Given the number of photo-opps Nigel Farage has in pubs, if a UKIP candidate suggests doing an interview in a pub, it’s only reasonable to expect that by the end of it you’ll be boozed-up and nicotined-out. (Isn’t it?)
But, contrary to my hopes, this is not the experience of meeting Ethan Wilkinson, the UKIP candidate for Cardiff North. Like Nigel Farage, he turns up to the pub wearing an immaculate suit; unlike his party’s leader, he is drinking Pepsi – and he’s a Mormon, which means he’s hardly going to whip out the cigarettes, either.
Wilkinson comes over as a very thoughtful candidate. A twenty-four year old student at Cardiff University, he states that his primary driver for leaving the Conservatives, of whom he had been a member for five years, and joining UKIP was the lack of equality in the UK.
“It was Saturday 21st December [last year], which was what the press dubbed panic Saturday,” Wilkinson explains to us. “I think it was reported that something like £6.3 billion pounds were spent, and the newspapers made this stark contrast that twelve million people went out and spent £6.2 billion whilst at the same time there were twelve million people living in poverty.”
“I felt like the Conservatives, the party I was a member of for five years, have had decades, in some cases a hundred years, to address these deep-rooted social problems.”
Wilkinson contrasts this situation with the amount of money spent on EU membership and foreign aid. “At the same time we have a government that’s hell-bent on spending £9 billion year on the EU, in which our membership of a political union is not dependent on trade: various companies have come out and said if we were to leave the EU, jobs wouldn’t be lost.
“The government has also committed to spending 0.7% GDP on foreign aid – I have nothing against foreign aid, but I’d rather see trade over aid. There’s reports just come out saying £1,000 a day is being paid on consultants for African and Asian projects – this is a crazy amount of money in times of austerity.
“Things like HS2, that’s £4 billion. These crazy sums of money that could be re-routed back to addressing these social issues.”
The prominence of UKIP ‘muppets’ in the media, Wilkinson adds, made him cautious about joining the party in the first place. “I was very worried by some of the muppets we have in the party. All parties have them, but obviously the media is attracted to more of the UKIP ones.
“I’m deeply religious, and there’s no way I would associate with a party that’s racist.”
He says, too, that when he meets people who are inclined to support UKIP from simple dislike of foreigners, he attempts to explain that any problems caused by immigration are systemic ones. “We’ve been trying to engage a massive part of the electorate that’s never voted before, and obviously you can’t gauge their views if they’re not members, if they’re just supporters, but it does worry me.”
“Some of the things people say, you have to stop them in their tracks and say that we’re not actually about this, we’re not identifying individual immigrants and saying they’re a problem, we’re saying the system is wrong.”
Wilkinson points out, too, that UKIP forbids former members of the EDL, BNP, the National Front, and various other organisations from becoming members of UKIP. (I.6 in their “Rules of Procedure.”)
We meet Wilkinson in Rhiwbina, a leafy village and/or suburb of Cardiff. Above us are the rooms where the local branch of UKIP meets. “I came to the first meeting, and it came to light that all the candidates in Cardiff had been chosen, apart from this constituency, so someone jokingly said to me, ‘Why don’t you go for it?’
“I was like, that’s ridiculous. The schedule that I’ve got this year with my final exams, and with a young growing family.”
Nonetheless he went for the assessment process, which involved a five hour train journey to Flintshire, north Wales, and then four hours of being grilled by an interview panel. “I’ve obviously gone up for graduate jobs and I’ve done interviews, but this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
After passing the assessment day, he was approved as the candidate by UKIP’s national executive committee in February. “It was too late to hold a hustings because the party constitution says you have to have thirty days, but they wanted all the candidates in place mid-February.”
For Wilkinson, UKIP is not a one-issue party: electoral reform is also crucial. “Time and time again we have these hustings events and the Labour candidate will always say, ‘There’s one choice in this election, Labour or the Conservatives.’ And I totally disagree with that. How did it get to this stage of safe seats?”
At the time of the AV referendum Wilkinson was abroad volunteering with his church. “I think the Liberal Democrats in that referendum, from what I understand, showed you the perfect way not to conduct such a referendum. There needs to be much greater debate on policy, and educating citizens – I don’t think people knew what they were voting for.”
UKIP and Wilkinson do not have a stance on exactly what electoral system they would like to see, but Wilkinson says the crucial point is to open the issue out to the electorate: “We would look to reform the electoral system. We haven’t said which system we’d favour, because, again, if you’re going to change something, the people should decide, there should be a referendum on that.”
Another way in which Wilkinson hardly fits the stereotype of a UKIP candidate is that he speaks two European languages fluently – or at least, should do, given that he is about to face his final university exams. One of UKIP’s policies is to scrap tuition fees for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, a group of disciplines that wouldn’t include his degree, Italian and Spanish.
“The reason we’ve said the STEM subjects is that we’ve looked where the skills gaps are in the economy and we’ve identified the fact that we don’t have enough doctors, or nurses, or people in the tech sector.
“There are 900,000 people our age who are unemployed – we want people to make more informed decisions, we want people to take degrees and spend that money on subjects that are going to give a prosperous career.
“I can see why students are going to say, ‘Oh my degree isn’t as important.’ Well, I’m doing one of those degrees in category, but I personally feel higher education is a privilege not a right, so I don’t think it would be right to waive all tuition fees, something we can’t afford. The Liberal Democrats showed us perfectly you can’t keep that promise.”
Given that Wilkinson’s degree involved spending a year in Europe, the Erasmus Programme, run by the European Commission, was presumably quite useful?
“There’s this myth, especially in Wales, of EU funding. I was in Merthyr Tydfil for the UKIP manifesto launch, and there’s European flags everywhere and signs saying this was funded by the European Union.
“There’s no such thing as EU funding, it’s money that comes from member states, goes to Brussels and is redistributed back. It’s the same with the Erasmus project: on a personal level I would advocate and fight for: if we were to leave the European Union, I would still want to be a member of the Erasmus project.
“There are currently 28 member states that are involved in the Erasmus project, and 22 participating countries that are not members of the EU that are also eligible for the programme.”
“I’ve just spent four years of my life learning Italian and Spanish,” he adds. “I don’t want that to go to waste. If we were to leave the EU and have a more global outlook, there’s still a need for that kind of thing.”
Another stereotype of UKIP is that is the party of post-industrial, east-coast towns, such as Great Grimsby – places that are about as far away from Wales as you can get, short of fleeing the UK. Is UKIP actually too English?
“I had a great conversation with my Plaid Cymru counterpart about that today. I think one of the greatest criticisms that UKIP has is that it’s an English-centric party.
Wilkinson goes on to point out that UKIP came within 5,000 votes of Labour at the euro elections last year, winning 201,983 compared with Labour’s 206,332. “Obviously Wales is a stronghold for Labour, and we didn’t even put everything we had into the European election here in Wales, we didn’t think we were going to do as well,” he adds.
“UKIP is the only party that has an elected representative in each of the four nations of the UK,” he continues. “We have an MLA in Northern Ireland, we have an MEP in Scotland, we have one here in Wales, and obviously countless in England. It’s the only truly British party in that regard.”
In Cardiff North specifically, what is Wilkinson hoping to achieve on May 7th? “In 2010 UKIP came 5th with 2.4% of the vote. For me, even getting 5% so I can get my £500 quid back would be great.”
Referring to the fact that Labour’s candidate is called Mari Williams, and the Conservatives’ Craig Williams, he adds, “But I firmly believe we’re a challenger. I firmly believe it’s Wilkinson v Williams, whoever that Williams may be.”