‘I’ve worked hard and made the most of it – now I want to do it for you’: The Comet meets Bim Afolami, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Hitchin and Harpenden
PUBLISHED: 17:59 16 May 2017 | UPDATED: 18:35 06 June 2017
Danny Loo Photography 2017
Read the Comet’s exclusive interview with Bim Afolami – Hitchin and Harpenden’s Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate as he talks about education, transport – and Jay-Z...
LY: What attracted Hitchin and Harpenden Conservatives to old Etonian and banker Bim Afolami?
BA: What attracted them? I suppose you’d have to ask them. During my selection I focused on my professional experience as a lawyer, then working at HSBC, and then I talked about my political experience – the most significant of which was when I stood in the General Election two years ago in Lewisham and Deptford for the Tories, where we had a really good result.
We got together a really good team in what was fair to say a ‘challenging’ seat for the Conservatives. We got our best increases in the vote since 1979, and our best result full stop since 1992.
So I think that was part of the reason why they thought I could represent them and the people of this constituency.
LY: The Comet is the biggest paper in the area. We have a lot of contacts, and I have a lot of contacts both in Hitchin and Harpenden. What would you say to those people who may be slightly annoyed you were ‘parachuted’ in?
BA: I don’t go for this ‘parachuted’ in – or you could have used ‘helicoptered’ in. I don’t go for that. Ultimately what is important is that I was chosen by the local party in a fair process. I put forward my ideas, my background. It was all open, it was all clear.
In terms of living here – My wife and I are not from here, but we are currently looking – if elected on June 8 – to live here permanently. So in that sense we are very, very keen to be part of everything in this community.
LY: Ok. So just in terms of Hitchin. Have you visited before?
BA: Yes, yes I have.
LY: When was that?
BA: I’ve been actually a few times before with friends who live in the area. I have a lot of friends who live in this area.
One thing that’s worth saying is that I studied history at Oxford. The reason I mention that is that I’m a history buff – and when you’re in Hitchin it’s so obviously a ‘medieval’ town. You’ve got the square next to the parish church – that is a traditional medieval set-up. So that is something I find pretty attractive.
Just being here and even walking around the little lanes, the little streets, you know there’s so much history here. I can’t pretend to know all of that history yet. But I intend to find out and learn about it because I am a real amateur history buff. So somewhere as ‘medieval’ and as old as this is really attractive.
LY: So can we find you doing brass rubbing at St Mary’s anytime soon?
BA: I’m not sure! But look, I’m really keen to get involved with the town. And as I say history is a real passion of mine – and obviously politics is another one.
LY: OK, just in terms of Hitchin knowledge then. It’s a great town for independent businesses and retailers. I believe you’re going to Pebbles later on to have a look around – but what’s your favourite coffee shop?
BA: It is a great town but I don’t have a favourite.
LY: There’s 82 in the town. You must have a favourite?
BA: No. I think it would be wrong of me to single out somebody in the local newspaper. What I would say is that the places I have had coffee – it’s been as good coffee as anywhere else.
LY: OK. What about pubs. What’s your favourite pub in Hitchin?
BA: Again, I don’t have a favourite pub because I don’t want to single anyone out. What I would say is I believe in supporting independent businesses. That’s not just theory. That happens to be real. My wife runs a small family business with her father...
LY: What’s that, can I ask?
BA: It’s a family business. It provides mediators to mediate disputes – so we have that experience as a family. We’ve lived with running a small business, so we understand that.
And then also, when I was a lawyer, I advised mostly bigger businesses and household names, so I wasn’t normally doing deals for small businesses – but I have had instances when I have advised them on legal issues as well, as I understand the issues [small] businesses face, and would absolutely champion small businesses here.
One thing I have been involved in up until being selected is mentoring young people who are young entrepreneurs. I see the difficulties they’ve faced. They don’t need my help to be good entrepreneurs – they’re much better than I am at that. But sometimes they just needed a bit of guidance around legal issues, around structuring businesses, dealing with councils, some of the basic accounting issues – and these are things I have been able to help with.
