Ali Milani first encountered Boris Johnson when he was 20. As a student in 2015, he went to a hustings for his next MP: when he called on Johnson and the other candidates to install a ballot box at Brunel University, local press described it as a “blasting”. His rivalry with the man who would become prime minister had begun.
“We have been beefing [since] way back; we have a long history,” Johnson’s local Labour opponent smiles when we meet outside St Margaret’s Church, the scene of that first confrontation.
We’re in Uxbridge, a suburban town in the west of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, the west London constituency held by Johnson since 2015. A winding street of independent shops and a listed art deco-style Underground station lend it a residual Metroland quaintness, though the town is squeezed mercilessly by two giant glassy shopping centres either side of the main square.
Milani, now 25, lives nearby in a studio flat. He had a job interview this morning and is wearing a blazer and pink T-shirt. He’s been unemployed for three weeks since finishing his stint as vice president of the National Union of Students. He became Labour’s candidate in Uxbridge and South Ruislip in September 2018 and has been campaigning at “full steam ahead” for seven months.
The seat strayed into Tory/Labour marginal territory at the 2017 election, when Johnson’s majority more than halved to 5,034. Now, the traditionally Tory outer-London enclave is a Labour target, which the conservative think tank Onward classed as “vulnerable” in April.
Johnson has the smallest constituency majority of any prime minister since 1924. Still, Labour will have to overcome the money and energy the Tories will be pumping into their leader’s seat.
Yet Milani is banking on his local-boy status. “This isn’t just about unseating Boris. Yes, it would be a historic moment, and we are absolutely up for the fight. But we talk to people about the issues facing their lives – housing, the hospital, GPs, their local schools – as someone who’s their neighbour as well as their representative,” he says.
“Our residents can pick up the phone and I can go round to theirs for a cup of tea, and then get home in time to watch Love Island or whatever,” he laughs, hastily adding: “I don’t watch Love Island! That’s just a popular show…”
Milani has moved around the constituency many times – his shared student terrace in Yiewsley was where he lived when he joined the Labour Party at 19. He first arrived in neighbouring Wembley from Iran with his mother and elder sister.
“I was an immigrant to this country, as a five-year-old who couldn’t speak a word of English and lived with a single mum in a council house,” he tells me. Every day it was a choice to either forgo lunch or pay for the Tube to school. In tough months, without money for gas, they’d heat food using an electric rice cooker.
When Johnson became London mayor, Milani was 13. “We felt so disillusioned and distant from politics, we probably didn’t even pay attention – we just thought he was a bit weird,” he recalls.
Milani’s family relied on benefits, and he experienced the direct impact of hard politics when the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) was cut in 2010. Six years later, he met Johnson to oppose the decision to scrap student maintenance grants. Milani later organised a protest outside Johnson’s office, stoking their local rivalry.
“We should have more people who understand what life is like for the rest of us,” says Milani. “And the only way that’s possible is to get a wave of new people with a diverse range of experiences into the House of Commons to shake up that system.” Johnson has described women in burqas as looking like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” and claimed that Islam put the Arab world “centuries behind”. Facing off against him is personal for Milani, who is a Muslim.
Nevertheless, he has been in trouble for his own disgraceful comments. As a teenager in 2012, he sent anti-Semitic tweets. One read, “It’ll cost u a pound #jew”, and another implied Israel’s similarity to the Nazi regime (“oppression is something your people should know about”). He apologised last year, adding “most of us aren’t chiselled from adolescence for public office”.
Today, he raises this unprompted. “For me, the test of a character isn’t that you don’t make mistakes. The test of character is what you do after that mistake – I went on an educational journey, engaged with the community and apologised on every public platform I’ve ever had.”
Milani contrasts this with Johnson’s reluctance to apologise for racist and offensive remarks. “He doubles down, or says he’s been misrepresented. The things I said were when I was a teenager, not when I was foreign secretary…”
As shoppers go about their business in Uxbridge, Milani sees his mission as more than merely a headline-grabbing campaign.“We are in a very serious moment in history across the Atlantic; much of the world is on a precipice between the Trumps of this world and the Alis of this world,” he says. “If we are able to defeat Johnson, the impact on British politics will hopefully be a shift towards a more representative, diverse and unifying message. This seat can be a battleground for the future of British politics.”
This article appears in the 24 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation