Femi Oluwole: ‘There’s no price I wouldn’t pay’ to stop Brexit
- Credit: Archant
Femi Oluwole, one of the most recognisable faces of Remain's social media circus, says there's no price he wouldn't pay to support the Remain cause. MIA JANKOWICZ speaks to the man behind the viral campaigning success.
In the social media circus of Brexit, Femi Oluwole is Remain's lion tamer.
Put him up against the most combative Brexiteer and his relentless grasp of the facts will usually see him emerge with the whip hand.
And it seems his commitment has only sharpened as he endures threats and personal abuse to keep the faith as Brexit enters its increasingly nasty endgame.
Oluwole is the co-founder, with fellow activists Lara Spirit and Will Dry, of the youth-focused anti-Brexit campaigning group Our Future, Our Choice (OFOC). Working closely with other Remain-centric campaigns in Millbank Tower, they've put the generational aspect of Brexit - an estimated 74% of people under 24 voted Remain - front and centre of the debate.
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With the expectation of a general election looming, they have an intense autumn planned in universities and youth clubs nationwide, getting young voters registered and putting them face-to-face with their MPs.
But Oluwole's rapid-fire delivery, and largely infallible knowledge base has seen his tweets, videos and media appearances go viral, making him instantly recognisable - and influential - to Remainers of all ages.
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His activist approach has barely changed since his very first stunt, just before the referendum, when he stood in the Bullring in the centre of Birmingham wearing a T-shirt that said: "EU questions? Just ask."
"I know that you don't convince anybody by shouting your opinion at them," said the former EU law intern. "You wait for them to give their opinion, analyse it, see where you have points in common." It's about understanding someone's ideology and proceeding from there, he said.
How many Brexiteers has he converted with this approach? "Very rarely is it 'I'm a Remainer now', but that does happen," he said. Most of the time, he said, people leave the conversation more open to a second referendum.
The Brexit debate has always been robust, and nowhere more so than in the Twitter and Facebook swamps in which so much of it plays out. If it seems like the grown-ups have lost all sense of decorum (even the Liberal Democrat MEPs took to wearing Bollocks to Brexit T-shirts) the OFOC millennial team stands out as almost unbearably clean-cut.
Oluwole told me he has a "very non-PC sense of humour", but in our 45-minute conversation (aside from a killer Boris Johnson impression), it's hard to detect - he more easily conveys an overwhelming sense of mission. He talks about morality a lot. The arguments are based on facts, facts, and facts.
As a result, the overtone of Remainer piety has been a fertile feeding ground for clickbait journos struggling to find a chink in his rhetorical armour. "Femi Oluwole mocked after claiming he's a 'SIGNIFICANT threat to Brexit'," jeered one Express headline.
In fact, the quote that line came from buried the lead somewhat: he had been talking about the very real personal risk involved in being a high-profile campaigner.
WATCH: Brexiteer commentator speaks out against abuse of Femi Oluwole outside party rallyOluwole rarely involves aspects of his personal identity - including his ethnicity - in his debating ammunition. But as a black man with his head above the parapet, it doesn't mean the far right is thinking the same way.
He said he receives "constant" threats of violence and racist remarks. "I'd say it's something that is on the line of racism at least every 36 hours," he said. "Just the worst of the worst stuff."
He added that two nights before we spoke, someone messaged him to ask his neck measurements in order to fit him for a slave collar. If he has an air of martyrdom, it would not be out of vanity.
Despite his omnipresence in the Remain social media territories - he compares himself to Donald Trump for tweeting in the middle of the night - he is a wary operator. In the hyper-partisan world of online campaigning, the ding-dong spectacle of debate can become more important than its substance.
He is generally one "gotcha" away from taking much of the Remain cause down with him, such as a rare gaffe during a hectoring interview for Katie Hopkins' YouTube channel last year.
The head-to-head clash with Hopkins was ended after she continually interrupted him, prompting an OFOC colleague to call time. The interview brought out perfectly reasonable replies from Oluwole - but also a surprising relic from his childhood: a stammer.
"I had a stutter from the age of four to nine," he said, clarifying that it was "mild". "They more or less weeded it out after the age of nine but if somebody's talking over me then I start stuttering again. And that's what happened in that conversation."
Oluwole soon recovered his rat-a-tat-tat delivery, but there is now a 12-minute video with over 700,000 views on YouTube titled "Katie Hopkins stumps anti-Brexit Femi Oluwole with THIS question".
He's not particularly happy with the decision to appear on the Hopkins show - he felt obliged to step up after sister campaign group People's Vote committed to it. The episode demonstrates the curious economy of viral clips that keeps activist worlds afloat online, even if it means a sort of pact with the devil.
"We got some footage out of it and she got some footage of me stuttering." he said, weighing up the pros and cons.
What inspires him to carry on, given the extreme far-right opposition he faces?
"The big Brexit politicians, they spur me on, because they reassure me that I'm right," he said, launching into a genre he excels at - cataloguing the many untruths and hypocrisies that come from the most hardened side of the Brexiteers' debates.
"It's the knowledge that the people running the show don't have any morality," he added.