I am very keen on supporting local businesses and helping them with the issues I face – whether it be business rates or rising costs of rents, difficulties on getting around town.
Another issue in Hitchin is getting people to park nearby. So there’s conflicting issues around that such as managing the traffic flow, making sure the town doesn’t become completely jammed up with traffic.
So I recognise the issues they face and I’ll work really, really hard to get to see as many of those coffee shops and as many of those pubs as you’ve mentioned and understand everything that affects them, and listen to anything they want to say to me.
LY: Will you be reaching out to local schools to try and inspire youngsters?
LY: Which schools?
BA: Hitchin Boys’, Hitchin Girls’, The Priory of course. If you’re talking Harpenden then Sir John Lawes, St George’s Harpenden. I know I’ve mentioned secondary schools, but you could also mention primary schools to the extent that’s it’s appropriate because I wrote something last night that I’m going to put on my website on why it’s important for young people to vote.
The core message is that by voting you choose your future. By choosing your future you take ownership over that. You can’t have your parents and grandparents make all the decisions for you. That’s the message I want to take to schools [in Hitchin and Harpenden] and to young people. I’m very keen to reach out to as many schools as possible on that.
LY: Tell us a bit about your background?
BA: My father, who’s a doctor, is from Nigeria. My grandfather is an Anglican vicar, and that was how he had contact with England – and then he moved over in his early 20s. My mother is British-born and grew up here but is of Nigerian background. I was born in Britain. So that’s where I came from so to speak.
I know that my experience is unique in some ways to a lot of people, but also similar in other ways. And it’s never held me back and it should never hold anyone else back – in terms of their background, what their parents did or what they came from. I strongly believe in that.
LY: Absolutely. For what it’s worth my parents are both immigrants. My dad came here with the clothes on his back and a fiver in his pocket. And he taught me the value of hard work, but also to respect this country and also to feel part of it. Do you feel like that?
BA: Exactly. I really believe in opportunity. Everyone says they believe in opportunity, who doesn’t believe in opportunity – but I don’t just believe in opportunity to be all right, or opportunity to survive, to do OK.
I believe in opportunity to succeed – to thrive. To be the best that you can be using whatever God-given talents you have. And just connecting back to schools, this is the message that I’ll be taking to them and giving advice or mentoring those schools or individuals around that. It’s one of the core reasons I’m in politics.
LY: So immigrants and second-generation immigrants and third-generation immigrants can make a real difference to this country?
BA: Yes, definitely.
LY: So why is Theresa May trying to pull up the drawbridge?
BA: Well, I don’t think that’s true actually.
LY: Why not?
BA: I think what the PM said is – and this is also very true – one needs to have control over your immigration. Every country should have the right to determine who has the right to come into that country. That is a core part of the nation state, that is a core part of what we expect our MPs and our national government to be able to deliver. That’s what the PM has promised, and that’s what we’ll be able to do once we’ve left the EU.
LY: OK. Your predecessor Peter Lilley was a very experienced politician and had a great majority. You’ve met him, I’ve seen a couple of photos of you with him. What did he say to you?
BA: We had a brief chat and he wished me very well. He gave me advice so as to not favour any one part of the constituency.
It’s a very long constituency as you’ll know. We’ve got lots of villages. Harpenden, then you’ve got Wheathampstead and Redbourn.
It’s an easy constituency for people not to understand. But Peter encouraged me to get around and understand as many parts of it as possible, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks – and that’s what I’ll be doing up until election day, and then if I’m elected I’ll be doing it after that too.
LY: Peter was a great Brexiteer. How did you vote last year?
BA: I voted Remain. I want to be clear on this. I voted Remain but I don’t think we should be trying to undo the referendum. I don’t think we should try and ignore the will of the British people.
I think democracy isn’t just the House of Commons, it’s also sensible referendums – which is what we’ve had across the country with many millions of people voting making a very high turnout. We’ve got to respect that.
