Brexiteer Marco Longhi sets sights on Parliament in Dudley North campaign
Marco Longhi followed in his grandfather's footsteps by entering politics. Now he is aiming to become the first Conservative MP in Dudley North in the history of the constituency.
"In Italy I was always 'the English guy', and over here I was always 'the Italian guy'. I just want to be considered a citizen of the world."
Marco Longhi is describing his upbringing, which saw him born in Walsall and spend much of his first 19 years in Rome, a result of having an Italian father who worked for an airline.
The Italian side of him shines through when he starts to talk, his hands flying around in wild gesticulation.
He gets particularly animated when he speaks of his love of Lazio, his eyes positively lighting up when Biancocelesti legends Gazza and Beppe Signori are mentioned.
You get the impression he could talk football all day, but we're here to talk Brexit – the reason why the 52-year-old is mounting his second bid for parliament as the Tory candidate for Dudley North.
"There's a real danger that Britain's democracy is under threat," he said, explaining his decision to stand in December's poll.
Mr Longhi, a councillor in Walsall for 20 years and a former town mayor, has been a Brexiteer for as long as he can remember.
He was a prominent figure for Vote Leave in the referendum, when his father Antonio – who has recently gone through the government’s EU settlement scheme to continue living in the UK – joined him on the campaign trail.
"He has lived here for 20 years and voted for Brexit himself," Mr Longhi said of his dad. "Like me, he is a democrat fundamentally and wants Parliament to make our decisions rather than the EU.
"For all its imperfections, the British political system is one of the best globally, but we have seen a trashing of centuries worth of conventions since the Brexit vote.
"Our Parliament is not representative anymore. Our MPs are there by the vote of the people, but time and time again they have gone against the people’s will.
"I want to help change that."
Politics runs through Mr Longhi's family, his grandfather Wilfred Clarke having been a Tory councillor in Walsall's old Hatherton ward who served as town mayor in 1978.
"He was a big influence. I paid attention and what he said made sense. It became a part of me at a young age," Mr Longhi said.
He trained as a pilot, lost interest, and moved into civil engineering after doing a degree at Manchester University, before going on to work in the gas and oil industries.
His trade would take him to the USA, the UAE and Brazil, where he met his wife Andrea, before returning to the UK where he set up a firm which built petrol stations with his uncle, following in his grandfather's line of trade.
Mr Longhi describes himself as a "natural Conservative" with an admiration for Margaret Thatcher, although he says he is "moderate or left of centre" for certain policies.
"I’ve got a strong social conscious and want to give people a leg up when they need one," he said, insisting that the "stereotypical view of left wing and right wing" doesn’t apply to him.
Former Labour deputy leader John Prescott's critical description of Walsall in the mid-1990s was the catalyst for his entry into politics.
"I took umbrage to his comments because I knew Walsall was not that bad," Mr Longhi recalls.
He stood as a councillor in 1999 and won a seat off Labour in the Pelsall ward, which he has held ever since.
One of his proudest moments was becoming Mayor in 2017, although his tenure was shrouded in controversy after he agreed to serve a second term and used his deciding vote to hand the Conservatives control of the council.
"I did with a very, very heavy heart, but ultimately I think the decision was justified," he says.
His first attempt at Parliament came in 2005 when he finished second behind Labour in Dudley South, but now he says the time is right for another tilt.
"Dudley is home from home as far as I'm concerned. The people are salt of the earth and the fact that Dudley North in such a strong Leave voting area is a match made in heaven," he says.
"I am a Black Country lad who campaigned and voted for Leave, and I believe that the Conservative agenda is the best for Dudley North.
"I want to be able stand up for them when we go beyond Brexit."
He’s been out door knocking since getting the candidacy, conscious of the fact that with the election less than six weeks away he only has a short window to get his message across.
"I've found a lot of people are actually fed up of talking about Brexit and want to discuss local matters," he says, citing parking at Russells Hall Hospital, traffic problems in Sedgley, anti-social behaviour, schools improvements and violent crime as key issues.
He insists he does not do "personality politics", preferring to focus on what he can offer rather than lashing out against other candidates.
As if to prove the point he speaks of his admiration for current Dudley North MP Ian Austin, praising him for "standing up to Jeremy Corbyn" and highlighting his "landmark" speech in Parliament where the MP tore strips off the Labour leader.
"That was quite a moment for him personally – and for Parliament. It was very brave."
He admitted he was concerned that the Brexit Party could split the Leave vote in the constituency, saying the issue was "one that the party leaders need to sort out".
Whether Dudley North is ready to elect its first ever Tory MP remains to be seen, but Mr Longhi insists he is the right man for the job.
"I mean what I say and I do what I say – and maybe some people might find that odd in a politician," he says with a smile.
"What you see is what you get."
Longhi addresses controversy over second term as Walsall mayor
Marco Longhi has mixed memories of his time as Walsall mayor.
On one hand it was a proud period for him personally, during which he raised £150,000 for charities.
But it was also highly controversial, with Councillor Longhi serving a second term in 2018 and using his deciding vote to hand control of the council to the Tories.
It was the first time in more than seven decades that a town mayor had served consecutive terms.
"It is a decision that I really struggled with and gave a lot of thought to as I am very much one who respects tradition," he said, addressing the controversy publicly for the first time.
"No other Conservative councillor would do it, so [Tory leader] Mike Bird asked me.
"I was never expecting to become mayor again and was actually looking forward to getting my own life back and having a bit of a rest with my wife and family."
Mr Longhi says he came to his decision because there had been "a massive majority of Conservative votes" in the 2018 council elections.
"The people of Walsall had said they didn’t want Labour anymore, so there was a mandate from the people and the only way to deliver a Conservative administration was by using the mayor’s casting vote," he said.
"I also wanted to continue the fundraising."
He denies that his actions threw tradition out of the window, pointing out that parties had put mayors in place before, although under very different circumstances.
"I broke a few records," he says.
"I regret the way things were handled at the time and understand how some Labour councillors felt and chose not to respond to their attacks. I took it on the chin.
"People can look back on my record and see that I was completely impartial throughout – except for my vote at the beginning.
"I did with a very, very heavy heart, but ultimately I think the decision was justified."