There are many signs on the wall in Oona King’s campaign office. One states that you may have “tea, or coffee, and MAYBE a biscuit”. A poster charts the details of hot drink preferences for every member of the office (Oona, decaf coffee with milk). Somebody has hand-drawn a week countdown calendar to the ballot on a piece of A4 paper. It is simple but well organised.
Oona’s office is up a tiny spiral staircase. There are dog-sized seagulls staring in at the window of the boathouse-type affair on Heron Quay, but even their squalling, which occasionally drowns out the recording, can’t do much to mask Oona’s cackling laugh. Had we used the Uncut Laughometer for our crowdsourced interviews, Oona’s would have won on the decibel of her laugh alone.
As the campaign staff whisper around the Newsnight team setting up downstairs, Oona perches in heeled patent red boots on her office chair, next to a picture of her model-cute son and cackles away with her spin doctor. (She can’t show us any pictures of her little girl, she explains, because her phone and laptop were stolen at the weekend).
She asks if she can eat her noodle soup without worrying about making slurping noises and cracks into our crowdsourced questions: ruining series one of The Wire, being taken out of context by the Ken lot and promising that she’s never jumped on the Obama bandwagon.
Q. (from Cllr Mike Harris) Hi Oona, Will you commit to extending the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme to cover all of zones 1 and 2, within your first term if elected, so that the scheme becomes useful for people like my constituents (Lewisham Central)? It seems remarkably unfair that the cycle scheme extends across some of the richest parts of our capital such as the City and Mayfair.
A. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve already pledged to extend it and I am particularly keen to see outer London benefit. Not just in terms of the cycle scheme, but over a term I would want to see outer London benefitting in financial terms, proportionately, as much as inner London.
Q. The bike scheme is quite symbolic of Boris. If fhere was something symbolic of you as mayor what would it be?
A. To be mayor of London it seems you need an emblematic bus. It’s the routemaster for Boris or the bendy bus for Ken. For me, I’d be the school bus. I want to introduce an expanded comprehensive school bus system because at the end of the day it’s not what the bus looks like that’s important but what it does. And helping to get kids to school on time and cutting congestion by as much as twenty percent on London’s roads seems much more important than creating more white elephants as Boris has done.
Q. So would you get rid of the bendy?
A. I wouldn’t get rid of the bendy bus because I think it’s very important in terms of disability access that you allow everyone to use our bus network. I think it’s important that you can ferry as many Londoners as possible in terms of the capactity of the bus system so I don’t plan to get rid of the bendy bus in my first term. I have to say, though, I’m not emotionally attached to it and, as a cyclist, I can’t stand them.
Q. Have you used a Barclays bike yet?
A. I have, but only because Time Out asked me to.
Q. (from Ayse) Do u tweet yourself & what did u make of the reactive & high activity between DM & EM supporters over your announcement to endorses EM?
A. I do tweet. Under normal circumstances I spend a lot of time looking at any mentions I get and looking at what others are saying. Sadly being in the midst of a campaign I don’t spend quite so much time looking at mentions or what other people are saying about it but I think the overall point id like to make about the Milibands is that either of them would make a fantastic Labour leader. I did say in an email, which is what some of the tweets are referring to, that the choice was a very hard one for me but at the end of the day I think that Ed represents the change candidate more and that’s why I’m supporting him.
Q. Does it have to be a Miliband?
A. For me it does but you know, it’s up to party members and trade unions and affiliates. I think all indications are that it clearly will be a Miliband.
Q. (from Jimmy McNulty) Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) has endorsed your bid to become the Labour candidate who will lose to Boris in 2012. A few Wire questions for you. Other than Stringer who is your favourite character from the Wire? Which is your favourite series of the Wire? What is your favourite Wire quote?
A. My favourite character would be a tie between Omar and Carcetti.
Q. Everyone loves Omar.
A. I know, I didn’t know he was Barak Obama’s favourite character when I first gave an interview saying he was one of my favourite characters, but he’s a bit de rigeur.
Q. So we’re not jumping on the Barak Obama bandwagon then?
A. Moi!? As a mixed race politician? I just don’t know what you mean! (then after a couple of seconds) can you get irony across on these things? I am going to be in trouble otherwise, with the humour bypass brigade.
(interview descends into cackling laughter).
