In a video announcing his run for mayor of London, 23-year-old YouTube star Niko Omilana declares that the city could have no greater leader than himself.
In the clip, which he uploaded to Twitter and has been viewed more than 1.7 million times, he urges viewers to register to vote.
“Vote Niko for mayor of London on May 6th or your breath stinks,” he says.
Just weeks after his campaign launch, a poll showed Omilana in fifth place, with 5% of respondents stating that he would be their first preference vote. His polling position grabbed headlines; the youngest candidate in the race seemed to have a better chance than the more established politicians like Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party. The mayoral hopeful believes that the only way is up.
“Five percent in three weeks — if we can get 5% in three weeks, who knows? That was just us coming onto the surface, I feel like the next poll will show that we got 69% of the majority,” Omilana told BuzzFeed News. Yes, he said 69%.
It is unclear if his campaign is just for content, i.e., if he’s just trolling the entire city of London or if he actually wants to be responsible for nearly 9 million people. Despite his reputation as an online prankster, though, Omilana insisted that he’s in it for real and that his campaign isn’t just a publicity stunt.
“I'm taking it extremely seriously. I don't know how I can convey it to the voters any more than [I am] right now,” he said.
The winner has basically already been decided in this race. Just about every poll predicts Sadiq Khan, the current mayor and a former human rights lawyer, will be reelected. But Omilana has added a new dimension to the election and made an underwhelming and drawn-out competition just a little bit more interesting.
Joking or not, the size of his audience and the influence should not be underestimated, especially among a generation of young voters increasingly disillusioned with mainstream political parties. Young people seem ready to rally around a candidate who will shake things up.
Omilana, it seems, is willing to capitalize on that.
“I feel like young people aren't represented in politics, hence why I've decided to step forward and put myself in the limelight,” said Omilana, who admitted that prior to his decision to run, he wouldn’t have described himself as politically active.
But now, he claimed, he is up for the challenge.
“I didn't want to do this, but I felt like I had no choice. There's that Thanos moment of 'fine, I'll do it myself,’” he said.
With 20 candidates on the ballot (the most in London's mayoral election history), press coverage has largely been reserved for more seasoned candidates. Despite this, according to one election poll by ITV London News, Omilana is the second-most-popular choice after Khan for voters between the ages of 18 and 24, of whom 19% say they are ready to vote for the YouTuber. Twelve percent of Londoners between the ages of 25 and 34 also said they would vote for Omilana.
Omilana joins a roster that includes Count Binface, formerly known as Lord Buckethead, a long-standing satirical candidate who regularly participates in elections and has promised to rename London Bridge after Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
This year's election has attracted other YouTubers like Max Fosh, who has 423,000 followers on the site. The 26-year-old, who has polled at 1%, entered the race primarily with the intention of getting more votes than Laurence Fox, a controversial actor turned “anti-woke” personality, who is running a £5 million campaign under the banner of fighting against a culture of “political correctness.”
Also in the running is Brian Rose, an American-born podcaster and YouTuber who has promised London “a new direction” if he is elected mayor. The 49-year-old posts campaign content frequently to an audience of two million subscribers on his channel, which has been flagged for COVID misinformation.
As the “founding father and supreme leader of the Niko Defence League,” (or NDL, his name for his political party), Omilana considers his nontraditional background to be a positive.
“I feel like I'm here to represent the people. In terms of politicians, obviously they're representing their parties, which are then also representing the people, but I am outright running for the people and outright here to represent the people,” he said.
The creator’s YouTube channel has more than 3.5 million subscribers at the time of writing this. On Instagram, he has a further 1.2 million followers, and more than 500,000 followers on Twitter.
His content includes elaborate pranks, challenges, and attention-grabbing stunts, often with unassuming members of the public involved.
Omilana, who resides in north London, isn’t the first comic to join an election with the intention of shaking up the political status quo. Icelandic standup comedian Jón Gnarr ran for mayor of Reykjavik in 2010 as a joke. To his shock, he actually won and served as mayor for the Iceland capital for four years. Despite his brand of content, Omilana insists his campaign isn’t intended to be a joke. (At this point in our Zoom interview, Omilana, who was smartly dressed from the waist up and accessorized with his signature lime green children’s sunglasses, had to answer the door, revealing pink boxer shorts on his bottom half.)
“Even though I'm wearing children's glasses, I am taking this seriously, and I do want to make change in London. I want to make change in the world, to be honest. And I feel like that starts with London,” he said.
What Omilana lacks in political experience he substitutes with online popularity and charisma, which is arguably just as effective in getting people to pay attention to his campaign.
In a theoretical world, if all his subscribers on YouTube happened to be registered voters in London and they all showed up for him on May 6 and made him their first-preference vote, Omilana would have more than the total number of votes that elected Khan in 2016. Of course, that’s unlikely.
To convert subscribers into voters, the YouTuber believes the solution begins with engagement, something he’s well versed on.
In his latest campaign move, Omilana converted a classic double-decker London bus into a restaurant, driving through the city and welcoming prospective voters on for a hot meal. He matched the money raised from passengers’ donations and gave it to the 4Front Project, an organization addressing youth violence and empowering young people.
Omilana may have youth on his side, but he isn’t exactly the average young Londoner. In a city where unemployment is most prevalent among those aged 16 to 24, and where young Black men are much more likely to face unemployment, he lives the lifestyle of a successful YouTuber which you could argue makes him unrelatable to his peers. However, he still thinks he can be their voice.
“Obviously, me being a YouTuber, you could say that I'm making more money, but that doesn't mean that I'm not still representing young people. That doesn't mean I still don't know what that's like,” he asserted.
Beyond being a representative, Omilana has plans for the city of London.
“I'm going to build as many disabled toilets as there are Pret a Mangers in London, which means an extra 4.3 billion disabled toilets will be built in London,” he told BuzzFeed News.
His full manifesto, which was published on April 27 at 4:20 p.m., includes pledges such as turning every McDonald’s with a broken ice cream machine into low-rent housing and promising to raise the minimum wage by 6.9%, a nod to his fondness for the numbers six and nine.
Omilana summarized his politics, saying, “I'm the first good person to want world domination.”
If he is able to build on his present momentum, he could retain the £10,000 deposit candidates are required to pay when submitting their application. Candidates must secure at least 5% of the vote to get this money back. In the last mayoral election, only three of the 12 candidates managed to do this.
Even if he doesn’t win, Omilana believes his campaign is doing good for young people.
“If they're engaged in politics, then they start to look into the mayoral candidates, into the big parties in the UK. They're then registering to vote as well,” he said. “They'll really look into being heard more in the future [elections], and who is the most connected to them, and I believe that right now is me. Who knows who that will be in future elections, but at least then more young people are registering and more young people are getting involved in the process.”
As campaigning continues with election day less than a week away, the mayoral candidate said he plans to use the opportunity to “raise the profiles and put people in the limelight, young people with progressive ideas, forward-thinking ideas,” and advised supporters to keep up with his campaign because it’s only due to get better.