According to a 2015 YouGov poll, Ukip voters are more likely to agree with anti-Semitic statements than the Conservatives, Labour or Lib Dems. But from the close-fitting black skullcap perched atop his head to the full, free-flowing beard flecked with grey, Shneur Odze, Ukip’s candidate for Manchester Mayor, wears his Orthodox Judaism with pride.
And he is no rank and file party member, but a close confidante of both former Ukip leader Nigel Farage and new leader Paul Nuttall.
Odze is running against the firm Labour favourite, Andy Burnham, for the Manchester metro mayor. And Ukip’s popularity is growing.
Of 11 local election seats contested in May 2016, the party won the second highest vote-share in nine of them – and they were snapping at the heels of the top party in wards across the wider 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester.
Odze himself stood in Salford, coming second to Labour’s 1,580 ballots in Broughton with 368 votes. He admits he was unsure about joining Ukip, which he once perceived as “BNP in blazers”. He said: “I thought it wasn’t going to be the party for me because they would be anti-Semitic [at the start]. I was convinced of it.”
Having previously served as a councillor in Hackney, north London back in the noughties – for the Conservatives – Odze lost his passion for the party and spent some years in the political wilderness.
On his return to politics, he found himself to the right of his original position. He ran to be the Ukip candidate in 2014’s London mayoral selection, but lost out to Peter Whittle.
Now he is settled in Salford with his wife and children, and the 33-year-old Lubavitcher – a strain of Orthodox Jews descended from a village in Belarus – is enjoying his return to the fray. Odze describes his interest in people and making a difference to real lives as the crux of his mayoral candidacy in a contest which heralds the devolution of England’s regions from Westminster’s grip.
“I wasn’t surprised that Ukip were willing to take me as a member per se,” he says of his Damascene conversion from true blue to Kipper purple. “[But] I was very concerned that they were racists, or anti-Semitic, and that I was a bit of a fig leaf. It took a long time to get over that.”
Rather than immigration, his main political stamping ground is the NHS – Odze was a public governor of the University Hospital of South Manchester in Wythenshawe for six years until 13 months ago – transport, housing and employment across the region, as well as putting police back on the streets. He insists that Ukip have never pushed him forward, instead allowing him to take his own steps into the limelight.
But he has willingly basked in that fame, and seems to enjoy being a member of a party many wouldn’t have associated with Orthodox Judaism. He says that occasionally “the average Joe Public would have at the start had a double take” at the the uniform of his faith, but he has never had an issue in Ukip.
“In all parties, particularly in Ukip, anyone who stands out seems to do well,” he says. “In the MEP selection we had Amjad Bashir, Steven Woolfe – we’re a colourful party. We attract people of character and charisma.”
Oh, yes – Steven Woolfe. The mixed-race Ukip MEP, once tipped as a leader, instead quit the party, describing it as “ungovernable” after a colleague punched him. As for Amjad Bashir, he defected to the Tories.
Indeed, June’s Brexit vote was something of a high for Ukip in 2016. Since then, the party has been consumed with factional infighting, with Ukip leader Diane James quitting after just 18 days in the job, and later leaving the party altogether. Farage was forced to take the helm again, before Nuttall was elected to the post. Meanwhile, Theresa May’s Tory government has hoovered up some of Ukip’s most popular policies. Support for Ukip in the polls has hovered around 13 per cent.
Odze – Chair of Ukip’s Friends of Israel grouping – dismisses Woolfe’s criticisms. He quips that Ukip don’t mind how “far out you are” – meaning unusual – “just that you’re not far right”.
“It’s showbiz, it’s people who don’t fit into the straitjacket of the other mainstream parties,” he says. “We’ve attracted a lot of other people at the time who had been deselected by other parties.”
As far as Ukip’s future goes: “The number of times that people have said ’this is a disaster for Ukip, this is the end’, and it isn’t. I was concerned when we were at 1 or 2 per cent in the polls. Paul Nuttall said that we were going to overtake the Lib Dems and everybody laughed at him. Well, as they say, the rest is history. “
Odze insists that Ukip is the only party that can challenge Labour. “We’re attracting Labour voters. The question is how many more and to what extent,” he says. “All Andy Burnham’s been going on and on about for months and months is migration and Brexit, because he knows we’re the only people who can beat him.”
“Of course Andy’s the favourite. But look at Donald Trump. Look at Brexit.”
This article previously appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.
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