Profile: Oona King

July 6, 2007

If anyone was destined to become the champion of a new research centre dedicated to improving community relations, then it surely must have been Oona King. The former Labour MP has just become chair of the Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo) based at Coventry University, which aims to help rebuild fragile community relations by breaking down ignorance and fear.

Ms King, the child of an African-American father and an English Jewish mother, has first-hand experience of the problems. She suffered gibes because of her colour when growing up. And in her former constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow in London's East End, she faced anti-Semitic abuse in the fraught 2005 election that saw her defeated by George Galloway.

She accepts that she lost her seat in a constituency with one of the highest concentrations of Muslim voters because of her support for the war in Iraq. But she believes that fear and ignorance were at the heart of her defeat.

"Every person in Britain has the right to boot out their local MP on any issue. What I think is wrong is when people do it on the basis of rumour. A lot of people told me they were told I was funded by the Israeli secret service," she says.

"The reason myths flourish, whether about people who are Muslim or Jewish, is because others don't know them. They've never sat down and had a conversation with them." Her own maternal grandmother shunned Ms King's mother for two years after she married the African-American who would become Ms King's father, Preston King.

"It was the 1960s; she had never met a black man. She had imbibed the prevalent psyche and therefore behaved in a bigoted way."

Through iCoCo, researchers from Coventry, Warwick, De Montfort and Leicester universities join forces with external bodies to improve understanding of community relations.

"I'm very sympathetic to the insecurity that leads people to be prejudiced, although I don't ever condone it," Ms King says. "On the whole, affluent people can afford to be very welcoming to others, because it's not their housing or ability to see a doctor that comes under pressure. At the very basic level, one of the things iCoCo is doing is to share best practice about how to bring neighbours together."

Ms King grew up appreciating the importance of higher education. Her father was raised in Bible-Belt Georgia in the 1940s, when aspirations for young black men were not high, but he became a professor of political philosophy. He was not the first in his family to go to university.

"His father had pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He couldn't read or write, but he walked 800 miles from Florida to go to Fisk University (a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee)," Ms King says.

"He became a postman and after that, a businessman. He and my grandmother were very, very determined that their seven boys would do well for the community."

She jokes that she never considered an academic career because she could never have done as well as her father. But her mother, a teacher, was the inspiration for a career in politics. "She always said the world should be fairer. She had an intense belief in social justice. That was really what drove me.

"I still think, when I see some of my school classmates sitting behind the checkout, 'that could easily have been me'. If I hadn't got the educational background and the encouragement, I would not have been able to do what I've done."

At the age of five, the young Oona told everyone she was going to be prime minister.

"Now, I would rather pluck my eyes out with a fork. But I was absolutely obsessed with becoming an MP, and every choice I made was towards that. I studied politics at A level and at university."

She was rejected by Oxford University (and briefly abandoned her CND sympathies to record in her diary that she was going to nuke that ancient institution). "I probably didn't have the skills required to pass an Oxford entrance exam. But the result of not going was fantastic, because I went to York."

During her course she won a year's scholarship to study at the University of California, Berkeley. She was thrilled equally by the weather and the radicalism and studied with such eminent political philosophers as Bernard Williams and John Searle.

After graduating with a first, she became a political researcher, before being elected the UK's second black female MP, and was voted one of 100 great Black Britons.

For someone who had always wanted a political career, her defeat was less of a blow than one might imagine.

"I remember on the night people with tears streaming down their cheeks and a lot of people hysterically happy, delighted that I'd lost and the main feeling I had was that it wasn't the end of the world at all."

She concedes that she was devastated politically, because "negative politics" had won, but not personally.

"A lot of the time (being an MP) made me very unhappy. I didn't like being public property all the time. I didn't enjoy the death threats. I never saw my husband, I never saw my friends. Twenty per cent of the people thought I could do no wrong, 20 per cent thought I could do no right, and the rest just weren't interested," she says.

She would go round housing estates, week after week, asking people what problems they faced in a bid to help. But the usual reaction was: "You're a politician, so you don't care; you're only interested in my vote."

Losing the seat has let her win back her life, she says.

"Now I can choose to concentrate on the political issues I'm most passionate about. And the single most important issue for the future of Britain is how we are going to live together in a way that strengthens communities and allows individuals to fulfil their potential.

"Overall, I think diversity is the best thing that's happened to Britain."

York University

was in McDonald's, earning £1.19 an hour.

was overcoming my fear of torture and going on an antigovernment demonstration against the military junta in El Salvador in 1986.

is my dishwasher breaking down, and people who don't vote for progressive change.

I want to have written a fantastic novel.

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Oona who?
That's politics for you.

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