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The whistleblower: Shahmir Sanni on being outed and his fight for democracy

He says Brexit was ‘totally illegal’ – we meet him to discuss his sexuality being used as a weapon, fashion, and why another referendum must happen

If you look out of the window from one end of the Dazed offices you can see Parliament, the buildings in which the future of this country is dictated and fought over, the place where our democracy is supposedly protected. On a grey, moody afternoon in London, Shahmir Sanni is sitting here with me in one of our meeting rooms, fiercely adamant that the very idea of democracy in Britain is a total lie, and determined to prove that the Brexit result was won illegally.

A tall, good-looking, 24-year-old British-Pakistani man born in Karachi, Sanni moved to Birmingham when he was 15, and studied biochemistry, physics, and maths in sixth form, before heading to Norwich to learn economics at university. He’s passionate about politics, gay – more on that later – and used to have his own fashion line. Like many people his age, he loves tweeting, playing Overwatch and World of Warcraft, is obsessed with Kelela (he saw her recent show at Heaven), and has Migos and Yxng Bane on his current Spotify playlist.

Unlike many people his age, Sanni hates the European Union. He worked as a volunteer for the Vote Leave campaign, helping with its digital marketing and social media strategy. And days before our meeting, he’s created a global media and political storm by alleging that the referendum he worked on was illegally won.

In revelations first published by the Guardian, Sanni alleged that the Vote Leave campaign overspent considerably, but channelled the money (£625,000) through a side operation called BeLeave, a project run by Shahmir and fashion student Darren Grimes. The £625,000 never actually went to BeLeave, it went to an obscure Canadian company called AggregateIQ (AIQ).

In 2017, when the Electoral Commission investigated possible overspending by Vote Leave, Sanni says he noticed chief operators in the Vote Leave campaign removing their names from a Google Drive – suggesting the deletion of evidence. Earlier this month, Sanni’s friend Christopher Wylie also revealed how data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested thousands of Facebook profiles to potentially influence the outcome of the 2016 US election. Christopher Wylie was the man who introduced Sanni to Stephen Parkinson, and subsequently, Vote Leave.

Shortly after Sanni turned whistleblower, his sexuality was disclosed – horrifically and callously – by Theresa May’s political secretary Stephen Parkinson, who had an 18 month relationship with Sanni, that according to him led to the Mail on Sunday doorstepping his aunt and uncle in Birmingham to ask them what they thought about his sexuality.

“It’s sad that Stephen feels he can’t tell the truth about cheating in the Referendum,” Sanni said in a statement. “I think he understands why I had to do the right thing and let people know what really happened. But I never imagined that he, with the help of Number 10, would choose to tell the world I am gay, in a last desperate attempt to scare me. This is something I’ve never told most of my friends or family, here or in Pakistan, some of whom are having to take measures to ensure their safety. Some things are more important than politics.”

I met Shahmir Sanni to talk about his role in the Vote Leave campaign, what it feels like to be outed to the world, and why a second referendum isn’t just necessary, it’s inevitable.

You've just been outed by the government, your sexuality weaponised against you. How does that feel and what does it tell you about our government?

Shahmir Sanni: How does it feel? Shit. Super fucking shit. I’ve never felt more vulnerable and more devastated, than when I found out that No.10 had sent out an official statement. It was an opportunity for them to make this about me being some brokenhearted lover, which is ridiculous. It shouldn’t have been made public like that. If he was my partner for that long, obviously I've told him that I’m not out to my family, I have family in Pakistan, and it’s a big reason I haven’t come out yet publicly, because it’s dangerous.

I would love to make that statement (myself), to show other South Asian men, Muslim men, brown men, that I’m gay, and that I’m also doing work. But the opportunity to own that moment has been stripped from me. It’s always difficult for someone from a South Asian community to come out. It’s not just the religious taboo, it’s the cultural taboo. The worst thing is that he knew (that). They’re treating this like I have a vendetta, but the sole purpose of this is to bring to light that Darren (Grimes) was used by these people, and that the public were lied to. It’s not about Brexit, it’s about the people running this government...they were cheating. They outed me just to make me feel scared, to make me feel vulnerable.

How have the conversations with your family been?

Shahmir Sanni: My family has been supportive. I think most mothers have an idea (if their sons are gay). But I wasn’t just forced to come out to my mother. It was my aunts, my uncles, my grandparents, my third, fourth cousins, seeing me on the Pakistani news channels. My government forced me out to’s pressure on my family. They’re worried about me. I was supposed to go to Pakistan this summer for my sister’s wedding, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to go to that now. I’ll figure that out later.

