Oona King is pretty cool. It’s not often I’d say that about a 40 year old ex-MP, but she is. As the second black woman in parliament (the first was Diane Abbott, elected in 1987), and an MP for the Labour party at just 29 she’d impressed me before I’d even met her, but then she told me about her love of dj-ing and house music. ‘I just love it, can’t get enough. I always will be a house music fan. I used to be a serious wannabe DJ, you know those people that are like “yeah yeah yeah, I wanna DJ, I wanna DJ”. I’ve still got my decks downstairs, that was my birthday present last year, I got a CD mixer. No yeah, I do love my house music.’
No longer an MP, but working in the media, Oona has recently published a book documenting her time in parliament, The Oona King Diaries: House Music. She lost her seat in the Greater London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 to George Galloway, founder of the party Respect and notorious Celebrity Big Brother loudmouth. Oona lost by 823 votes that night, from a previous majority of ten thousand: ‘When I lost the election I was absolutely devastated.’
She doesn’t sound too brokenhearted, though, as she laughs and chats to me. ‘Winning my seat at Bethnal Green and Bow and losing my seat at Bethnal Green and Bow were two of the three best things that have happened to me,’ Oona says, ‘But the best thing that happened to me probably was finally getting my little boy, after so many years of not having a baby. A psychiatrist would have said I was conflicted… It’s a huge privilege to be the MP, and it’s also a huge privilege to not. I’ve got my life back. I almost feel when I’m in my living room in the evening it’s like I’m engaged in an illicit activity. I couldn’t give it up now. I couldn’t see my husband for more or less a decade. I can’t go back to that sort of life.’
As a consequence of Oona’s support for the Iraq war there were, as she says, ‘lots and lots of crazy things’ alleged about her during the 2005 elections. ‘It was put around that I funded the Israeli army; a lot of my Muslim constituents were that told I wanted to ban halal meat; that I was at war with Islam.’
I ask Oona to comment on the number of women, and of black women, in the House of Commons. She acknowledges that the situation is bad. ‘It is not a representative democracy. That’s the holy grail, really, for modern politics; or should be. Two black women – that’s black or Asian, there are no Asian women – out of 650 odd MPs is a diabolical state of affairs… When I was growing up I assumed we’d won all those battles, but in fact, you know, over 80% of MPs are still men, and the battles have not been won.’
I ask her whether the House is as female-unfriendly as is reported. ‘I was angry about working late virtually every night. The fact is that the House of Commons discriminates against anyone who wants to have a life and discriminates against anyone who has caring responsibilities, and those are disproportionately women; although not only, I mean it discriminates against men who want to see their children. So it does have real modernisation problems; and want to see it change further.’
With a Jewish mother, an African-American father, a grandmother from Glasgow and an Italian husband, Oona is perfectly placed to comment on the future of multiculturalism in Britain, and I ask her how community cohesion can be achieved, something which she has worked intensively for: ‘A lot of people say multiculturalism has failed. I don’t agree with that at all. Multiculturalism is a statement of fact. Multi – many – cultures living side by side, and that’s what happens in London.
‘The point is, it can’t just be side by side, there has to be integration. Trevor Phillips (a black Labour politician and current head of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights) warned of parallel lives, and I certainly see dangers that need to be addressed, and so I think that the way forward is to make sure that government funding and that sort of thing emphasises the issues that bring communities together, not that divide them. We need to… encourage people to interact more than they have in the past.’
Another issue of concern to the Oxford community is that of homelessness. I ask Oona what is being done to address the problem. ‘The government has put in place the biggest house building programme for decades. The problem is it can’t solve the problem overnight, because the problem itself has got greater. There have been demographic changes. There are more single people living alone, that used not to happen.
‘You’ve got my granny for instance, living in a 3-bedroom flat that her family lived in before, because people live longer. That housing unit isn’t available, whereas before it would have been. So there are lots of different reasons why there has been a reduction in the housing supply. The government’s doing what it needs to do, which is to build more houses, and it can’t do it quickly enough in my view.’
Oona has said previously that she ‘jumped up and down and cried with happiness’ when she heard the news that London had won the 2012 Olympics, and I ask about her hopes for Britain. ‘My hope is that we show why we won the bid, and we won the bid because we said that we would have an Olympics for the world; in London and in Britain we reflect 300 countries or more that live in this one country, so if we could have a lasting cultural legacy and also have infrastructure…so we don’t have white elephants but we do have ordinary people benefiting from the building project, and also that we become a healthier country, otherwise we’re all going to die from obesity.’
Oona is apologetic. She can’t talk any longer because she has to pick up her little boy: having left the House of Commons, she’s clearly ‘got her life back.’