The Election's Most Confusing Candidate
He's an ex-Tory socialist estate agent, railing against the government.
Ray Woolford (Photo by Tom Johnson)
Today, we get to take our pick from the weird human zoo that is Britain's pool of local politicians. In the run-up to the local elections, the press have been keen to dig up some dirt on candidates – and it hasn't proved very hard. Think about how socially inept politicians are. Now think about their less talented, less PR-savvy mates; they are the UK's local political candidates.
Finding stories about these people has been like shooting fish in a barrel. Suicidal flying fish who actively launch themselves towards the media's bullets. Notable examples include the UKIP candidate with the "Nazi-inspired" tattoos who took part in a naked "white powder" photoshoot, the UKIP candidate who flipped off a press camera and the Croydon UKIP member who called Croydon a "dump".
But are bigots acting like bigots all that weird? Is it really that surprising when they turn out to be slightly more racist than they initially let on? Because I think I've found a weirder candidate than all of them, and he's not even a UKIP member.
Step forward Raymond Barron-Woolford, commonly known as Ray Woolford. Ray is currently standing in the New Cross ward of Lewisham, South London, for Lewisham People Before Profit (LPBP). As a small, community-based leftist party, LPBP is causing a stink about the housing crisis.
In 2012 they occupied five council homes due to be sold off, eventually stopping the sale. Recently they highlighted the lack of development on a site earmarked for homes by building a short-lived eco-shack. In their manifesto for the 2014 elections they talk about controlling the private rental sector, upholding tenants' rights and preventing illegal evictions and harassment.
How weird, then, that Ray is an award-winning estate agent who claims to have over 5,000 tenants and almost 700 landlords on his books. On its website, he’s pictured in his waistcoat and tie, looking every bit the kind of man who'd bang a gong with each successful commission.
From 2011 till 2012 – about the same time he was occupying council houses – Ray was a director of the Residential Landlords Association (RLA), which acts as a “national voice for landlords”. While Ray was a director, the RLA lobbied the government to soften penalties for landlords who don't give tenants information fast enough, and pushed for housing benefit to be paid directly to landlords. Ray was recently shamefacedly forced to admit they had informed someone on Christmas Eve that they would have to move out of their flat. All of which is pretty weird for someone running under the banner “Lewisham People Before Profit”.
But Ray hasn’t always been standing under the LPBP banner; let’s row back to where it all began. As far as I can tell, the first time Ray took part in local elections was in the Oval ward of Lambeth in 1990. He fought the seat as a member of the Social Democratic Party – a centrist split from Labour, most of which had recently merged with the Liberal Party to form what we now know as the Lib Dems; the SDP Ray stood for was made up of those who didn’t follow. He got only 351 votes.
However, the rise of this political dynamo could only be postponed for so long. He won his first and only council seat in March of 1993. Ray was elected as a councillor for the Angell Ward in Lambeth as a Liberal Democrat following the resignation of a Labour councillor. He stood on a platform of fighting corruption at Lambeth Town Hall and won with 841 votes – his highest total ever and the pinnacle of his political career.
Alas, Ray’s victory champagne was popped too soon. It was revealed that Ray himself had been convicted on two counts of obtaining money by deception (a conviction which is "spent"). An early day motion from 1993 notes, "The disclosure in September that Liberal Democrat Councillor Ray Woolford, who fought and won the Angell ward by-election in March on a virulent campaign alleging corruption in Lambeth Council, had himself been convicted in September 1992 at Southwark Crown Court on two charges of obtaining money by deception... and calls upon the Right honourable Member for Yeovil to make an immediate statement as to the action he will take to sort out this mess."
When his colleagues in the Liberal Democrats found out that their anti-corruption champion was, in fact, a convicted fraudster they gave Ray the boot.
Undeterred by minor details like his own apparent hypocrisy, a criminal conviction and falling out with his party, he stood for election again the next year as an “Independent Democrat”. He lost after receiving 673 votes. He fought it again the following round in 1998. Was it third time lucky? No, he lost, and watched as his vote declined even further, to 301.
The next step for the wannabe champion of the people – who's asking for your left of Labour vote today – was, bizarrely, to join the Tories. He stood in local elections as a candidate for the Conservatives twice, once in the May 2002 council elections in Forest Hill, where he came last with 771 votes. The other time was in a local council by-election for the Downham Ward. He only got 251 votes – less than half the number gained by the BNP candidate.
By 2004 he had risen to vice-chairman of the Lewisham branch of the Conservatives, and he wrote a letter to the local paper saying contradictory things like “the facts could not be further from the truth” and singing the praises of Wandsworth Council, known for being Margaret Thatcher’s favourite council for the privatisation of its services. By 2006, though, he was a lone wolf once more, standing as an independent, gaining 439 votes and – yet again – not winning.
What happened next was weird. Maybe all the failure was getting to him, but, in possibly the biggest political backflip since Nick Clegg's tuition fees turnaround, Ray joined Lewisham People Before Profit. I know Ray is relatively small fry, but in terms of political trajectory, this is like Lembit Opik joining the Tories, before quitting to team up for an alliance with George Galloway.
Standing for Lewisham People Before Profit in the 2010 local elections, he sadly missed out after getting 521 votes. I asked Ray if he'd stood for any other political parties or fought any other elections but he declined to answer that question. After I contacted Ray, he told someone on Twitter that he had no intention of standing again. Given the number of rosettes he's worn over the years, I'm not sure I believe him.
This isn't the first time I've come across Ray. Back in 2012 when I was studying journalism, Ray was trying to run a cafe called “Come The Revolution”. He'd taken on a large number of workers and was trying to create “a safe place that everyone in the community could use for free and not get ripped off”. The right-on attitude didn’t apply to all of the workers – some felt they were being ripped off.
Ray promised jobs to more young unemployed people than he could employ, so he stopped giving them shifts, which sent them back to the job centre. The workers formed a union to fight for better working conditions. They then found they stopped getting shifts altogether, and Ray announced that the cafe would be closing. Ray told a public meeting he had arranged for them to get their jobs back with a new company who were taking over the cafe. This did not happen.
When I got in touch with Ray, he told me: “You cannot keep pouring money into a project that some days takes as little as £9.” In a letter to the union he claimed to have sunk around £30,000 into the project. I asked Ray if he had anything to say about the allegations of union-busting and he declined to comment.
Given everything I've discovered about Ray, he's spot on when he says: “People hold estate agents up with politicians for the worst possible career choice.” He's a great example of both.