“They outed me just to make me feel scared, to make me feel vulnerable” – Shahmir Sanni

How did you meet Christopher Wylie?

Shahmir Sanni: At a bar in Soho. Before I used to say bar, but now I can say it was a gay bar. (Leans into dictaphone and shouts) A GAY BAR!

Your life has been altered unimaginably through that chance meeting with Chris – do you ever wish you hadn’t met him?

Shahmir Sanni: Hell no. Sure these experiences have been horrible, but I’ve learned a lot, I’ve grown a lot. Chris has been the most supportive person – his lawyer is doing pro bono work for me. Chris has been the reason that I’ve gone this far. When I was outed, Chris was more upset than I was, because he felt responsible, because he introduced me and Darren to Stephen. But I’ve been telling him it’s not his fault that people at Vote Leave fucked us over and used two young, impressionable volunteers.

How did you feel when it occurred to you that the way the Vote Leave campaign was run was totally illegal, when you noticed names missing from the Google drive?

Shahmir Sanni: A part of me was scared, but the other part of me said “I knew it”. Most of my emotion was just being pissed off. I don’t know why they did it (removed their names from the drive). That’s something for the authorities to decide. I told Chris, “Yo, I need your help”. He’s probably the smartest guy I know, the smartest guy most people know. I knew that his pragmatism, his strong sense of morality, would be helpful. I was scared, but I was fucking pissed, because I was thinking about the shit that Darren Grimes has gone through, has dealt with, while everyone at Vote Leave has been getting jobs at No.10, living their best life. Darren is not rich, his only support system is people who worked on Vote Leave, who worked on the Brexit campaign. His world is this group of people. So if everyone around you is telling you the same lies that you were told from the know? I spoke to him a few months ago... he is broken, shattered.

The sum of money - £625,000 – that seems like a lot of money to use for a digital marketing campaign. What change do you think you can make with that amount?

Shahmir Sanni: £625,000 is a lot of money. Hundreds of millions of impressions, people seeing your stuff hundreds of millions of times. A lot of money, but we never saw the results. You know how emails we got for that amount? 1,100 or something. £600 per email? Yeah, that seems legit (says sarcastically). But even if it didn’t have an impact it wouldn’t matter, because there was co-ordination, it was illegal, there was cheating. Keep in mind that I was Treasurer of BeLeave, but did I have any control over the money? No. Dominic Cummings (Vote Leave campaign manager) and co did. The money never touched our bank, it went straight to AIQ. We met AIQ in the office, we spoke to them on Slack.

Did you not feel that you were overspending, that something was wrong?

Shahmir Sanni: That’s not something a volunteer thinks about. A volunteer thinks "tell me what to do, and I’ll do it". It was the mentality that both me and Darren had.

You talk about BeLeave targeting “social justice” – why did you decide to hit that demographic?

Shahmir Sanni: You go after people that aren’t your typical voter to make sure you get as many votes as possible, and get as many people as possible not to vote for the other side, or doubt it. That’s politics, that’s campaigning. BeLeave had progressive values - it talked about passport discrimination, rejected the idea of EU supremacy, which is why it did so well. The stuff that Darren was creating was brilliant, it’s just a shame that his talent was used to overspend. Darren’s line that he gave – or that he was told to give – was that he chose to give the money to AIQ because he’d seen the good work they’d done on the Ted Cruz campaign. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. They didn’t even have a website. He had no idea how AIQ worked.

Both Chris and Darren have backgrounds in fashion....

Shahmir Sanni: Well I had my own clothing line university, a very short period.

What was your clothing line like?

Shahmir Sanni: East meets West. Pakistani wear, Pakistani prints. Embellishments, motifs.

Who are your favourite designers?

Shahmir Sanni: Ralph & Russo, Sabyasachi, Misha Lahkani, who’s a Pakistani designer.

I’m fascinated by what Chris said about Steve Bannon’s obsession with culture - the idea that if you can control culture, you can control politics. How much did your background in fashion, those skillsets and passions, feed into the work you were doing?

Shahmir Sanni: Creatively, right? Fashion is about identity, about who you are. Are you the guy that wears ripped jeans, a hoodie and a cap? Are you the guy that likes to wear your Union Jack suit? It’s a representation of who you are, in the same way that your political ideologies are a representation of who you are. It’s what you think, what you believe. I’ve always been interested in fashion, I’ve always been interested in politics, and how they’re two similar things.

“I’ve always been interested in fashion, I’ve always been interested in politics, and how they’re two similar things” – Shahmir Sanni

You’re a staunch Eurosceptic. I just want to ask about you as an Asian man – you were aware that you were interesting to Vote Leave for that reason, right?

