“This is about bringing communities and ideas together”: The Oona King interview

Oona KingOona King was MP for Bethnal Green and Bow between 1997 and 2005, and is now standing for the Labour selection to be mayor of London. She met Alex Smith in Victoria on Monday, May 24th, 2010.

You’re announcing this week that you’re standing for the Labour selection to be London mayor. Why the London mayoralty, what inspires you to that position?
Two things. First of all, like many Londoners, I see how fantastic London can be and I also experience how frustrating it can be – and, in a nutshell, I want to make it less frustrating and more wonderful. But secondly, because I really want to inspire Londoners to change the way we behave towards each other, not in a Big Brother type of way, but in a sort of new mutualism type of way. We’re not going to have lots of public money flooding into the capital – perhaps with the exception of the Olympic regeneration – and we’re therefore going to have to get creative. We’re going to have to change the way we do business with each other. I have some exciting ideas that I would like to flesh out over the course of the campaign about how we can generate that change.

I grew up in London – I’m a Londoner as well – and you’re talking about community and solidarity and relationships between people, which is one thing that I suppose many people would say London currently lacks. People don’t talk to each other or acknowledge each other on the Tube, for example. How do you use a political position to try and achieve those things, to improve those human interactions?
I think first and foremost you can have meaningful dialogue, and that means changing the structure of our political machinery. It means opening it up in a meaningful way, so that the Mum at the checkout queue in Tesco’s – who has no interest in formal politics – feels she can actually interact on decisions about open space in the area where her kids might be playing, or employment opportunities for herself, or childcare, or whatever it might be. Firstly, there are the areas the mayor has responsibility for. But equally importantly – and perhaps more so – it’s about framing the London debate, the London conversation, and the London that is perceived internally and externally – both around the country and around the world. I would like London to be even more extraordinary than it is now. What’s London’s best attraction? It’s not the London Eye, as much as I like the London Eye. I would say it’s us, the people. I’m very much a people person and I want to look at how we can be incredibly imaginative in changing the way people interact, so it gets into a more positive cycle, rather than what can sometimes be quite a negative cycle.

So you’re talking about developing more of a civic identity for London, where people feel a sense of belonging and community?
Absolutely. That can sound like just a phrase, but I’ve done quite a lot of work with community groups about how you actually – in practical terms – generate that. Some of that work is linked into having community fairs, street fairs. It’s about how you harness the voluntary sector, how you harness Londoners’ will and their ability to volunteer their time. We have some great organisations, I just feel we could link them up more and also link them to the people that really neeed them as well as those that would just like a nicer community. Sometimes in politics we think ‘OK, we’re going to offer you a tax credits, so you won’t be interested if you earn more than £50,000 a year.’ But I want to generate a discussion in this area of thinking, because I feel if we get it right it will help a single person on benefits as much as it might help a millionaire in a gated community in West Hampstead.

I’m thinking about New York now, where I used to live, and what they have there is a real sense of common identity. They know what their city is, and what it stands for. And there’s a real sense of pride in those two words, one that speaks to people: New York. What can you do through City Hall to harness people’s pride to live in London, to say that instead of our communities being fragmented, we are travelling in a singular direction?
An organisation that I think has done it pretty well is Community Links, in Newham. They have really harnessed all the work going around in terms of what social entrepeneurs are doing. The voluntary sector is a really interesting area. I don’t think the Conservatives’ idea of the Big Society – which is a way of talking about Victorian-style provision – is the way to go. But I would say that the voluntary sector is absolutely key to the vision I have for London – it’s more important to me, really, than virtually anything else. Quite often people are willing to get involved in the voluntary sector: they see it in a benevolent light, they’re sympathitic towards it in a way they’re not towards their local council. That’s why I would really like to ignite some of those networks, which are there at the moment, but no one’s really put the right amount of time, effort or energy into looking at what we could do if we actually had a London-wide push – against postcode wars, for example. One area I’m looking at at the moment in the job that I’m in is how you effectively respond to what came out of the Alan Milburn Report about access to the professions; how do you respond to the fact that if you’re not from a middle class familiy then you’re not very likely to acccess any of the good jobs in London. That to me is a basic issue of fairness. Yes, you have to have minimum educational standards. But what we’ve looked at is how you can harness people’s will – the voluntary will that people have – to mentor and help people with soft skills, which are integral to the professions and moving up the ladder. It’s those soft skills that excluded groups don’t have, which – more than anything else – keep people locked out. I want to unlock that situation, and I think the mayoralty is the perfect platform to do that. I think to be successful in doing that, the candidate has to be someone that can bridge cultures – and can bridge communities; someone that isn’t seen as dividing London, or for one part of London, whether just for inner London or outer London. That would be really important for me; to be the unity candidate for all of London.

