The Speaker
Friday, 14 June 2024 – 11:17

Ali Milani: The Unlikely Candidate

October 2019, on the balcony of a hotel in Istanbul, a twenty-four-year-old man sat across from his father sipping a cup of tea. It was the first time he had been able to do so in nearly three years; he knew every moment was precious. It was just two months away from what would be the crescendo of the biggest moment in that young man’s life so far. As he sipped from the china mug, he started telling his father about how far he had come. How the working-class boy, born in Iran, raised in London, had risen – whilst still in his early twenties – to challenge the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in one of the most contentious elections in decades.

Ali Milani, sat on the Turkish balcony, was often teased by his father – for his generation overthrew a King. Milani was determined that he would be the one to overthrow the man who once proclaimed his ambition to be ‘world king’. A former vice president at the National Union of Students, Milani had packed in a lot in his life so far. Born in Iran, Milani moved to the UK at the age of five, before entering student politics through Brunel University, and moving on to NUS. He later jumped into Labour Party politics, being elected as a councillor in 2018 at the age of 23. However, just one year later, he would become one of the most recognisable faces of the 2019 general election, providing a credible threat to Boris Johnson, in an attempt to be the first ever candidate to unseat a sitting prime minister.

In the end, Ali’s attempt to defeat Johnson fell short. He was defeated by around 7,000 votes as Johnson and his Conservative Party stormed to an 80-seat majority. Yet, defeat was not nearly as bitter as it might have been. Milani had provided a credible challenge to a sitting prime minister, and had enthused a generation of voters – attracting campaign volunteers from around the world and gaining international media attention. The interest in his campaign was not just due to his attempt to unseat the prime minister; Pat McDonald had not received close to the same attention when he ran against Theresa May in 2017. It was about Milani’s candidacy itself; it was about his story; his journey. Ali Milani was the unlikely candidate.

That is what Milani details in his new book, ‘The Unlikely Candidate’. Now 27, Milani reflects not just on the December 2019 election itself, but on his whole journey; from young muslim immigrant, to student campaigner, to Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

The deeply personal account details not just Ali’s journey towards the 2019 election, but his emotional trauma in making the decision to even run. As he details many times throughout the book, few politicians in UK politics have a background like his; imposter syndrome was a constant strain deciding whether to throw his hat into the ring. From being by far the youngest person at a Labour Party candidate training session, to being amongst the only non-white faces in a room full of future candidates, the book details the realities of running for office as a young working-class Muslim.

Milani not only details the difficulty of running against a sitting prime minister, but the difficulties in navigating internal Labour Party politics. From central office meddling, to lack of support being given to his campaign – and him personally – by the party, he conveys the difficulty in being a young candidate without the party machine behind you.

Yet, where the party machine often failed to step up, grassroots campaigners and prominent Labour Party figures stepped in. The likes of Emily Thornberry – who also attended the book launch of The Unlikely Candidate – was one of the most high-profile party figures, but many others joined too. In the end, Ali details that his campaign gained so much media attention that party figures were scrambling to be seen with him on the campaign trail.

It was not just politicians either. Owen Jones, the prominent journalist and left-wing commentator, was one of the most prominent of Milani’s supporters, but other young and hungry Labour Party candidates also joined him in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, aiming to capture the magic that had seemingly fallen on his campaign.

News reporters travelled the world to see what was happening on the ground. TV cameras from the United States to South Korea flocked to capture the movement that Ali was attempting to build. He was not just an unlikely candidate, but now one of the most prominent candidates in the whole country.

Yet, whilst his campaign was a story of grassroots hope driving change, he also details the very unique challenges that he faced as a BAME candidate. From racist letters hand-delivered through his letterbox, to the older couple whose overt racism was cloaked in such politeness that it unnerved him. It was the where are you really from trope that constantly recurred on the doorstep. The irony for Milani: he had lived in Uxbridge and South Ruislip for almost his entire life; Boris Johnson had only moved there to take up the seat in 2016.

Milani however, doesn’t just detail his personal experience of racism on the campaign trail. But rather, he places it within the broader narrative of post-2010 politics, and specifically to some of the overt racism that Boris Johnson penned during his days as a journalist. He details the rising racially motivated hatred he received as Boris Johnson rose to power as Theresa May’s leadership fell, whilst Milani was campaigning for the constituency he had called home for 20 years.

The Unlikely Candidate is both a cautionary tale and a message of hope. It provides an image, based on Milani’s own vision of the future, of a more diverse and accessible political system. A political system where stories such as his own are no longer those of an unlikely candidate.

It is a must-read for any young, politically engaged people; especially for those thinking of getting involved in politics.

You can read more about Ali Milani and ‘The Unlikely Candidate’ here.

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