In about two weeks, voters in a London suburb will determine the future of British politics.
Prime minister Boris Johnson is the member of parliament for the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, which he won in 2017 with the smallest majority of any British leader since 1924. (He was foreign minister at the time of the vote.) If Johnson’s Conservative Party wins the Dec. 12 general election but he loses his seat, he may have to stand down. No incumbent prime minister has ever lost their seat at a general election, and it’s not entirely clear what would happen if they did.
A recent YouGov poll found that the Conservatives are likely to win a comfortable majority. The poll, however, ranked Uxbridge and South Ruislip as “likely Conservative,” a rank below “safe” and above “lean.” It estimated that Johnson would win about 50% of votes, compared with Labour’s 37%. But the margin could be tighter than it seems: at the edges of YouGov’s range of estimates, a narrow Labour win in Uxbridge is just about possible.
The Labour Party candidate in Uxbridge is Ali Milani, a 25-year-old student organizer born in Iran who has pitched himself to voters as the antithesis of everything Johnson stands for. But is that what voters in Uxbridge are looking for?
Home court advantage
For such a politically important constituency, it’s incredibly difficult to get Uxbridge residents to talk politics. After a day spent walking into shops, restaurants, and pubs along the busy high street, only a handful of people agree to answer questions about who they plan to vote for next month.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the town is crawling with reporters and canvassers on a rainy weekday, and that people want to get on with their holiday shopping. Still, they are unusually reticent. Two pub managers asked me not to speak to their patrons, and a group of elderly women sitting in the Uxbridge Library sent me packing too, saying they don’t discuss politics or religion. “We’re all friends and we’d like it to stay that way,” one of them said.
It’s a sign of how politically divisive this election has become—and how challenging it will be for Milani to disrupt this suburban commuter town’s status quo. (Before Johnson came along, Uxbridge was mostly known to Londoners as the last stop on the Tube’s Metropolitan line.) No Labour candidate has ever won in this constituency, where 57% of people voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. But Milani, a staunch Remainer, believes he has a chance, because in 2017, the seat went to Johnson by just over 5,000 votes, which is about half of the winning margin he got in 2015.
When asked about Milani, John Hook, a 65-year-old retiree and Uxbridge resident, said “I don’t think he’s got a hope in hell.” At The Three Tuns pub, the former security administrator at Wembley Stadium said he is voting for Johnson. “I quite like him,” he said. “I think he does his best, because obviously he can’t be here all the time, being the prime minister, and people have got to realize that. But he does what he can around here.”
Hook supports the Conservatives because of Brexit. “I voted to leave Europe and I think it’s a disgrace that other parties are trying to stop it,” he said.
The fact that Brexit dominates discussions with voters is bad news for candidates like Milani, who has said he would vote Remain again if the referendum were held today. “All over the country, Remain-voting candidates in predominantly Leave-voting seats will do worse than they otherwise would have done, and the reverse,” explained Tony Travers of the London School of Economics. “It is a handicap.”
Milani disagrees. He recently told The Guardian, “you’d be surprised at how little Brexit comes up on the doorstep here.” But that appears to be more wishful thinking than reality.
“The public have voted,” said Angie, an Uxbridge local and Johnson supporter who makes ornaments that she sells once a week at a stall at the local market, and who declines to let me use her last name. “We don’t need another referendum, we don’t need another vote,” she said. “We voted out, we want out, that’s it, just get us out.”
The Bakers, who sell homemade jam at the same market, live in Uxbridge, and plan to vote for Milani. They both voted Remain but want Brexit to happen in order to move on. “We had a referendum and we lost, which I think is a great shame, but having decided, you can’t now have another referendum, otherwise there’s no point having referendums about anything,” said Mr Baker, 78.
Who is Ali Milani?
Milani was born in Tehran and moved to the UK when he was five. He grew up in a Wembley council estate with his mother and sister and studied politics at Brunel University, where he was student union president as well as vice president of the National Union of Students. His mother was once homeless, and he lost friends to knife crimes. Standing toe-to-toe with Eton- and Oxford-educated Johnson, who comes from a family of politicians, the options facing voters couldn’t be more different.
Milani has pitched himself to voters as someone who understands the everyday battles they face, because he’s faced them too. He says he is the guy who shows up—unlike Johnson, who has been criticized for spending too little time in his constituency. Johnson said he will not attend a Dec. 5 hustings at Yiewsley Baptist Church, for example, and organizers recently told the press they may empty-chair him.
When he was a teenager, Milani tweeted several antisemitic messages, for which he has since repeatedly and profusely apologized. Labour Against Antisemitism (LAAS), a volunteer group of Labour members and supporters, filed a complaint against Milani with the Labour party in April 2018. Quartz reviewed a copy of the complaint and the response from the party, which declined to “take any further action” because Milani’s messages had “already been investigated” in 2016 and he had “acknowledged the comments were wrong and promised to observe the standards expected of party members.”
The issue may be an insurmountable hurdle for Milani. The Labour Party has been rocked by repeated accusations of anti-Semitism, and Britain’s chief rabbi recently took the rare step of criticizing the party in a Times editorial for its “utterly inadequate” response. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn refused to apologize to British Jews in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil. Milani did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
“It’s fine for someone to apologize but that doesn’t mean they have the right to be in a political party,” said Euan Philipps, LAAS’s spokesperson, who filed the complaint against Milani. “Our feeling is that if you have expressed anti-Semitic views in the past, as Ali Milani appeared to have done… then unfortunately, that does rule you out of being a parliamentary candidate.”
Path to victory
Milani’s plan is to win over voters—especially young, diverse voters—by campaigning almost exclusively on local issues, especially what he calls the “three H’s”: Hillingdon, Heathrow, and housing. He accuses Johnson of failing to act as Hillingdon hospital fell into such disrepair that parts of it were deemed unsafe for patients. He also says Johnson “betrayed” residents by not keeping his promise to prevent the construction of a third runway at Heathrow airport. In 2015, Johnson said he would lie down “in front of those bulldozers,” a promise that Milani enjoys rubbing in Johnson’s face on the campaign trail. The constituency also has a severe shortage of affordable housing, which the Heathrow expansion (pdf) could worsen.
Although the vote could be close, analysts say it’s unlikely that Milani will manage to unseat Johnson. If he manages an upset, but the Conservatives win a majority, then Britain will be plunged into (further) political chaos. “It would add to the endless instability that has plagued British politics now for some time, [which is] apparently endless,” said Travers.