It was a potent mix of optimism and the need for change that saw Ali Milani win the election to become president of Brunel’s student union this month. His campaign was honest – at times brutally so – and played on students’ concerns of where Brunel is heading and whether the university is working for them.
An accomplished campaigner, Ali is no stranger to controversy, having led the movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against of Israel as a result of the state’s occupation of the West Bank.
But now, as he prepares to lead Brunel’s student union beyond a single issue and into the university’s 50th anniversary year, Ali speaks exclusively to Le Nurb about his reaction to being elected, and how he plans to unite students behind his plan for change.
During his election campaign Ali Milani spoke of his desire to end “the conveyor belt of presidents” and speaking with him after his victory it’s clear that, for now, the conveyor has stopped.
“We’ve done that,” Ali says, when I recall the metaphor, “It’s a new era as far as our student union goes. It’s a shift away from the conventional presidents we’ve had.
“And by that, I mean students have elected in me an activist, not an administrator.”
During the campaign, Ali certainly didn’t hold back his criticism of our current set of sabbatical officers, describing Vice-President of Community Welfare Leon Evans as “tragic”, President Martin Zaranyika: “not up to my standards”, and his opponent in the election, Vice President of Student Activities Hannah Jones: “the embodiment of the status quo”.
But the criticism resonated with students who were fed up with a plague of issues affecting them on campus, and helped make Ali the first union candidate in nine years to defeat a current officer. “To win against an incumbent is unheard of – not just at Brunel, but across the country,” he says, “I didn’t think it was impossible but I didn’t think I would win.”
Ali’s campaign hit the ground running, and seized the agenda – turning the elections into a kind of referendum on how students felt about the university and their experience. “My main message throughout the week was change,” Ali says, “and I think the students have sent a really clear message to the union.
“They want stronger representation to tackle problems they’re facing in halls, with the costs on our campus, and other issues.”
His campaign was not especially innovative, yet its focus on one simple message couldn’t have been more disciplined.
His election videos were viewed over 5,000 times on Facebook. He sent emails to over 600 students asking them to vote. And the phrase “making Brunel work for us” was plastered across campus.
Yet despite maintaining what he describes as a “clean campaign”, the topic of division and discrimination never strayed far.
Misinformation was sent around campus in an attempt to brand certain candidates as divisive and imply they were keen to discriminate against others in their effort to get elected.
“Things were said that weren’t true,” Ali says, “and we can see from democratic votes at the UGM in November, and from the number of votes cast in this election, that more students than ever are engaged in politics at our union.”
And he’s not wrong, votes cast in the election totalled 2,580, or 19% of those eligible, the highest at Brunel for many years.
Despite high turnout, a lot was said during the campaign about diversity – just two women stood for the sabbatical officer positions, while 10 men did the same. And no women were elected to the full-time positions. “I think it’s a problem,” Ali says.
“I ran because I thought I was the best person for the job but one of the reasons I proposed a women’s officer was so that women can self-organise and fight for issues they face on our campus.
“This position would be voluntary (like a Chair position) to begin with, but we would need to look at whether it would need to be full-time, like at Sheffield, for example.”
The final team includes 16 positions, two of whom ran in a slate which endorsed Ali’s opponent: yet despite the potential for tension, Ali believes the divergence of opinion will only make the union stronger. “I think this is great,” he says, “this is about being a team and best representing students.
“There’s 16 of us with different views; this eclectic group is the best thing for the union, and ultimately for the students.”
Having stood on a manifesto described by some as ‘fiction’, and by others even less favourably, Ali says his ideas, while ambitious, are achievable. “We have high ambitions of where we want to go.
“Brunel absolutely has the ability to compete with the very best universities in London and across the country,” he says, “but for us to have the best chance of succeeding we need students to be behind their union and to bring their union behind them.
“And as president especially, no matter which way students voted, or whose campaign team they were on, I will serve everyone on our campus.”