A. So, those are my favourite characters. Carcetti has grown on me since I’ve had my own Carcetti moments, essentially being locked for hours at a time in a room not being allowed out until I’ve made a certain amount of money to fund my campaign, because that’s the harsh reality if you’re not being bankrolled by either wealthy bankers or some other type of support whether it’s business, unions, whatever, then you have to do it, one phonecall at a time. And that’s what he does. He starts throwing darts at a wall in frustration and he’s not allowed out until he’s got $30,000 in like ten minutes. So it all suddenly jumped out of the realms of fantasy and into my own life, which was slightly painful. In terms of my favourite series, it’s probably series three. Or, one. Well no, not one, it’s the penultimate episode of series one I think was the best, which is where… (ruins series one of The Wire).
Q. Oh no, Wire spoiler!
A. (more cackling) Oh shit, no! You’re kidding me! You’re asking me these questions, and you don’t know?
Q. No I know, but anyone reading this who hasn’t..
A. Oh no, then you have to take that out, I was so upset when someone spoilt something for me in The Wire, I couldn’t get over it for like a month. So I refuse to be a Wire spoiler. What a silly question! How can I answer these questions without ruining the lives of thousands? Yeah so that or series three, where Stringer Bell does…(very nearly ruins season three of The Wire)…did something. (a great deal of cackling). But as you can see, I do know it in quite minute detail.
Q. So, who’s on your dartboard, is it Ken or is it Boris?
A. Well first it’s David Cameron, followed by Boris, followed by every member of the Tory coalition, followed by a few irritating people from my life, followed by the car clamper who clamped my car the other week and the person who nicked my bike.
Q. You haven’t said Ken yet.
A. I think Ken was a great Labour figure so he’s not on my list of people I’d want to throw darts at.
Q. There was a past tense in there. And there’s a question, (from Richard, Walthamstow) do you think it’s sad that Labour cling to the coat tails of Ken after such a long time? Is this the best the capital’s Labour party can do?
A. I think it is important that we have fresh ideas and that we attract a new generation to the Labour party and trade unions and the Labour movement and I do think that I am better placed to do that. I’m not basing any comments on terms of age, one of the most inspiring people I ever knew was my 94 year old grandmother and I would have voted for her at any age. I think it’s a question of whether you have got fresh ideas or whether you are setting out a stall that was the same as it was the last time round. And if it didn’t work the last time around, I think that begs the question why not have some fresh blood and fresh ideas.
Q. (from Sam, Kingston) Ambition aside, what is driving your campaign? Is it Ken’s track record that you oppose or something else?
A. Oh it’s certainly not Ken’s track record at all. When I first wanted to consider running for mayor of London this time round I didn’t think Ken was going to be running, so it’s certainly nothing to do with Ken’s track record. I think Ken has a good track record in many areas. What drives me fundamentally is firstly the desire to make London a more equal city. And secondly, because anyone could say that, let me flesh out what I mean. Particularly to highlight the situation facing young Londoners and within that group those who fall through the cracks in our system. Just this morning a television interviewer asked me “but doesn’t that make it difficult for you to do that if you’ve got children, young children?” and in fact it’s the reverse because actually both my young kids started off in the care system and just because they’ve been air lifted out of utter misery doesn’t mean I can forget about all the others that are there. That definitely drives me. But also irritating things like the fact that all my life in London we’ve been unable to work out a system where all the roadworks aren’t being done at once. There are things that push you over the edge (laughs). But surely you’d think it’s not beyond the wit of man, or maybe it is – maybe they need a woman – to be able to sort out London’s roadworks for instance.
Q. (from Tori) What should the Camerons call their baby?
A. (short silence) Don’t know, don’t care. But wish them the best of (tails off into more laughter) but wish them well with their new family
Q. (from Cat Bin Woman) What famous London figure do you most associate yourself with?
A. I don’t associate myself with any famous London figures. I’m inspired by many famous figures, one that immediately springs to mind is Sylvia Pankhurst. There’s a blue plaque to her at the bottom of my street where she set up the first crèche, as far as we know, in Britain, certainly the first recorded crèche in Britain. It was for the factory serving the matchstick girls. I often think about the problems facing those women in politics at that time.
Q. (from Ben K) If West Ham get relegated this season, would you support their bid to settle into an Olympic stadium as a non-premiership side?
A. Yes I would because I think one of the things we need to do is inspire ambition in our young people. I also think there is an issue with the way our football league works. I think we should have more emphasis on home-grown players and supporting that talent. But obviously football is a multimillion pound global industry and the needs of West Ham and West Ham youngsters aren’t going to be foremost in its mind. But that’s not to say that an Olympic stadium couldn’t form part of that legacy to give those young people the training and chance and inspiration they need to succeed.
