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An interview with Jimi Ogunnusi for the Brexit Party

This is part of an election series with all of Bath’s Parliamentary candidates – all interviews can be found on our website. Some answers have been edited for legible clarity

Interview by Genevieve Redgrave

So can you give us a brief description of your background, and why you wanted to get involved in politics?
Well, I’m 54 and I’ve run my own remote consultancy business for the last 24-25 years. I’ve also been a university lecturer for the last 19 years at the University of West of England; I teach Leadership Strategy and Organisational Behaviour in the business school there. And then, probably two years ago, I spent a total of six months working within the international office as the Regional Director for Africa, so I looked after the international recruitment for the whole of sub Saharan Africa. So a lot of travelling and I know a lot about students, I come from it from a different vantage point so I actually understand what goes into it and equally my youngest has recently graduated from Goldsmiths. Why did I get involved [in politics]? You can tell from the party that I voted to leave the European Union. I never thought in a million years I’d get into politics, especially the UK in particular because I’ve looked at other parts of the world, for instance Africa, and I thought there’s a lot of changes that need to be done… but the UK? I thought we don’t need it because in terms of hierarchy and integrity and systems put in place, we’re fine. No need for it. And then comes the referendum. Going back to the late 80s I was thinking with the common market, this isn’t going the way I thought it would but you just carry on with life. All of a sudden, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, said [there would be a referendum]. And I don’t think it was done just to actually give it a voice, it was more or less to, I suppose, stop the haemorrhaging of vote to the old UKIP. But I thought great, we’re actually going to have a say, which I think should have started from the outset. So if you think about all the debates, the press, the lies and not lies, I’d already made my mind before we even had the debate because I knew I wanted to actually leave

You knew that from the outset?
Oh I knew that from the outset, when we were given the promise of a referendum vote, I voted Conservative. So, we voted. And I’d actually estimated that it would probably be 60:40 to leave. And the votes started coming in from the South and I thought it was getting pretty close, if we’ve lost the argument, simple as that. And then the results came in and I thought okay, I don’t want to say job done but we’ve come to a decision. This is the UK, we’re actually going to leave the EU, but no. I remember Paddy Ashdown saying forgive nobody who actually goes against the referendum. But then we’ve had probably up to three years of just basically tinkering, back and forth, different ways to prevent it. I thought, well, that’s interesting. So I started listening to the press and the radio and people kept ringing in to Nigel Farage and asking when are you going to start a new party or go back into politics. So when I read he was going to start a new party, I went on LinkedIn and made contact. So I joined as a supporter and then later applied to become an MEP in London. I just wanted to be on board and it didn’t dawn on me ‘oh, you’re going into politics’. So I stood in London and that was an eye opener. When meeting the public, the opposition, I had some really vile abuse. I’ve had all sorts of names called at me – a racist, a bigot, an Uncle Tom or a sellout. But the harshest comments have been from Lib Dem, the left and, in particular, women. Most people see the Brexit Party, think ‘Brexit Party? He’s black?’ but just carry on or have a discussion, but there was one woman in Bromley who walked by shaking her head in absolute disgust. I was speaking to a man from France about the EU and then the same woman came from nowhere and she went on a tirade. She was like a junkyard dog and inconsolable. She called me all the names you could think of. It was severe abuse, nothing physical, but a lot. 

Have you noticed that in this election as well?
This election, not abuse, no. I don’t know whether the tide has changed. But in the South West you just get the odd look. When I first ran, I got a few calls from my colleagues at the University who said ‘is this for real?’ and said to me that I was going to start losing my friends. So I just said, so be it, because I had sort of anticipated it. But it wasn’t until I came back after a break to start teaching again and you just pick up people’s demeanours. Nothing really bad but you can feel the warmth in certain quarters, through body language, or I offer my hand and it’s really, really cold. For me, especially in a University context, we need to be having discussions. But students from when they’re younger are being fed a certain narrative (left leaning). It’s a shame because academia should be a place of learning. Interestingly, I’ve spoken to probably eight politics students who are actually leavers and it might be because their degree is quite specific where they have to look at the nitty gritty of the EU. My wife actually also voted remain and we didn’t actually debate it. It wasn’t until after the elections when there was a BBC 4 programme about the EU negotiations and it was so revealing, it was this that changed her mind. It was then I asked her why she voted remain and she said ‘better the devil you know, I didn’t have enough information’. But now she’s really hardcore and thinks we must leave. 