WATCH: 'Stop the fake news' - former Farage adviser slammed for immigration mistruths in TV interviewThese are millionaires telling ordinary people not to worry, even if those people are about to become drastically poorer under a no-deal Brexit, he pointed out. "And so if I know that I have the skill to take them on, on social media and in debates, I morally have to get involved."
And despite the abuse he receives from extremists behind the scenes, he rejects the notion that Brexiteers are motivated by racism. The time he has spent face-to-face for his viral videos has convinced him that most Leave voters are the UK's left-behind, and "just wanted to see positive change".
There's an air of regret as he described one time he strayed from his principle of punching upwards. In a video tweet that gathered over 581,000 views, Oluwole debates an affable elderly Yorkshireman whose level of unwarranted belief in the benefits of a no-deal Brexit would send most reasonably informed Remainers screaming to a therapist.
"As far as ridicule goes ... it depends on how ridiculous it is," Oluwole told me. "He was arguing WTO rules are fine, and because this is such a common narrative it was important to destroy it."
WATCH: Brexiteer advocating World Trade Organisation rules cannot name one ruleBut, Oluwole said, he's aware he "allowed people to ridicule [the man] by posting the video up of him not knowing the answer. "It was pretty viral," he added. He hasn't been in touch with the man since.
Oluwole talks about "emotional budgeting", having initially planned to campaign until March 29 this year. Since the extension of Article 50, he revisited that "budget" and has mentally promised to continue his outlay until two months after October 31, when the UK is currently slated to leave the EU.
Oluwole wants to shift OFOC and its resources to deal with the fallout of whatever has happened after that date, to "make sure that we shift the conversation away from just being about Brexit and shift it towards fixing the country", as he put it.
His method would be going on TV and "basically threatening politicians," he added.
"I'll be saying 'you have failed this country for generations, your politics is entirely London-centric. You've ignored people in those areas that were left behind and people voted for change'." And that's where the far right will take hold, he said.
"So unless you guys want to be replaced, start working for Hull. Start working for Swansea," he said. "Start working for Redcar, start working for Newry, start working for Motherwell. Start working for all those places that you never thought you had to care about because now you do."
From this, it's clear Oluwole has two things that could see him become a genuine force in politics: raw rhetorical power, and a deep desire to serve people regardless of their position on Brexit.
It's easy to see how Remain parties saw a potential MP in him for the Peterborough by-election, even though he prefers the freedoms of activism.
"I'm just a guy on Twitter or a guy who's managed to get himself onto the news," he said. But standing as an MP "probably will happen at some point". That point, he said, would almost certainly be after Brexit is decided one way or another.
In Peterborough, he was tipped to stand as an independent Remain unity candidate but stood down at the last minute.
This fuelled rumours of pressure from Labour, who stood a pro-Remain candidate, Lisa Forbes, and eventually returned her after a close race with the Brexit Party.
All three OFOC members I spoke to insist this was more to do with the broad political reality rather than internecine warfare behind the Remain barricades. Oluwole also had no relationship to Peterborough, he said, and would prefer to stand somewhere he knows well, such as Bromsgrove, where he has lived "for a significant chunk of my life".
"The big complication in that is I'd be running against Sajid Javid which makes it..." he starts laughing. "I would love to displace the Chancellor, it would be nice."
But for which party? Remain parties must be banging your door down, I suggest.
He makes no commitment, but said he has a "good relationship" with Caroline Lucas and could "theoretically" join her.
"I often feel like I don't deserve to be a member of the Greens because I eat too much meat," he joked.
Though he "really likes" Jo Swinson as Liberal Democrat leader, he's wary of the lingering whiff of the coalition years, and they don't yet have the numbers; and with Labour, there's Corbyn.
"Corbyn is, in his heart, eurosceptic, and as a result he has failed to do things that he needs to do," he said. Labour should have been pursuing a People's Vote in early 2019, when it became clear they wouldn't have the general election they wanted, "not having shadow cabinet ministers rubbishing the idea of a public vote on national television."
If Corbyn's party don't put the Brexit question to the public by March - assuming that becomes a possibility - "Labour is done," he believes.
But in the meantime, there is a lot to be done.
You're standing at a crossroads, I say, and the devil appears. He offers you anything your heart desires: a supercar, a bottomless bank account, a Brazilian supermodel partner, if you'll only give up and campaign for Brexit. What's your price? I ask him.
He goes quiet for a moment.
"I genuinely don't think there is one," he says finally.
"I was talking last night, and this is about to become very dark - about what happened in 2016 with Jo Cox," he said, going over his awareness of the racist ideologies that fuelled her murder.
"My dad was expressing his concern over that fact last night over dinner. And he asked me point blank: surely there's a limit to what you'd be willing to give up for this. And I said no.
"If you've got the British Medical Association, which is pretty much the highest authority on medical issues in the country, and which represents doctors across the UK. And it's saying that a no-deal Brexit would be a catastrophe for the NHS, and that is thousands of lives over the next 30 to 50 years - there shouldn't be, morally, any price that I wouldn't be willing to pay."
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