Shahmir Sanni: That was the first conversation I had when I joined – how my brownness could contribute to the campaign. I was aware that this is what happens in politics, that it helps to have people that understand the people that you’re targeting.

Your campaigning was subtle and deliberately ‘positive’ – how did it make you feel when Nigel Farage stood in front of the infamous “Breaking Point” poster?

Shahmir Sanni: Vote Leave despised Farage. Everyone in the office would constantly be talking shit about Farage. Vote Leave knew that it couldn’t just win on angry UKIP voters. You need to have progressives, or people who are liberal, or in the centre. Farage hampered that, turned away those people. He hurt Vote Leave – people there believe that they could have won with more votes if Farage wasn’t involved.

As an Asian man, how did it feel to see a spike in racially-motivated hate crimes linked to the referendum, having worked on the Vote Leave campaign?

Shahmir Sanni: It was an unfortunate outcome. And I’m not going to beat around the bush, there was a lot of division because of Brexit, largely fuelled by Farage’s emphasis on migrants from the Middle East. However, finally this is an opportunity for everyone to rally together and fight against those that taint the democratic process. My hope is that what I’m doing helps mend those divisions.

Knowing what you know now, do you believe that the UK will have a second referendum and do you think that your actions may force one?

Shahmir Sanni: Because there was co-ordination, because the lawyers that I have spoken to say there is enough to investigate for criminal offences, a solid amount of evidence to show that there was co-ordination...what is the alternative? We go through this process, knowing that we won it based on a lie, on a cheat? A lot of people voted leave for democracy and sovereignty, but ironically in that process our democratic process has been tainted, because people cheated and used young volunteers to just win, and now we’re outing them knowing full well of the consequences? Just for dirt, for politics. Knowing that Brexit was...a lie, that people were cheated.

I really don’t like the idea of the EU, a super state that only benefits Europeans. I hate that idea, but it’s not relevant, because people were cheated. I’d be surprised if the government goes through with Brexit knowing full well that Vote Leave cheated. There’s evidence coming from a whistleblower, from someone who worked on the campaign.

How do you think Theresa May is feeling now?

Shahmir Sanni: I don’t know. A part of me just hopes to God she has some respect for British democracy, instead of politics and Westminster. I hope she proves to this country that for her it’s not just about her clique of friends, it’s about the democratic process. The only way for her to retain her respect as leader of this country, is to act like the leader.

“There is more of you in a computer than there is you in real life. There’s your history, what you like, what you hate, what you think about, your sexuality” – Shahmir Sanni

What advice would you give to this generation in terms of protecting their data?

Shahmir Sanni: Delete Facebook, for one, even though I haven’t done it myself. This isn’t about privacy, this is about your identity. There is more of you in a computer than there is you in real life. There’s your history, what you like, what you hate, what you think about, your sexuality. People should have more control of themselves, a person has the right to control their own story.

When you look at Cambridge Analytica and the US election, what’s happened here, do you still believe that democracy exists?

Shahmir Sanni: I sure hope it does. I trust people, especially as collectives. They (the people) have lost touch with what democracy is. You (should) have opposing sides, opposing views, based on facts. But it’s become more about “fuck the facts, who can slander the other the most.” That’s for fashion critics to do, to say “mmmm, no sorry, that’s pretty shit.” Politicians shouldn’t be arguing based on their personal feelings, they should be arguing over facts, not who can get the most people riled up. That’s not what democracy is.

But I don’t see a political system in the world where that vision of democracy is being enacted...

Shahmir Sanni: That’s why what I’m doing is so important. These politicians, our foreign secretary, is so quick to say “it’s a lie”. How? You have no evidence. I’m the one with the evidence. I’m the one going through the legal process of doing this. Not because I want to remain (in the European Union), the last thing I want to do is remain, fuck that. But I’m being honest.

You’re presumably hyper-aware of media, what do you think of how quiet the BBC’s coverage has been?

Shahmir Sanni: Considering that I was the whistleblower...I don’t really want to go into detail...where is the coverage? You (the BBC) receive public funding. This is the same thing I would say to the government – you should be working in the public interest. Any government institution shouldn’t give a shit about what other people in politics are saying – their only focus should be to serve the people out there working their asses off, whether they’re in Scunthorpe, Newcastle, Birmingham, Cardiff, wherever. And if there are people at the top that are screwing over the people, it’s mindboggling. The whole thing is tainted, and it’s about time people wake the fuck up. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Shahmir Sanni’s message to readers is to check out The Fair Vote Project and if anybody wants to ask him anything, just hit him up on Twitter.