You mentioned it briefly there, a lot of people are actually fed up of the Brexit debate going on, especially given wider issues. Do you feel having a Brexit focused party is disregarding the other issues we should be focusing on? 

Well people assume the Brexit Party is one issue. It was initially, but there’s a meaning behind our slogan of ‘change politics for good’. We can look at our education, defence, housing, pensions and all other factors but these are all interwoven and all lead back to some way, whether we actually remain part of the EU, or an independent country. For me you can’t actually separate them. We’re not actually looking to be a government, it’s to actually change politics because there is something severely wrong with it. We’re supposed to be the mother of all Parliaments and once you begin to tinker with democracy, it’s opening Pandora’s Box. Anything goes. I’m from Nigeria and have experience of people queueing up that have been killed, attacked or high corruption. Their votes don’t mean anything because it’s been rigged. Once you say a vote doesn’t matter, you open that box. Unfortunately, with the old two party system, when you have smaller parties it’s very difficult for them to achieve what they want or to become relevant. And too often, when you have two parties – power corrupts. People get used to the culture in charge. The system needs to change to actually reflect the fact that there are other parties. A proportional system is fairer. When people say the Brexit Party are disturbing things, it’s disturbing for those who want to retain that power base. 

Without significant support in Parliament though, electoral reform is very unlikely to come about?

It will depend on what the numbers are. In the coalition, there were certain things that the Conservatives took credit for but they came via the Lib Dems. Just because you’re not the biggest party it doesn’t make you any less relevant in that partnership. Political reform and how it comes will be a tough one. We want to change the House of Lords but that’s like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. But we are going to start somewhere because it has to change. It’s based on favours and who you know but it needs to be more representative of the public at large. 

To get through these reforms, would the Brexit Party be willing to go into a coalition with another party?   
Let’s see what the election brings up because anybody that bets on this election is going to have to have nerves of steel because it is so difficult to predict. They say it’s the Brexit election but that is a shame because it shouldn’t be single issue. Some people vote purely on tribal lines but Brexit has now split this and where do these people put their allegiance? Do they vote for Brexit or do they vote for their party? But the shenanigans in Parliament, the lawyers in Parliament, have used every legal tactic to thwart Brexit so we’ve had to change the numbers of Parliament. But it’s something like 60 old MPs aren’t standing again because they know what’s going to happen. My view is that the electorate have the power to completely change Parliament and people don’t realise it. If it was me, I’d get rid of every single returning MP, down to the Prime Minister. 

Would that not remove the experience of the runnings of Parliament? 

In the background, you do have the experts who support the workings of new MPs. The ones that are there, what have they done? We give them too much credit, they’ve really let us down. You heard the phrase ‘clean the swamp’. Let me be kinder, there are some MPs who voted down Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement on both sides who actually got cold feet on the third vote. But some have held firm, like in the North and in Labour who have said no, this agreement or treaty isn’t it. It’s written in legal jargon and you need to be savvy, and it takes a while to work out what it actually says. It’s a very good way of actually hiding stuff that the average person will say ‘what does this mean?’. From experience, the most disruptive employee will become the expert in [employment laws and procedure]. Lawyers have a good way of turning things on their head and they’ve gone to task with legal ways to stop [Brexit] from happening. 

But you alluded to integrity and honesty, but in that campaign there was a lot of misinformation on both sides, not just from leave. 

When you’re campaigning, things get heated. You can get 100 accountants who will come up with, dependent on the principles they use, different balance sheets. There were things that were said on either side that could be construed in different ways. But the average person doesn’t know the implications of actually staying in the EU and what the EU agenda is, which is basically an empire. A super-state. The one person that’s had the audacity to say it, is the head of the actual Parliament who has said it a number of times – he even came over to the Lib Dem Conference and spouted it but nobody has picked up on it. He made reference to China, to India. These are empires, that empires are good. If [the UK is] such a naughty bunch of children, why not just get rid of us? They want us to stay. I can understand their reason behind it, but with misinformation, they need to come clean and say this is what we actually want. 

Saying a super-state is quite inflammatory

It’s not inflammatory. Let me use the word Empire. 

That’s even more inflammatory

Why is it inflammatory? 

You’re saying that’s the general agenda of every single part of the EU?

When I say the EU, I’m not talking about the particular member states but the actual EU institutions themselves. I can understand why they want it. They want protection. When you have your own flag, a national anthem, your own currency and military. What does that tell you? 

Is that not just the same as every other international organisation though?

