She looked across the half-empty hall and laughed. “Aren’t you going to be nice to me and sit a bit nearer?” Behind me, a woman cooed: “She’s prettier than I thought.”
Once you’ve seen her in the flesh, it’s hard to dislike Oona King. London’s mayoralty demands a strong personality, and she’s certainly got that on her side as she battles to be the capital’s third mayor. But before she can take on Boris Johnson, she’s got to defeat the first post-holder, Ken Livingstone, to get the Labour party’s nomination. Which was why we were in a tiny hall in Brixton, as she addressed a meeting of “Labour members and supporters”, trying to woo the former to vote for her and the latter to sign up.
I’m neither and can’t see myself being either of those between now and the end of the world, but since I’ve taken the mickey out of Oona’s cringe-making blog on this site before, I thought I’d pop along to see if I was missing anything. A few more people arrived to close the gaps in the hall, taking the numbers up to 35 or 40 but with seats to spare – in no way “packed” as one keen young Labour tweeter claimed.
Keen and young summed up most of the crowd – freshly-scrubbed, smartly-dressed types who looked as if they went to bed clutching portraits of David Miliband. This is the group Oona’s targeting. “When I was growing up in the 1980s, Ken was an effective GLC leader then – but that makes my point for me. Now I’m in my 40s, how do we speak to the future?” Yet in a wildly diverse city that’s the capital of the world, is “the future” really a group of young politicos whose main connection with London is, I’m assuming, the fact they’ve moved here in the past few years with freshly-minted degrees and a bit of ambition? I don’t think so.
How much does Oona herself really know about the city she wants to lead? She confessed to being surprised at how many more people use the bus network than the Tube – but that’d be obvious to anyone who knows south London or the outer suburbs. There was also talk of expanding riverboat services – “to create a new line on the Tube map” – but what good does that do you if you live in Sidcup?
She spoke a lot about the need to win over outer London – but her perspective is very much of someone whose life revolves around inner east London. Asked specifically how she’d win over a voter in Bromley, she answered “I would start with transport… I’d extend transport links beyond the ends of Tube lines.” Good luck selling that one in a borough nowhere near any Tube services, Oona. There was also a vague idea about extending the Croydon Tramlink – but no specifics.
Tram extensions would have to be paid for, and the only really tough question of the night came when someone asked her about her attitude to cuts. Oona’s pitch seems to be all about tinkering around the edges – but the mayoralty is still a new and developing instiution. There’s a lot about “mayor’s mortgages” to get people on the housing ladder and a vague promise to “look at” expanding social housing. But how much social housing? “There’s no point having flights of fancy that can’t be delivered in the real world. No Tory Prime Minister will agree to it, we couldn’t get a Labour Prime Minister to do it. Our job is to get behind the possible.”
It’s not really a rallying cry, is it? Surely if you don’t fight, you don’t get?
Compare and contrast with Ken Livingstone, who recalls his days of fighting Margaret Thatcher. Looking around the room, many of the youthful Labour people there would have no memory at all of his days as Red Ken. You may disagree with what he did in the 1980s, but how screwed up is a political contest which dismisses a leading figure’s years of experience as somehow being irrelevant?
“Ken’s a great orator, at a certain point in time he did brilliant things – but that was then, this is now, and we can’t wrap ourselves in a comfort blanket and lose an election. Labour can’t afford the luxury of opposition.” As for cuts, she suggested London’s 32 boroughs, 32 police teams and 32 primary care trusts could merge their communications teams – but she hasn’t the power over at least two of those.
Where Oona does score is on her passion for improving the lives of young people – she spoke of the lack of youth facilities for her foster son’s relatives in Hornchurch, and on early intervention to stop people falling into gangs. She could make a immensely valuable contribution to London on this alone – but everything else was just a scattergun, worryingly thin list of vague ideas. Quadrupling cycle parking facilities in London is all very well, but what would she do to stop cycles getting nicked from those spaces?
One man at this Labour meeting asked her if she’d be a “champion of the financial services sector” – keep that red flag flying! – and she replied that she wanted to make London the “ideas capital of the world”, developing new technologies, attracting innovators “…but I don’t know who they are!”
She also spoke about making London “the social capital of the world – but I don’t mean 24 hour raves!” (yes, she actually said that) and talked about getting a double buggy off a woman in an Islington estate on Freecycle – but that’s something that’s been developed organically and hasn’t needed the intervention of the mayor.
I left the meeting no wiser than I was when I started. Oona’s not the caricature trendy auntie you’d think from her excruciating blog – but she’s not got a grip on London’s big issues either. If London was a car, while Ken would be forever under its bonnet, Oona would be about the go-faster stripes. There’s no sign she’d be a champion for London – even Boris Johnson is more vocal in defending the capital against cuts than she is. And I left worried about the future of London’s politics – why isn’t the Labour party taking its mayoral candidates out to meet real people, who might ask difficult questions, instead of party drones?
Checking Twitter later, I was reminded of that age old question in the NME’s letters pages. “Was your reviewer at the same gig I was?”
People listening to only what they want to hear, from a candidate only being asked the questions she wanted to be asked. London deserves so much better than this.
(New here? Read other posts on London’s 2012 election battle.)