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Thursday 18th
posted by Conrad Landin in Features

The Labour candidate for Sittingbourne and Sheppey MIKE ROLFE explains why he supports Jeremy Corbyn and the party’s change of direction under his leadership

WHEN critics of the current Labour leadership describe a typical Corbynista, they certainly don’t describe Mike Rolfe.

Tall, dapper and with the firmest of handshakes, this 39-year-old from the Kent suburb of Bexley looks every bit the prison officer he was until the start of this month.

He voted for Brexit and thinks British society is too liberal — calling for more “discipline in the family household.”

But Rolfe, who was also until recently the national chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), has now been selected as Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, the Kent constituency where he lives.

And unlike most of Labour’s current parliamentary crop, he is “100 per cent” behind Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership — having voted for Corbyn in both recent leadership elections.

But it was before Corbyn’s unlikely ascent that he decided his future was in the Labour Party.

Having stood in the 2013 local polls for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, Rolfe then joined Labour shortly before the 2015 general election.

“Ahead of last election, I could see what was going to happen,” he says. “I personally foresaw Labour losing, and I wanted to be involved in the reshaping of the Labour Party.”

The party lost under Ed Miliband’s leadership, he believes, because its manifesto was “pale blue” in its offer.

“It virtually mirrored the Tory [manifesto], with a little less pain,” he says.

When we speak, Labour’s draft manifesto — promising public ownership of rail, mail and energy along with scrapping tuition fees and benefit sanctions — has just been leaked to the press.

What does Rolfe make of it? “The current manifesto offers a real alternative,” he says.

“It offers hope, it’s a manifesto for the people. And I think if people can look past personalities and look at policy, the Labour manifesto is a clear winner.”

The manifesto has been characterised by right-wing papers as a plan to “take Britain back to the 1970s” and full of “loony left” ideas.

But Rolfe says he has “never really tried to categorise myself into right, centre or left” — and yet Corbyn’s Labour is still the party for him.

“I would be categorised as centre-left,” he concedes.

“Some things we need to be tougher on, some things we need to be fairer on, and on some we need to take the middle ground.

“I’m a true believer in public services and fairness and equality in society. The trade union movement has this in abundance. It’s often portrayed in a negative image, but does a lot of positives, to make sure society is fairer.”

But, as you might expect from a prison officer, he is no softie.

“I think sometimes our society is a bit too liberal. Discipline in the family household is important to giving people the right direction in life.”

He also says there is too much “red tape” in public services — particularly in policing, prisons and the NHS.

“I would like to see some of that bureaucracy taken out,” he says, adding that the money saved from stripping out layers of health service management could instead be spent on employing more nurses.

What about the EU? “I voted to leave,” he says. “I believe we should be able to decide our own destiny. It’s a leftist view that we have democracy broken down into communities.

“Having government control, having European control, feels restrictive and oppressive.

“One of the reasons I voted to leave was to take away that oppression.”

The prison service was not the first career for Rolfe, who lives with his partner and has two sons — as well as two dogs, two cats, four guinea pigs and “a pond full of fish.”

After completing his A-levels, he worked as an accountant. It was his father’s death 15 years ago — aged only 57 — that made Rolfe want to “do something different.”

Now he has had to resign from HMP Elmley in order to contest the election — and he has stepped down from his union position too.

But “taking the risk of standing is a no-brainer if it’s for a worthy cause,” he says.

“Labour Party policy is a worthy cause, and will bring about social justice.”

Many aspects of politics will be familiar to Rolfe from his trade union role — even though the POA is not affiliated to Labour, and does not have a great tradition of its activists going into Parliament.

But he found himself in the media limelight last autumn as riots broke out in a number of British jails and officers walked out in unofficial strike action.

His experience of both leadership and front-line public service would be a rare thing on Labour benches increasingly populated by former political advisers.

And thanks to his televised warnings of a “crisis” of overcrowding and understaffing, Rolfe’s face probably has more national recognition than that of his Tory opponent Gordon Henderson.

But Henderson has a hefty majority of 12,168.

Labour was in third place in 2015, behind Ukip — but it has pulled out this time.

Will Rolfe consider going back to the prison service if — as is likely — he loses?

“I can reapply to be reinstated following the election, but I will look at other things,” he says. “I still need to provide for my family.”

As for Labour, it has “shown it can unite during this campaign.”

He’s well aware of the fighting between the party’s factions, but says there is also a lot of common ground.

“If we’re in government, those divisions will quickly disappear, but all organisations have differences behind the scenes.”

And what if Labour loses again and the party’s right attempts to take back control?

“Whenever any party loses an election, there will always be an attempt to take it in new direction,” Rolfe says.

“But the move away from pale blue politics is absolutely the right step.

“We need to re-find our roots and re-engage with traditional Labour voters, and we’ll do that through offering progressive policies for many, not the few.”

He may have just quoted Labour’s national campaign slogan, but Mike Rolfe is no identikit politician.

And perhaps there’s no such thing as a typical Corbynista after all.

  • Conrad Landin is industrial reporter for the Morning Star.