I interviewed Ken last year, and he told me categorically that he would be standing again in 2012. I grew up under Ken’s leadership of London, and watched the city change – he was a very successful mayor for London. Why do you think you’re more qualified to be the next candidate for the Labour Party over Ken?
I grew up under Ken in the 80s. Ken’s been in elected life in London for four decades, and I think he has fantastic achievements. But I also don’t think it’s a birthright. I think we have to look to the future. We have to look to how we can inspire London to be better. For me, that comes down to inspiring Londoners. I feel I’m able to inspire Londoners from all quarters, as opposed to one particular group. And I think I can do that better than any other candidate in the race.

Do you think your drop in the Bangladeshi vote in 2005 would impact on that ability to build a coalition?
It’s interesting, just in the last two and a half weeks since the general election I have been inundated – and I mean inundated – by Bangladeshi former constituents and friends, neighbours and colleagues, rigning up and insisting that I run to be mayor of Tower Hamlets. They were all telling me how much they’d support me, how much they’d back me. People come up to me – Bangladeshi people come up to me – and they say ‘I’m so sorry for what my community did to you’. But that’s not true at all. Looking at the returns, the Bangladeshi vote – proporitonal to the overall vote – was the same as it was at the previous election. So, yes, there were huge issues – very particular issues – at the 2005 election, but I know the Bangladeshi community has been fantastic to me, in so many ways. People may seek to look to the past and re-run old wars, but that’s certainly not what I’m here to do. I’m looking to London’s future.

Is there a set of key ideals or values that you want to bring to the campaign?
It’s four things, which will not be a surprise for anyone in the Labour Party: it’s about solidarity, mutuality, co-operation and inclusivity. Those are very interesting when you look at them in terms of policy. I don’t think it’s good enough to try and reduce disadvantage and not look at the fact that you might be excluding an entire community from either a campaign team, or your office or your government. You have to reconigse that the way you deliver change can sometimes have as much of an impact as the change itself. I saw that at very close quarters in some of the regeneration programmes in Tower Hamlets, which I chaired for five years. Seeing what it did to people when they were given responsibility – and choice – over the services that were delivered, with the money available, was quite extraordinary. That expreience made me realise that what we do can’t merely be the pursuit of greater equality, it has to be about the pursuit of greater inclusion. Inclusion by and of itself generates greater equality outcomes. That’s something that would guide quite a lot of what I’d do. I think it’s very important that we look at overhauling the machinery of London government in terms of the interaction between City Hall and Londoners. I don’t think there’s anything remotely inspiring about that relationship at the moment; I don’t think many Londoners would even say there is a relationship. That would be one of my big themes, and it stems from the value of inclusion, which is very dear to me. I guess I don’t like cliques, because I was never in the right clique – I felt that as much with New Labour as I did with any other group. I just knew that I didn’t have those contacts, those links, and apart from it being a very unpleasant situation when you’re outside the clique, it also results in a catastophic loss of talent. One of the biggest things I’m working on at the moment is how you identify and source talent from all places and parts of the talent pool, to put it in the commercial sense. But turn that on its head and it’s about equal opportunities. The point is that equality and talent are linked. So for London to be a great city, we need to access our great talent more fairly than we do, and to exclude certain groups less than we currently do.

You joined the Labour Party at 14 didn’t you?
I did. It’s sad, isn’t it?

