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“We no longer want the Hollywood show”: Meet the 24-year-old Muslim trying to unseat Boris Johnson

Ali Milani is Labour’s candidate in Uxbridge & South Ruislip – here’s how he’s taking on the celebrity Tory.

Ali Milani is standing outside his old student house. “We were quiet!” he laughs. “Quite quiet, compared to what you usually get… It’s weird being back.”

It’s also the house where he joined the Labour party, aged 19.

The brick semi with dark wooden slats and net curtains is in Yiewsley, on a residential street looping off the main road in Hillingdon, north-west London.

This is home to Brunel University, where Milani, now 24, studied international relations and became student union president a few years ago, before being elected vice president of the National Union of Students in 2017.

We’re in the southern-most point of the Uxbridge & South Ruislip constituency, where Boris Johnson has been MP since 2015. Milani, previoulsy the councillor for the Heathrow Villages area in the south of the borough of Hillingdon, became Labour’s candidate to unseat the former foreign secretary here last year – and feels he has the edge.

“When I fall sick, I go to Hillingdon Hospital. When Boris falls sick, he’s not going to be going to Hillingdon Hospital. Or the fact that I studied here – so did many people here. He didn’t study here,” he tells me, as he knocks on doors to introduce himself to residents on a bitingly cold Saturday morning. It’s the same thing he does every weekend morning. “I’m just as invested in the future of this community as Number 39 is, Number 42 is, you know.”

In his black coat adorned with a Labour sticker, thick turquoise jumper, checked scarf and springy Nike trainers, Milani takes to the street like a campaign veteran, despite his age.

He’s been hot on local concerns since he was a student, opposing the government’s student maintenance grant cut, and supporting anti-Heathrow expansion activists, as well as junior doctors striking at Hillingdon Hospital, which has one of the worst-performing A&E departments in the country.

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His short but concentrated experience of political life has also counted against him. He had to apologise last year for anti-Semitic tweets. Sent in 2012 when he was a teenager, 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”).

When these were unearthed, Milani apologised but added, “Most of us aren’t chiselled from adolescence for public office”.

Today he reiterates his background. “I think it’s fair to say I was never supposed to be an MP. I was never groomed to be an MP. For us it was about ‘Will I pass my GCSEs?’ And that sort of thing... My mistakes are as much a part of me, but it’s about apology and reaching out.”

Milani was brought up with his older sister by their mother in nearby Wembley, after his family moved from Iran when he was five. “Single mum, council estate family,” is how he describes it to me. “Quite working class, quite poor.”

Every day, it was a choice between forgoing lunch to pay for the Jubilee Line to school – or taking the bus and walking, with money left over for food. One of his earliest memories is how, in particularly tough months, his family couldn’t pay the gas bill, and they’d heat food using an electric rice cooker.

They relied on benefits, and he first felt the impact of politics when the Education Maintenance Allowance was cut by the new Conservative/Lib Dem coalition in 2010. “They were scrapping our EMA, tuition fees were trebling and life was getting much, much harder for us,” he recalls.

Since then, politics was “not something I could afford to ignore”.

But he had a happy childhood and didn’t realise people lived differently from he and his neighbours and friends until university. “I was like, ‘Hang on, what? You went horse riding?’ The only horses I knew were police horses!” he laughs.

Milani jokes that his mum has no idea what he’s running for – “She’s convinced I’m the Mayor of London, no doubt!” – but he’s close to his family, keeps his Farsi up, and goes to mosque.

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His status as a “young BAME candidate who’s Muslim” is important to him – particularly when up against Johnson, whose description of women in burqas looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” and so-called joke about clearing “the dead bodies away” to make Libya the new Dubai have angered the Muslim population in the UK and beyond.

“His divisive comments on Muslim communities and BME communities and minorities is very much a personal motivation for me,” says Milani. “Because that’s me and my family. He’s questioning the existence of me and my family in this country.”

Milani thinks their next race for Uxbridge could be a poignant point in British politics. “That Portillo Moment I think is something that will happen,” he says.

A traditionally Tory outer-London seat, with Labour areas concentrated in the south, it will take over 5,000 votes to unseat Johnson.

Yet his majority was more than halved in 2017, and Milani is confident he’ll win next time, predicting – like a growing number of Westminster insiders – that the next election will be this year.

So how do you topple a celebrity politician who everyone recognises?

“He’s like from Hollywood, he’s a character and a half, a different level!” smiles a father in sports kit who comes to the door; he has lived in Yiewsley 13 years and has Indian heritage. “Genuinely, I don’t vote,” he tells Milani. “They’re all from Eton. The system’s made for the elitists – in England and India it’s the same.”

Milani explains that he’s never been to Eton, and that he lived on this very road. “We need people in Westminster who know what it’s like to be us.”

“I’m from a working-class background,” the man nods. “Poor people don’t need welfare help, they need help and opportunities – to go to a club, to educate, go to an evening thing. I use the amenities here – the area is lovely, but the quality has gone, cut-backs, cut-backs, cut-backs. The hospital is horrible, they’re overrun.”

Coming away with a “100 per cent” promise of a vote, Milani tells me Johnson’s star is falling among these residents.

“That ‘Hollywood status’, we get that a lot. Occasionally people will be like ‘but he’s really entertaining’,” he admits. “But he’s become less of the Boris character and more of this really nasty, right-wing, divisive character.

“He gets a lot of name recognition, but after three or four years of no work done locally and neglecting the community… that sort of light very quickly diminishes,” he adds. “The residents in this community specifically no longer want the Hollywood show. People would much rather see him in the Civic Centre sitting down in front of them, with the concerns and the angst of the community, rather than on BBC or ITV.”

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Down the road is an old Scout hut surrounded by faded children’s playground equipment and fencing. It was the polling station where Milani cast his first general election vote – for Labour, as always – not so long ago in 2015.

He believes his youth is on his side, finding young people readily open up to him about their housing woes and relate to him. “I can’t imagine myself owning a house in the next 20 years. I’ve already got £56,000 of debt in student fees,” he says. “Boris doesn’t know that experience.”

Hillingdon was one of five of the outer London boroughs that bucked the capital’s trend and voted 56 per cent to Leave the European Union in 2016. Although some polling suggests a shift in opinion here, Milani claims Brexit has only come up twice in all the time he’s been campaigning.

Milani is aware he’s “classed as a Corbynite”, and praises his party’s policy to put a general election first. But he sounds more enthusiastic about a second referendum than his leader. “If we get into a position where a general election isn’t feasible, then a public vote on Brexit is the way to go,” he says. “But we’re not there yet.”

Unseating Boris Johnson is Milani’s main ambition. “I’m very confident that we can win this seat, but also the campaign can be an important moment for the country,” he says, pausing for pictures with five valiant volunteers braving the weather with him. “This is going to be the seat that defines everything.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.