But now – I’ve been honest with you in terms of how I voted, but to be honest I don’t think it’s relevant whether you voted Remain or Leave. I think the focus should be on what’s the best focus for Britain, what’s the best deal for Hitchin and Harpenden.
If you want more detail of what I think I think, there are three or four elements to it. One is our farmers need to have access to EU markets. That’s very important. Here we’re mostly arable farming – they’ve had a tough time. The price of wheat is about £100 a tonne, in the mid-1980s it was the equivalent of around £220 a tonne. That’s a big difference, so I think our farmers will definitely need support. They will need access to EU markets.
In financial services – lots of people in Hitchin and Harpenden work in financial services in London, so it’s really important that financial services and markets get access to the EU and have a strong relationship with the EU. I will very strongly support that.
It’s very important that we get a sensible arrangement. It’s important to support the rights of millions of citizens and I will very strongly do that.
The other thing that I’d mention is that Rothampsted Research – which is south of Harpenden – they are a world-leading science body, and they receive some funding from the EU.
What I would do is seek to work very closely with them to make sure they get everything they need to continue being the world leader that they are. That’s what I think in broad terms. That’s what I’d be looking for in a deal with Europe for Hitchin and Harpenden.
LY: Can I just return to your background. You are still a banker aren’t you?
BA: What I am is on unpaid leave until the election. If elected I will be giving up my job. I think it’s important for you and your readers to know that. If elected I will leave my job at HSBC. I will not receive any money from HSBC after that period.
LY: Will you be resigning full stop – you won’t be on a sabbatical?
BA: No, I won’t be on a sabbatical, I will be leaving full stop. I won’t be resigning now because the election hasn’t happened yet. But if elected on June 8, I will be resigning from HSBC and I will not be working for them.
LY: You’ll be leaving their tower in Canary Wharf then. I worked in the tower next door in another life.
BA: Then you saw the light.
LY: Then I saw the light. Do you think bankers have been punished enough for 2008 or not?
BA: [Thinks]. That’s really interesting. I would answer it this way. Obviously the financial crisis was pretty traumatic – on every level. It’s quite clear.
Mistakes came from two angles. Mistakes being made in regulation, and certain areas in which the regulators didn’t fully understand or didn’t fully prepare for what imbalances that were being built up in the economy.
And then, on the other hand, there were people in banks – and not just banks by the way – but in hedge finds, private equity funds, and people who control capital who were if not doing anything technically illegal were ‘pushing the envelope’, and what has happened is that the financial sector really got too full of itself, it got ahead of itself. They started to think of themselves as apart from society.
But finance needs to be part of society. One of my roles at HSBC was working on restructuring to have a separate retail bank from a separate investment bank. It’s a sensible reform that the government has put in, and that’s something I’ve been intimately involved with – moving our retail bank in the UK to Birmingham.
So I know all about us separating our investment banking from retail banking for small medium sized businessess [SMEs], but also making sure jobs and investment go much closer to the country – and that’s why HSBC are moving their retail headquarters to Birmingham.
I think that mistakes were made both in regulation and in finance. The regulations I think have improved dramatically, and I think they have improved, but there is still more to come. Finance also needs to realise it’s part of society, but you can never keep pressing enough. You always have to make sure banks realise they are part of society – not apart from it.
LY: I’m prouder to say I’m a journalist than I ever was a banker. Are you proud to be a banker?
BA: Well, I’m a lawyer by training. I don’t know quite what you mean by a banker, but I work for a bank in restructuring so I don’t know what that makes me. But I’m proud to work for HSBC because it’s a good British business.
LY: OK. You’ve been around the town. You’ve probably been to places that are affluent. But there’s also places that are less affluent such as Westmill. In your experience as an old Etonian, as an Oxford graduate and as a banker, how can you relate to people on the doorstep in Westmill?
BA: This is a really important question. What I would say is relating to people isn’t about where you’ve come from, it’s about where you’re going and what your ideas are.