I was 25 when I joined. But the point is that there’s a sense now that young people aren’t really engaging in political dialogue; at least not in party political dialogue. You touched on it there, but I don’t think many people would be able to name their Assembly Member in London. How would you seek to change that? You’re talking about inclusion, but what would you do in partucular for those young people who feel a deficit in their own representation in their community?
It’s vital that there is a more effective young mayor structure and young GLA structure, in the same way that we have a youth parliament at a national level. And at local level, I know Steve Reed in Lambeth has done some fantastic things with the young mayor there. I’ve been really quite impressed with the events that I’ve been to, where there have been elections for the young mayor that have really involved young people. Those young people aren’t going to join Labour or the Conservatives, but if they’re offered the chance to have their say, they want to take it. Young people want their say on the types of youth services they’re entitled to. So young people’s services with public funding should be open on Friday and Saturday nights, for example. I know we, as adults, don’t want to be there on Friday or Saturday nights, but we need to allow young people that greater say over the things that affect them. My pitch for London is very youth focused. It’s not youth obsessed, but it is focusing on how we deliver long term change. I don’t like plasters, I don’t like quick fixes. If you want to turn around a lot of the anti-social behvaiour in London, you have to address why there are large numbers of young Londoners acting in quite unacceptable ways. And the reason for that most of the time is that they come from chaotic families, they’re not brought up in a civilised way and they do not behave in a civilised way. So I think we have to look at the long term issues there. For me, looking at the young people that fall through the cracks in the system is a really key priority. At first glimpse, people might say ‘that’s not a mainstream issue’, but for me it’s a completely mainstream issue. There are stats which show that something like 80% of all anti-social behaviour is committed by people who’ve come through the care system. So it is a mainstream issue, and it’s what I’m passionate about. Both my children started out in the care system. And if we seek to be a civilsed city, we have to take better care of our young people. And you can’t get away from rights and responsibilities: if we give more to people, we should expect more in return. So I would like to see a compact with some of the groups that work with young people, to have a London-wide push on that issue – because it’s right for young people, but it’s right for the rest of us as well.

So what you’re talking about seems to be similar to some of the discussion that is already happening in the Labour Party, about community organising. If you look at some of the election results, in Islington and all over London actually – where we’ve engaged young people in community organising and embedded the party in local communities – that’s where the party has been successful. You also reviewed Dreams from my Father a couple of years ago, didn’t you? Is that community-based action something that you want to do more of, using political parties to re-engage young people in their communities?
Definitely. When I was inspired by an idealistic belief in social justice to join the Labour Party, I then went along at 14 years old to my first meeting and didn’t go back for eight years. I didn’t know what they were talking about, I didn’t understand the language they were using, and I couldn’t see any relevance at all between what they were saying and what was in my life. This was Camden in the 1980s…

It’s not very different now. I went to my first meeting eighteen months ago, and it was exactly like that.
[Laughs] Well, I was speaking at the Progress conference on the weekend, and I said Labour Parties have to be more of a welcoming social event as well, because there’s a lot of competition out there where people can do other things. Why are people going to sit in a room arguing over committee rules? If people join the party it’s because they have values and they want to see those values translated into direct action out in their community. So it’s absolutely the case that Labour Parties should be a force of good in the local communities, and you join those Labour Parties not to argue about a rule change but to look at the derelict piece of land down the road from the party room and say ‘can we turn that into a garden, or a playground for kids? How do we get the money for that? How can we improve the area? How can we do good?’ But the Labour Party has got too hung up on arguing about rules. So I very much buy into the community organising approach. We’ve done amazing things with it already, and there are a lot of places where it has worked extraordinarily well.

You know, you and I went to the same school for a while. I went to Haverstock for about six months, before I moved to William Ellis…
What, you hated it?

No. Well, I didn’t get on that well there, but the reason I moved is that all my mates were at Ellis.
What year was this?

I started in 1993. The reason I bring it up is that two people in the news at the moment, Ed and David Miliband, also went to Haverstock and were there around the same time you were there. Were they in the same year as you?
No. I’m 42, Ed’s 40 and David is 44. So it was a sandwich. I had a Miliband sandwich.