Q. (from Richard, Walthamstow) Do you agree with the proposed Thames Tunnel project?
A. Which one does he mean?
Q. (explains Thames Tunnel)
A. In terms of keeping London’s waterworks and sewer system up to scratch, yes I think you have to support infrastructure and investment in infrastructure. But I…I’m not…I haven’t yet seen the impact on local residents and in which areas so I would like to know more about that before giving any unequivocal statements on it.
Q. (from David, Oxford) Why are you persisting with a pointless bid, and if you do lose is that the end of your career in politics?
A. (laughs) Thanks David…I was about to say love you too (some more cackling ensues). First of all, I want to say that I don’t think plurality in politics is pointless. I think it’s important for the Labour party that we have a contest not a coronation and that goes for any candidate. Secondly I don’t think it’s pointless increasing diversity Labour party members have to choose from. And thirdly I’ve lost count of the number of people with David’s attitude that have walked into a hustings between me and Ken – they believe stereotypes that they believe about me in the press – and then come out as one of them did just last week who turned to a Guardian journalist and said “I went in a Ken supporter and came out an Oona supporter”. And the reason they do that is because I have a genuinely exciting, forward thinking policy plan to change London for good. And it’s really resonating with people. And David I’d hope you’d possibly consider reading what some of my policies are from housing and a mayor’s mortgage to actually tackling long standing issues like gang culture in London, to a transport system that would include a river network, essentially a new tube running right through the middle of London. I’ve already mentioned school buses, I’d be introducing free school buses, I’ll be introducing free school meals for all London children and I’d fundamentally be changing the way Londoners interact with each other and improving the amount of enterprise we have, particularly in the area of social enterprise. Those are some of the things that drive me, and make me know that I could change London in a progressive way. And I also have experience that I presume someone like David may not think is relevant or doesn’t give me any credit for. You know, the one thing that myself, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have all done is to be a backbench MP, but there was only one of those three candidates that actually changed the law, and that was me and I changed it in five areas, whereas the other two have some great lines and great gags but they don’t actually fundamentally change anything as MPs, so give me the chance to do something in a position of greater influence and I would deliver for Londoners.
Q. So going back to David’s second point, if you didn’t win, would that be it for you in politics?
A. Oh David I’m so sorry, I don’t think I’ll hang around as long as Ken but I’ll certainly hang around.
Q. Given your view on pluralism, do you wish more people were supporting Diane Abbott?
A. I think it was really important that Diane ran. I thought it was important that David Miliband gave her that support initially. I think she deserves great credit. And I think it’s really important to have Diane’s voice and that wing of the party in there, but someone like me and someone like Diane, we would never support each other on the basis of our gender or our ethnicity. We support policies in terms of policies so I don’t think you can demand that people vote for policies they don’t agree with.
Q. (from Susan) From a public point of view, the mayoral race has been a pretty mud-slinging affair, especially when it comes to issues related to Ken’s age. Is that how we should be doing politics?
A. As I’ve said before, I am not viewing this through the prism of age. I’m looking at whether a candidate standing this time round is standing on the same platform as they did last time round and saying that I don’t think that’s a recipe for success, and that we have to face the facts and the facts are that last time around we lost to Boris. If we don’t want to lose again we need to change something. I think I am the change candidate, I am talking about how we can engage with the future and how we can get that new generation interested and excited in Labour values, and in terms of myself and Ken I think we’ve been fairly cordial to each other, if not more than cordial. It’s a good thing. In fact it was my campaign team that has been saying; “Oona, could you stop saying in the hustings meetings ‘oh Ken is my hero’”. I hardly think that is the basis for accusing me of mudslinging.
Q. What comes across is that on Twitter there is a lot of back and forth.
A. I’ve certainly had that. I’ve had things that I’ve said taken entirely out of context by Ken’s lot. I don’t even think Ken has much to do with what his campaign team is putting out on Twitter; I think he’s probably got better things to do. But the fact is it was completely gratuituous, it was fairly…I don’t want to get into mudslinging, but it was fairly unedifying and it was fairly cynical by any stretch of the imagination. Anyone who knows me personally knows that is not the sort of politics I engage in and I would want to make sure that any campaign where I’m the candidate is most definitely a campaign that is ethical in all senses.
For the record: after Labour Uncut questioned the relevant sign, a member of the Oona team did produce a whole plate of biscuits with flourish. There were even chocolate hobnobs, which one disgruntled campaigner said they had not even known about.