One of the reasons I think we had a good result in Lewisham and Depford – areas that are much more deprived than here, many areas of real deprivation – is because I made a real point of taking the Conservative message to areas that hadn’t heard it before. So I think that’s something I would seek to do here.
I won’t rest on my laurels. I would also work a lot with the third sector, the charity sector that is here, whether it be put together through the Hitchin Initiative or the Hitchin Forum, or other bodies – and there are lots of great charities here, and I will do my best to support them.
In fact the other day there was an event at the Harpenden Steam Engine Preservation Society, and what they were doing was raising money for motor neurone disease, and again helping generate volunteers and income for charities is very important.
Specifically on your point about how I relate, I think my background has taken me to lots of different places. I grew up in Berkshire, my dad’s an NHS doctor, my mum was a pharmacist. I went to a very posh school but I worked very hard to make the most of it.
I then went to a very good university and made the most of it. I then got a good job, and worked very hard and made the most of it. And if I were your Member of Parliament I would work very hard and make the most of it for you.
LY: That sounds like you’re full of energy and ideas...
BA: I try.
LY: So why wasn’t Peter Lilley more visible in the town then?
BA: Peter Lilley has been a very well-respected and well-liked MP, and everyone I’ve spoken with about Peter Lilley respects the work he’s done. His majority in the last election spoke for itself in terms of how many people valued and respected the work he’d done in this constituency.
LY: With a 20,000 majority, you don’t need to get out of bed do you?
BA: That’s not true. You can’t take anything for granted. There are some parts of the country that have very big majorities like Glasgow. Not so long ago Glasgow was run by the Labour Party – nobody other than Labour had run Glasgow, they were all safe seats. And now they are still safe seats - but for the SNP. So you can never take anything for granted. And that’s why I’m working every day from morning to night, trying to put myself across to the members of this constituency.
LY: You touched on the NHS briefly. What were your views on the hacking the other day?
BA: Look, I have to be honest I haven’t had a chance to read about it too much as I’ve been busy meeting people. From what I gather this has been a pretty awful attack on the NHS. But it hasn’t just been the NHS, It’s been lots of other bodies too. But cyber security is something we all need to be vigilant about. At HSBC what I’ve seen at work is increasing amounts of focus on cyber security, and protecting customer data. I think that’s something the government needs to take more seriously, and the government should make sure all our public bodies are protected.
LY: So you think there should be more money spent by the government on protecting the NHS in terms of cyber security?
BA: I don’t know how much money is spent now. What is clear is that we need to work harder.
LY: It’s not ‘on patch’ as such, but the nearest NHS hospital is three miles away in Stevenage, and that’s the one most of the constituents here use. Have you any plans to reach out to the Lister on behalf of your constituents?
BA: What not enough MPs have done – and this is across the country – is they haven’t worked closely enough with district councils, with county councils and with their neighbouring MPs. Part of that is personalities, part of that is politics.
What you need is the sort of person who can reach out and create a dialogue and get people talking. When you get a lot of people in a room who care a lot about making a service better or making an area better, a huge amount can be achieved if they work together. I want to be a facilitator in doing that.
LY: Would you try and stop, for example, North Hertfordshire District Council from closing children’s playgrounds?
BA: Well, it’s not an MP’s job to make individual decisions around...
LY: But you mentioned you were a facilitator?
BA: If local people have an issue with any decisions by made by local councils, either district or county, I will be the first one to create the forum so that proper conversation can be had.
Let me give you an example. If elected, the first thing I will do is bring together neighbouring MPs, local councillors and if necessary people from relevant government departments to see if we can come to an agreement on a particular issue. I see my role very much in those terms.
LY: Ken Loach is a great social campaigner. He came to the town a couple of months ago [on behalf of the North Herts People’s Assembly]. I don’t know if you know but Conservative councillors voted themselves up to a 20 per cent pay rise.
Ken Loach called it ‘disgusting and obscene’. What do you think about Conservative councillors voting themselves a 20 per cent pay rise – while closing children’s playgrounds?