Were you friends?
I wasn’t friends with them at the time. Ed and David have often said that I was too cool at the time to hang around with them. Ed says ‘she still is’. That’s very generous of them. No, we grew up in the same sort of milieu, but I didn’t know them then, really at all. But we have lots and lots of links, one of them being that I might not exist without their Dad. Their Dad, who obviously takes credit for bringing them into the world, interviewed my Mum in the 1960s to come to the LSE. And he gave her a place – that’s how my Mum met my Dad. So if he’d turned her down, I wouldn’t be here.

So presumably because you’re friends with both of them, you’re going to stay out of that whole discussion around the leadership?
I am. I’m going to take their mother’s position.

OK, so let’s move back to London, and representation. There’s a real dearth of women at the front of the party at the moment. For the party of equality, it’s not good – Labour needs to do much more of what it says on the tin. So a lot of people are relieved and proud that Diane Abbot is standing for the leadership, and will be likewise that you’re standing for the mayoralty. But why do you think we have this problem with the lack of women at the front end of our politics?
I think there are so many reasons. It does just reflect society at large; it reflects 5,000 years of sexist culture. In the work that I’m doing at the moment, for example, we were looking at women in broadcasting, so we measured the number of women on the TV screens. And across all channels, and all genres – with the exception of soap operas – men out-number women by two to one. If you turn on British TV, there will be two men for one woman – maximum – at any time. So you can’t say it’s just politics, because it’s not just politics. However, I do think politics has a special responsibility, because politics and the political field and parliaiment must – if we want a represenative democracy – represent. We don’t have that responsibility with TV, though we probably should. And apart from anything else parliament is making laws that affect the population, 52% of which are women. So that’s the broad, general reason. But the nitty gritty of it is normally around men overselling themselves, women underselling themselves; men being more pushy compared to women. And although I don’t like gross generalisations, it’s very well documented that there’s a push-pull factor – firstly that nobody goes and helps women, and will quite often discriminate against them because of caring issues, because women have kids; and then there’s the factor that some women themselves don’t push themselves enough. The results are devastating for democracy; they weaken our democracy incaculably.

So what’s your assessment of where the party is, in particular with a view to how this will inform your campaign – because results in London were relatively strong, but elsewhere the party has serious lessons still to learn, in terms of policy, personality, organisation, many different things. What’s your assessment of why Labour lost the eleciton, and what do you think you can do with the party organisation in London to change that in 2012?
I think there are two reasons we lost the election, one positive and one negative – and I’ll explain what I mean by that. The negative is that we lost touch and we lost confidence in people in some areas and on some issues. You can’t get away from what Ed Miliband described as the ‘catastrophic loss of trust’ over Iraq – and if anybody is aware of that, I am. But also, if you’re in government for thirteen years, there are endless issues that on various points for various people represent the last straw. And after about thirteen years there are quite a lot of last straws. So there’s an aggregate loss that any incumbent party is going to have to deal with. The second thing is a positive in some senses, and that is that over thirteen years, we basically picked up British political culture, and we moved it to the left. We had amazing achievements in terms of pouring resources into areas that hadn’t seen them for decades. And the result of that is that people take it for granted that you’re there, and they don’t think it’s important that you stay there. So when people talk about all our ‘disasters’ I do think we should remember our most significant achievement, which was to redraw our country’s political landscape and to put it into a more progressive space that literally has done and will continue – even without us in power – to open up opportunities for people and improve living standards for people, more than any other party. We’re the progressive force in British politics. We exhuasted huge amounts of both political capital and human capital – and it was a high rate of attirition. So we lost an election. But we didn’t lose like we thought we might lose. It amazes me how short people’s memories are. Two weeks before the election, people were reporting about how Gordon Brown was going to lead the Labour Party to the worst defeat ever, people were abandoning us, the Guardian had abandoned us. I had a feeling that week that I belonged to the third party in British politics, and I found that hard to believe. But whether you join the Labour Party at 14, or whether you join at 104, if you’ve got principoles, you don’t jettison them with an eleciton result. And I think given the principles and the values we have, and given the monumental achievements that we delivered in thirteen years of Labour government, we are incredibly well placed now given that we did not suffer the wipeout that people thought we were going to suffer. We are in an incredible place to come back at the next election and continue that push for a progressive century. That’s really exciting. I’m upset about the losses, of course I am. But in thirteen years of government, you have to take something on the chin.

