “For the first time in 100 years, there is real change on the horizon,” states the UKIP manifesto, echoing Labour’s “Working Together for Real Change” motto. Just like the young people signing up to Labour, UKIP’s youth wing are also concerned with the future of Britain, albeit with polar opposite takes on the best solutions to issues around migration, welfare and benefits, and the European Union.
UKIP has gained several positions which have helped to solidify its position in British politics: one Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, three representatives in the House of Lords, and 22 Members of the European Parliament. Despite the party being resolutely Eurosceptic it is, in fact, the largest UK party in the European Parliament. Although these figures go some way to help legitimise the party, it is seen by many in mainstream politics as a fringe party, with critics from both sides of the political establishment criticising some of the party’s right wing views. During the pre-Brexit campaign, Farage (not part of the official ‘Leave’ campaign) released a poster featuring refugees with the tagline “Breaking Point”, which many critics pointed out bore a similarity to a Nazi propaganda film that also featured a snaking line of refugees.
It’s practices like this that make UKIP an extremely divisive party, and therefore photographing the young people–many just teenagers– who align themselves with it is a sensitive issue, something that Magnum’s Matt Stuart had in the forefront of his mind when photographing them. “I just put myself in their place when I was fourteen and I was only interested in skate-boarding and just about going to school, whereas they’re interested in whether to ban the hijab, and import and export of goods and people,” he says diplomatically. “I don’t agree with their political bias, I did very much sort of respect their intelligence because at fourteen I was quite frankly nowhere near that.”
The YI conference in Manchester was attended not only by the UKippers, as some refer to themselves, but the main party’s bigger hitters, such as MEPs Nathan Gill, and Steven Woolfe, who was then making his first bid to replace Nigel Farage as leader at the hustings, which were also being held during the conference. It was only the next day that he suddenly pulled out of the leadership bid, having apparently missed the deadline for submission by 17 minutes due to a technical issue. Last week Farage made a return to the party as interim leader, after his successor Diane James stepped down after just 18 days in the role, citing a lack of support from party members as a reason for leaving. Woolfe had apparently toyed with the idea of defecting to the Tory party, but with the leadership job now clear is keen to make a bid to take the reigns of UKIP. This too-ing and fro-ing is allegedly what led to an alleged scuffle between him and fellow UKIP MEP Mike Hookem at a meeting at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on October 6th, which led to Woolfe being hospitalised with a head injury, before being given the all clear later on.
Woolfe was a favourite of the young members of the party, who responded to his speech at the YI conference in July with not only cheers but wolf (Woolfe) howls. The cult of his junior followers – who call themselves ‘The Woolfepack’ – echoes the enthusiasm of Corbyn’s young fans on the opposite end of the political spectrum. In fact, 21-year-old Llŷr Powell, speaking to Magnum at the conference, described the hustings as the “Jeremy Corbyn moment of UKIP”. It’s a sentiment that was echoed by 20-year-old YI member Elrica Degirmen from London, who describes herself as “naturally on the right”. She said, “I am backing Woolfe. In terms of his policies, his vision, he’s absolutely right, he’s focusing on social mobility, an issue that’s been side-lined by the other parties.”
For Tom Collins, the 20-year-old Vice President of NUSceptics (an opposition group to the National Union of Students), the openness UKIP has to the involvement of its young members is encouraging: “I was at Steven Wolfe’s leadership launch; not many young activists can say they are going to Owen Smith’s or Jeremy Corbyn’s launches. The party values its young activists.”
Collins is undeterred by the recent incident involving Woolfe and still hopes that Woolfe will run for leader. Speaking after hearing about the scuffle at the European Parliament, he said, “Myself and YI members who supported Steven’s leadership bid previously are still enthusiastic about his candidacy.”
Many of the young people Magnum spoke to at the YI conference were concerned with issues surrounding social mobility, international trade, the economy and mass immigration. UKIP is most well-known for campaigning for tougher controls on immigration to the United Kingdom, one of their key reasons for wanting to leave the European Union being to bring the power to make decisions on who can live and work in the United Kingdom to British instead of the European parliament.
Despite Brexit, many young members of YI have found common ground with nationalist European counterparts who share similar ideas about their respective countries. Also present and speaking at the conference was Tobias Anderssson, the National President of YoungSwedes, the Youth Wing of the Sweden Democrats, a Nationalist right wing party in Sweden that has a very hardline anti-immigration stance. “I was out drinking with the Swedish democrats last night and we’ve got so much in common and that’s amazing,” said Powell.
This article is from the series ‘Modern States of Britain’, where Magnum Photos takes the current political temperature in the United Kingdom following the referendum vote to leave the EU. It also includes ‘On The Campaign Trail with Jeremy Corbyn’.