BA: Well, I can’t speak about that particular decision because I don’t know about it...
LY: But do you think it’s morally right though?
BA: I don’t know about this particular issue. I don’t know for example how long the allowances for councillors had been cut or frozen prior to this vote, so if you forgive me I won’t comment on that because I want to know more about it.
LY: Peter Lilley was a big critic of Govia trains. What do you think of them. Have you ever taken the train to London from Hitchin?
BA: I have.
LY: How did you feel?
BA: It was fine.
LY: What time did you get it?
BA: I got it about 7.30am.
LY: Did you get a seat?
BA: I did actually.
LY: Was that a weekday?
BA: Yes, it was.
LY: What would your message be to Govia and, more importantly, to the hard-pressed Hitchin commuters who use the service - including bankers who work in the City? What would you say to those who use the service every day and are absolutely frustrated by it?
BA: I completely understand their frustration and know it’s something Peter Lilley campaigned on quite extensively.
They need to know that just because Peter Lilley has left it doesn’t mean they’re going to get an easy ride from the Member of Parliament. I will be as strong and as loud in demanding good performance from Govia as Peter Lilley was.
At a national level, I do think there’s a need to look at the performance of a lot of these companies and see how structurally we can improve it. And that’s something I’ll be looking at.
LY: What makes you tick?
BA: What do you think? You’ve just met me!
LY: I think you’re a very charismatic bloke. But is there substance behind the style?
BA: It’s deeply unfashionable these days but I’ve always had a passion for public service. I’ve always had a passion for serving people in the local community.
I think part of that came from the fact that my grandfather was a vicar and my dad was a doctor, and they were both clever people. They could have made more money but they chose to do jobs that helped people.
I want to be part of helping to build Hitchin and Harpenden for the next generation. I’m 31 years old, I hope to live a while.
My wife and I have got two small boys who are just before school age. I want to help build a community that they want to live in and that their children want to live in. And I’m really excited about that and I want to be part of it and help deliver that on a long-term basis.
I’d be over the moon if elected, because I could get to work immediately on helping to build that. So in terms of what makes me tick, it’s a passion for public service, a real willingness to help people, and a real desire to build for the long term rather thank thinking in the short term.
LY: Where do you see yourself in 20 years? Leader of the Conservative Party? PM?
BA: At the moment I’m looking no further than June 8. What I hope to be on June 9 is the new Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden.
LY: And what I’ll be the first thing that you do?
LY: It’s the Hitchin Beer Festival that weekend. Will you be partaking?
BA: I will definitely partake. Frankly if elected or not, as I’ll need a beer either way!
LY: You’ve got a background in sport?
BA: I’ve got to be very careful as my wife will probably read this. I was very active in sport as a kid. I played a lot of football. I played sweeper. It’s a very old-fashioned position...
LY: Is that a metaphor for your politics?
BA: No, it’s not a metaphor. I played sweeper and we played 3-5-2. I loved playing. I also did a lot of athletics. I competed in England Schools Athletics in triple jump. I love sport. I was never good enough to take it up professionally, but I love sport.
LY: I’ve heard you’re an Arsenal fan?
BA: I am.
LY: Are you Wenger Out or Wenger Knows Best?
BA: I think that Wenger has done amazing things for football. My own personal view is the club may have got to a point where he’s struggling to take them on any further, and so I think him and the board should consider what that means.
LY: That’s a good answer. Even though it’s a politicians answer it’s also a fans answer. OK, just a bit more about you as a person. What music do you like?
BA: I was listening to Ed Sheeran in the car, which my sister put on my iPod. I’ve got a much younger sister who keeps me up to date with everything.
The last concert I went to was the Jay-Z and Beyoncé concert and I went to the Drake concert at the O2. I like to spread my musical tastes around. Fleetwood Mac are also on my Spotify.
LY: We’ve got Club 85 around the corner. Will you pay a visit to at some stage?
