King maker

First published in Progress magazine

London mayoral hopeful Oona King reveals how she would wrest City Hall from Boris’s hands, why he is ‘useless’, the Big Society a ‘con’ and how she would help tackle reoffending.

When Oona King launched her campaign to become Labour’s candidate for the 2010 London mayoral election at her old school, Haverstock, she was surprised by the response of the 14-year-olds who had been forced to sit and listen to her talking about national politics.

‘I couldn’t believe it when loads of them came up to me afterwards and said, “Miss, that was a wicked speech”‘,’ says the former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow over a cup of tea in her Canary Wharf office. ‘Everyone has strengths and that is one of my strengths: communicating to young London. I genuinely believe I can inspire Londoners, and in particular young Londoners.’

Some might contrast the 42-year-old King’s relative youth with the 65-year-old former mayor who is currently her main rival for the Labour mayoral candidacy. But given that Ken Livingstone is a household name throughout the capital, would it not be risky for the party to switch candidate?

‘I’m not aware of an example in modern political history where a politician who lost a certain election with a certain opponent and a certain agenda, then went back to that same election with the same opponent and the same agenda and won,’ says King. ‘We need a new campaign, fresh ideas, we need to wash away the old politics and spell out an agenda that speaks to the future.’

King believes Labour lost the London mayoralty in 2008 because it was seen to have abandoned the outer London boroughs and its campaign lacked focus. ‘There was the idea that issues that were of great importance to Londoners, such as crime, didn’t get a look-in in Labour’s campaign,’ she reflects.

During her five years away from elected frontline politics – during which she has, among other things, adopted two children, worked behind the scenes in No 10 and been head of diversity at Channel 4 – King has become more aware of the inequality between inner and outer London. Visiting her son’s foster family in the zone 6 area of Hornchurch, she has heard, ‘on an ongoing basis a very different set of concerns from those I would hear in Tower Hamlets’. Her son’s teenage foster siblings, for example, have fewer facilities, fewer places to go and much less access to London’s transport. ‘In many places you can’t even top up an Oyster card. There’s a fundamental lack of equality in terms of equal access to what London has to offer.’

King may have a knack for connecting with people, old and young, but what about the charge sometimes heard in Labour circles that the former MP, while no doubt likeable, is something of a lightweight?

Putting aside her tendency to self-deprecate, King responds by pointing to her record as a backbench MP. It was as a newly-elected MP that she took on the ‘virtually impossible task’ of changing the law on compulsory competitive tendering, negotiating an agreement between the CBI and TUC. It was due to her relentless campaigning that the law was changed so that homeless families with children could only be housed in temporary accommodation for a maximum of six weeks. It was King who successfully lobbied for a change in the law on incitement to racial hatred, so that it included religious hatred, after one of her Bangladeshi constituents was spat upon and attacked for being Muslim.

‘Whenever people dismiss [me], they’re not taking into account that when I am given an impossible task I will just break it down and do what I have to do until it becomes possible. While King challenges her detractors to find an MP who has done more than her, she believes others do not have the ‘lightweight’ tag attached to them. ‘Part of that is due to gender, without a shadow of a doubt. And part of that is due to my personality, and whilst I’m not willing to subvert my personality entirely, I recognise that I have a very very very serious side and often that’s not the side that I choose to portray. Ok, if that’s the cost of changing London’s future, I’m willing to pay it.’

During her eight years as an MP, King rubbed shoulders with current London mayor Boris Johnson, who she claims achieved little beyond making witty speeches – a pattern she claims he is repeating at City Hall where ‘he just hasn’t really done anything … That is the broad line of attack; basically, he’s useless.’

‘To be fair to the man, there are two things that he has done,’ King says by way of qualification. ‘One is attempt to do something about cycling in London – it hasn’t succeeded yet, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt; the other is to build a fancy bus.’

‘While I quite like the idea of hopping on and off Routemasters, I don’t think you can build an entire campaign for London around it or base a strategy for the future on it, which he seems to have done. You can get the keys to City Hall on the basis that you don’t like bendy buses, but you can’t maintain them on that basis. You have to come up with the goods.’

King claims that Johnson is failing to tackle ‘the big strategic issues facing London’, such as affordable housing. She also labels the uncertainty surrounding the Crossrail project as ‘a spectacular own goal … over something that’s absolutely critical to maintain or secure the recovery and London’s economic position’.

The current gaffe-prone mayor is perhaps an easy target. What would King do differently? Central to her platform is ‘how we can take responsibility to change things for ourselves’, inspired by Jesse Jackson’s famous comment: ‘You are not responsible for being down, but you are responsible for getting up.’

King seeks to avoid the pitfalls of a heartless rightwing view that ‘it’s your fault that you’re poor’ and those on the left who say ‘you bear no responsibility at all for anything because you had a bum start.’ ‘To my mind both those approaches fundamentally damage the person, the individual. And I’m about realising the potential of the individual.’

She is quick to distance herself from Tory talk of a ‘Big Society’, which she brands ‘a big con’, but she argues that the state, while not retreating, must be a catalyst to improve the ability of individuals to help themselves. ‘Changing the way Londoners behave and changing the quality or relationships Londoners have – both between themselves, between agents of social service providers and clients, between teachers and school children, between parents and their kids – is absolutely critical.’

King is also an enthusiastic proponent of London as ‘the social capital’, which she insists is not a far-fetched thinktank idea but about ‘generating resources to change things’. As a concrete example of how this works, she highlights the situation of offenders who do not receive support upon leaving prison if they have been detained for under one year. This only makes repeat offences more likely, with reoffending rates among 18-25-year-olds at 80 per cent plus. ‘We are literally spending taxpayers’ money on funding people becoming criminals, because we give them no support,’ she says. ‘My whole philosophy is that prevention is better than cure … we still spend the majority dealing with what’s happening – the cure bit, not the prevention bit.’

‘My proposals around social capital invert that. So, with the reoffenders there’s a social impact bond which is to say to the Ministry of Justice, you pay every year for these reoffenders to go back through the system. Let’s go back over that money that you spend, that you’re basically wasting on growing hardened criminals and let’s put it into supporting them when they come out. And the cost that we save on that, investors will actually get a return on their capital.’

If selected, King will seek to draw on the ‘really quite exceptional’ levels of activism witnessed at the general election where marginal seats like Karen Buck’s Westminster North and Jim Fitzpatrick’s Poplar were held against the odds. ‘A very large part of the campaign will be helping to rebuild Labour’s activist base, and to do it in such a way that we show local communities that Labour is such a part of their answer to their problems.’

King’s time away from the House of Commons has given her the opportunity to reflect on improving politics. One proposal she read was to force every elected politician to have a one-year sabbatical after a decade in the job. A half-decade ‘sabbatical’ has certainly given this unique politician the drive and determination to wrest one of the most high-profile, powerful jobs in the country from Boris Johnson’s hands.


Richard Angell is the deputy director of Progress and Ed Thornton is the sub editor of Progress magazine


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