No, not every international organisation. Every country. You don’t need to actually ask one of the presidents of the EU to know their ultimate agenda, just look at what is going on. It’s a country. I can understand why they want to do it, why it should prevent countries like Russia, to not be reliant on NATO and other factors. But when I say misinformation, come out and say that this is the agenda. 

I was recently on local BBC radio and I was the only Brexiteer and I said if the referendum was the EU flag or the Union Jack. The EU flag means that we are part of this federal state, this empire, and the Union Jack means us being completely independent. He wouldn’t give me an answer. The guy on my right said he’s interested in those two flags and I’m also interested in the actual Irish union flag and he actually voted to remain. His issue wasn’t with the EU but he actually wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic. If you phrased the referendum with the two flags, I think you would have an entirely different result. 

There are people who don’t actually see the EU work. On trade, 40% of remain voters voted purely on economics – project fear worked. But we don’t have to be part of the EU to get a free trade deal as places like Canada or Ecuador have all got deals. We actually buy more from the EU than we sell them, so if it’s all about trade let’s just have a free trade deal. We can have collaboration but there is more to it. If it’s all about trade, let’s just have trade. One thing is, big business is good, but they have no respect for borders, let’s just trade. For those who run big business who say to stay, it is actually just self-interest. Students are still going to be able to study abroad and international students can study here but we don’t actually have to be part of the EU. If Corbyn said ‘gloves off, I’m actually a leaver and I guarantee that we will leave within weeks’ I would vote for him. But if on other policies he doesn’t deliver, we can vote him out. But I can’t vote out those bureaucrats in Brussels which for me is a massive difference. Our MPs have actually given over powers without our permission and when we got a vote we actually said no. 

You spoke about independence and democracy, what would you say to the other nations in the UK who voted to remain, should their voices as independent countries, especially Northern Ireland, not be heard?

The border issue is significant. I’ve spoken to people on both sides of the border and there are differing views. People do have hidden motives which is a united Ireland and they’re using this to weaponise Brexit. But we did vote as one country, as one nation. But in Scotland, if we say we’re actually going to stay in the EU, the SNP are still going to want independence. If you want to be independent, then be independent with your own currency and central bank but why then latch on to the EU because you’re then not entirely independent. For me that’s not independence, not democracy. 

To not contest the Conservatives in certain seats, isn’t that also anti-democratic?

Until the General Election is fought as a normal election and we don’t taint it with the Brexit argument, people have been asked to stand down. It’s almost like going into warfare. Under normal circumstances [Unite to Remain] would be fighting their own cause. The game has changed. I’ve been asked to stand down, at least twice a day by Conservatives because I’m going to split the vote. We were told from the outset we might be asked to stand down. I wouldn’t say it’s undemocratic. Democracy means different things to different people and if we don’t react to what’s happening on the ground then it means those who are forming packs will basically change the dynamics. Having this election means we can just go back to hung Parliament but I don’t actually like it. Brexiteers come in all shapes and sizes and Brexit has confused how people would usually vote. The entire thing is very difficult and I just wish we were fighting a normal election, not on this particular issue because it’s so divisive. There was a conference in London, and you had people from different ages, colour, gender who were so thankful. It was a shared relief that there were people fighting for their cause. 

I have to bring up Nigel Farage and there are a lot of people who would say he has led a divisive rhetoric, especially on the immigration debate. What would you say to our international students, who now feel apprehensive about staying in the UK. 

The word immigration for some reason links to racism in people’s minds and that’s wrong. 

But do you not think that’s the way the debate has been led? 

Our [proposed] immigration policy of a points-based system is what most countries have to manage and control their borders. I find it strange that we don’t even know how many UK citizens are leaving the UK. We need to manage our borders. And if someone says ‘that’s racist’, then shoot me. [Farage] has made reference to uncontrolled immigration from the EU and I understand where he’s coming from. Why should someone from Ghana or Kenya who wants to come to our country to become a doctor or a nurse, why should they, rightfully so, have to go through a rigorous process in terms of checks and balances? But someone from the EU can just walk straight in? Where’s the fairness? He’s saying that it should be the same no matter where you come from. We have a requirement for doctors and nurses, casual workers, from any country – they should all go through the same process. He’s not saying foreigners can’t come to the country – he’s married to a German. That’s why, when people see me, they do a double take. 