BA: I can’t promise that I will, but if it happens it happens.
LY: One last message to the voters of Hitchin and Harpenden?
BA: I will always work hard. Like I’ve done the whole of my life. I will always be honest with you. And if elected, if I receive your trust you can rely on me.
LY: I’ve got to ask – what do you think of Jeremy Corbyn?
BA: I just think it’s sad actually. He’s so woefully inadequate it’s almost not fair.
I won’t go into a long list of their policies in their manifesto that I think are stupid and bonkers, but what I will say is that Jeremy Corbyn represents a real danger to Britain because he’s somebody who enough people believe to have an integrity that it means he’s sort of a ‘St Jeremy’ type – JC are his initials and some people take that a bit too literally.
However, if he were in office the damage that would be done to our country – to our defence, to our economy, sky-high taxes for everybody, the damage that would be done to all of us because we wouldn’t be able to generate any wealth because all our businesses would be gone – it’s so hopeless, because even as a Conservative I can honestly say there have been some very good Labour men and women in the past who’ve been very good public servants. And it’s sad that Corbyn is now representing that party.
LY: Isn’t pumping more money into the NHS a good thing though?
BA: Anybody can promise anything. The question is – is it credible? It’s always good to give more money to public services like the NHS, as long as that money is spent correctly. I think we’d all agree on that.
I do not believe he has the faintest idea on how to do that. We’ve seen Dianne Abbott and her basic lack of understanding of her own party’s manifesto around police numbers and how much they’ve been paid. And its just embarrassing.
LY: Do you think £80,000 is a lot of money to earn a year?
BA: I don’t really think that’s the point. Do you benefit from punishing successful people or not? I don’t believe you benefit the country with that. I don’t believe you benefit individuals who have worked hard and saved hard and have done the best for themselves and their families.
I also don’t think you do well for public services, because you need to generate wealth in order to tax it appropriately to fund our public services.
If you put sky-high taxes on everybody who’s successful, what will happen is that the amount of money that goes to public services will not increase and in many instances will go down. So I just believe it’s not a sensible policy at all.
LY: What about purely in social conscience terms? Isn’t it right that high earners over the highest tax threshold should contribute more – wouldn’t it just be a good thing for society for the highest taxpayers to contribute a little more to society in terms of slightly extra tax?
BA: I think the top one per cent of earners pays more tax in absolute terms than they’ve ever done before – and it’s not even close. So if the question is do we want to generate more money for our public services, I think the current tax system as it stands, broadly speaking, is doing a pretty good job.
How do we get more money? We need to improve enterprise, we need to improve small businesses – let’s fire up those small independent businesses you were talking about. Let’s get more innovation. Let’s try and get more business activity so we can generate more wealth for society as a whole.
When we do that it will benefit our public services and places like Hitchin and Harpenden.
LY: What about on a macro level. Corporate tax avoidance is a big thing isn’t it?
BA: You’re right. A couple of years ago corporate tax avoidance was a big thing, and they put in measures to try and fix it. One of the measures they put it is the diverted profits tax. It’s a law that prevented companies from artificially shifting things to other jurisdictions which meant they didn’t pay any tax or very little tax in Britain. And it really put the squeeze on it.
Do I think there’s more we can do? Of course there is, but I’m pretty sure I will always be a voice for that in parliament if I’m elected – to raise a voice to ensure that companies pay their fair share of tax. And that also is the case for internet companies, as well as physical businesses like the independent shops you mentioned before.
LY: How would you describe yourself as a Tory?
BA: I’m not a big fan of labels. Putting a label on something doesn’t make it right. I’m a reasonable person with reasonable views, but with energy to try and get things done for the people of Hitchin and Harpenden.
LY: One final question. Are you looking forward to the hustings in Hitchin?
BA: I’m looking forward to it. I’m a combative sort of guy, and I’d like to put my arguments to other candidates and try and defeat some of their arguments.
LY: Thanks for your time Bim.
BA: No, thank you.