But now the challenge for the party is to build those monumental achievements that you’re talking about into our party’s heritage and our history, and build it into the narrative for the future as well…
Exactly, that’s why I get upset when people only talk about the lessons we need to learn. No, we’ve changed British political life.

But we weren’t very good at explaining that narrative at this election were we? We weren’t good at drawing a connection between those big success and saying ‘of course we made mistakes, we’re sorry about those mistakes, but this is what we’ve done and this is how it fits into the narrative of what we want to do next.’
Yes, yes. I agree.

So, last question. The London mayoralty is a strategic role. What do you think London looks like in 2010, what will it look like in 2012, and where do you hope it would be under your leadership in 2016 in terms of the communities and the solidarity that you’re talking about and also artistically, musically, architecturally, and in terms of all the other things that make London great?
In terms of what London will look like in 2012, if we take an evidence-based approach to what Boris has achieved in the last two years, I don’t think we’ll be falling over ourselves at the changed landscape two years down the line. The biggest criticism that he faces is that he has not really done very much. If I was mayor, I hope that the difference you would see between 2012 and 2016 would be absolutely radical and indelible on the London landscape. Why is Paris so beautiful? Why do you have to be a Parisian to get some of that more beautiful side of London?

Are you going to plonk a big Eiffel Tower in Green Park?
No, I don’t like the Eiffel Tower. They got that one wrong. What I mean is, when you walk around Paris, there is that sort of city pride that extends into the cultural domain in a very pronounced way. With the extra money that Labour put into the arts, you can see some of that in London. But, in general, I would like to invigorate those scraps of land that you see in any part of London, and see what we can do to get communities involved with the fabric of the city. So in 2016, London will be a more beautiful place, because if you can inspire people to make the public realm more beautiful, it’s self-generating. The first time I noticed that, I was on an exchange when I was 14 in Munich. I stayed in a council flat, and every single flat was decked out with the most beautiful flowers. And that’s stayed with me my whole life, because I’d never seen anything like it. I was dumbstruck that there could be such a beautiful site. But when I say beauty, I’m not talking about gold baubles. I’m talking about the pride in a council estate – pride that’s really arresting. When I think about the council estate where played when I grew up, it was just a grey slab – there was nothing uplifting at all. We’re not going to have money to pour into these places, so I’m talking about pouring in ingenuity and pooling resources. And I’m talking about seed money. How much does it cost do give people seeds to do guerilla gardening? It’s things like that that I love – it’s not about money, it’s about the will.

And it does require the change of culture that you’re talking about – people need to feel like they’ve got a stake in their communities.
It’s a culture change, absolutely. And when you walk passed something beautiful, people don’t throw a crisp wrapper – so it has a positive cycle. So I would like London’s public realm to be visibly more striking and appealing, not somewhere where you have to close your eyes off to the grit and the smog and the rest of it. Then the psychological public realm – that for me is the prize. On one level that’s a party political thing, because you generate much of that when you come from a position of solidairty, co-operation, mutualism. And a lot of my policies would follow that. But actually the public realm is about people – whatever their political views – deciding they will come into that realm because it’s a welcoming realm. I want London to be a place of ideas. What is Boris’ big idea? I don’t know, I haven’t come across any. But I want London to be the place that cities around the world look to. So for me, it’s about the public realm, but emotionally and pyschologically too.

So people invest themselves in the city’s culture, its music, its arts, its architecture which in turn attracts more people to come here…
Exactly. That excites me again and again. I’ve chaired an arts centre on Bethnal Green Road for ten years, and to me that side of things is really important – I’m really passionate about it. I see that sort of thing as a way of bringing communities together. That’s what my whole candidature is about – brinigng communities together, and bringing ideas together, to make our city better.

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