We shouldn’t have an open door policies and I subscribe to that. If you have 300,000 people coming to the UK from anywhere, our leaders need to make sure we have the infrastructure in place to support that and they haven’t done that. If they had, there wouldn’t be the pressure on the NHS, on schools. Forget the people who say ‘oh the schools are full of people who don’t speak English’. So what? It’s not about that. It’s about having the resources in place to cope. If we have that discussion, you’re seen as a racist. We’ve always been welcoming; I don’t even see myself as an immigrant. When I walk into a room, I don’t see colour. In fact, the thing I do notice is shoes. But I do understand that it can exist in people’s mindset. If Nigel Farage was a racist I wouldn’t be sitting here for the Brexit Party – I’ve done my due diligence and thoroughly spoken with him. 

People point to the breaking point poster and when I saw it I understood where it was coming from but knew people were going to take it the wrong way, but that [German immigration policy] is wrong – where are the women and the children? The UK has grown into a society that isn’t even tolerant, we’ve just mixed cultures together but that has taken time. My dad who experienced racism in the Royal Air Force, based in Cardiff, always used to tell me that ‘if the white man has one degree, make sure you have two’. But we’ve moved on from that. When you actually want to integrate cultures, to get people to understand each other, that has to be gradual. There are a lot of racists out there but trust me, they’re not in politics. Some of them are but they’re actually hidden away. If he is racist then that means I’m stupid and I’m not, I know what racism is. 

Since the referendum, there has been a rise in hate crime and there is a very divisive feel in the country, what would the Brexit Party do to try and alleviate this?

A lot of our policies have come from the bottom up and from within, but I cannot speak on behalf of the whole party. If I was asked what to recommend I would host a conference or information to say that [the crime] doesn’t represent the people and to stop it. The average person doesn’t actually know the makeup of the Brexit Party, but it’s quite mixed in terms of sexual orientation, religion or gender. So I would actually want the party to take the lead in showing that these actions don’t actually represent us, to put things in place to stop it. You can legislate against people’s behaviour but you can’t legislate against how people think in a civilised society. But you can put things in place for them to see the bigger picture and see the error of their ways. We’re not born racist or have a set of prejudices, it’s a learnt behaviour but as adults we create that environment whereby people begin to learn. I would take the lead to make sure it is stamped out and quite robustly. 

It said in your ‘contract for the people’ that you were going to remove the 50% target for higher education. Can you expand a bit more on the reasons behind that?

When students go to university, that actually want to go and you put a figure on it – it sets a target. Under the Labour Government they actually put a target of people going to university and I’ve started to see some really odd degrees. Numbers should be targeted for recruitment, for a certain type of graduate. Let’s not base it on a number; we want to actually recruit more doctors, base it on what is needed in terms of skill sets. If the target is 50% but if the majority of that 50% is people learning about the Beatles, how does that actually enhance the country? We need to start looking at what sort of disciplines we need people to study. Once you’ve ticked the box, have you actually achieved it? It’s not about numbers, it’s about what that 50% represents. 

In Bath, we have a significant issue with the cost of student housing as one of the most expensive student towns to live in, outside of London. If you were elected, what would you propose to challenge this? 

I’ve heard it probably 8 out of 10 times that we should limit the number of student houses in Bath and I am completely opposed to that. Students haven’t got horns, they haven’t got two heads, they are somebody’s child. If there isn’t enough housing for other people, then build some more in the city. I don’t think that students should be left to the mercy of private landlords because it is expensive. The University has to find a way to build more houses or get access to more accommodation from the private sector at a more reasonable rate. For international students, who are paying more in terms of fees, when it comes to living expenses there is no discrimination and a large portion of that is housing. For me, I don’t even think twice about it. If you have a debate about the economics, whether international or UK students are bringing in sales revenue into Bath. We’re talking millions. For me, it’s not even about winning votes, it’s just absurd.

His 3 reasons why you should vote for him:

  • We need to honour the referendum across all parties and as part of our culture. If you don’t, you open Pandora’s Box and that’s what’s happening now where anything goes.
  • We should be absolutely independent but that doesn’t mean that we can’t trade. We currently buy more from the EU than they buy from us and if they think it’s in their interest, they will give us a good free trade deal.
  • I think the interest rates on tuition fees should be zero, both future and historic interest debt should be wiped. If education is paid for, it is an investment but don’t charge people ridiculous interest rates – zero percent is fair. Don’t give students more unfairness, more grief.

Genevieve Redgrave

Genevieve Redgrave was the Editor-in-Chief (2019/2020). She won the 'Best Contributor' prize at the 2018 Media Awards in recognition of her frank and witty coverage of world politics.

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