King, Oona 1967–
Oona King 1967–
Member of British Parliament
In 1997, at the age of 29, Oona King became the member of Parliament (MP) for the east London district of Bethnal Green and Bow. A member of the Labour Party, King was only the second black woman to be elected to the House of Commons in centuries of parliamentary history. “Oona King is Jewish, black— and the epitome of a new class of determined young women bringing a chic euphoria to the Commons,” Valerie Grove wrote in the (London) Times. As a Labour MP, King was branded one of the “Blair Babes,” the media’s nickname for the young women MPs who came to power along with Prime Minister Tony Blair. She has also had to deal with reporters that express more interest in her fashion choices than in her viewpoints. “People still tell her she’s the image of singing star Sade, which makes her groan in frustration,” Helen Weathers wrote in the (London) Mirror. Nevertheless, King has managed to make a name for herself as a fearless and dedicated fighter for minorities, women, and the poor. As Nick Servini wrote in the Mirror three years after her election, “the 32-year-old ‘Blair Babe’ has built her reputation with her straight talking, championing the cause of the worst-hit in society.”
King’s interests include race, employment, education, health, development, and women’s issues. Above all, though, her main concern is poverty. King’s constituency, home to many immigrants, is the most ethnically diverse area in Britain—and one of the country’s most economically deprived. “I have people in my constituency with extended families of up to 12 people living in two rooms. They really are Dickensian conditions. But things are changing,” King told Servini of the Mirror, “...one of the reasons I’m a Labour MP is because this Labour government, more than any other government, is helping to redistribute wealth.”
Oona Tamsyn King was born on October 22, 1967. Her mother, Hazel (Stern) King, came from a poor Jewish family in the north of England, while her father, Preston King, was from an affluent African-American family. The two had met while studying at the London School of Economics. At the time, Preston King, a civil rights activist, was living in exile, unable to return to the United States because of a trumped-up charge of draft dodging. He would not be able to return to his native country until 2000, when his daughter’s efforts on his behalf earned him a presidential pardon.
After her parents divorced, Oona and her younger
Born Oona Tamsyn King on October 22, 1967, in Great Britain; daughter of Hazel King, a teacher, and Preston King, a professor; married Tiberio San-tomarco, 1994. Education: York University, BA with honors in politics, 1990; studied at University of California-Berkeley,
Career: Political assistant to Glyn Ford, Minister of European Parliament, 1991-93; member, John Smith’s campaign team for leadership of Labour Party, 1992; political assistant to Glynnis Kinnock, MEP, 1994-95; trade union organizer and equality officer, GMB Southern Region, 1995-97; elected Minister of Parliament (Labour Party), Bethnal Green and Bow, 1997.
Member: Oxfam; Campaign for Pension Fund Democracy; Amnesty International; Jewish Council for Racial Equality (J-Core); One World.
brother Slater were brought up by their mother, a teacher, in London. “My mother is my heroine in every way,” King later recalled in an interview with Valerie Grove of the Times. “She sacrificed so much for myself and my brother, and for the children she taught.”
Growing up, King experienced prejudice from both sides—whites called her names because she was black, blacks because she was Jewish. “But it’s nothing compared to what my parents suffered,” King told Helen Weathers of the Mirror. As a child, her mother had stones thrown at her as she walked to school, simply because she was Jewish; and her father had experienced the institutionalized racism of the American South.
King’s political ambitions were formed extremely early. At the age of five, she announced that she wanted to become Prime Minister. By 14, she had joined the Labor Party, having become “acutely aware of injustice and global inequality,” she told Grove of the Times. She never considered the fact that being female would be an obstacle, she told Grove, since for most of her life the country was run by two women: Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
King attended a tough inner-city public school, Haverstock Comprehensive, where she was one of two black students in her class. Occasionally, she got into fights. “But I would want my kids to go to a school like that because it’s real life,” King said in the Times. “They have to work harder to get results than at a private school, but you also get a life awareness that you cannot pay for.” During this time, King also attended schools in the United States, living for a while with her American cousins.
After finishing her high school education, King spent time in Nicaragua, where she worked as a field laborer. “I was 19 and it was the most eye-opening experience,” she told the Times. Returning to Britain, King majored in politics at York University. She also spent time at the University of California-Berkeley, where she had won a scholarship. In 1990, King graduated from York with top honors.
With college degree in hand, and a burning ambition to run for Parliament, King wrote to every Labour MP in Britain, asking for a job. Eventually, with the help of black MP Ber nie Grant, she found a position at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. From 1991 to 1993, she was a political assistant to Glyn Ford, minister of European Parliament (MEP).
In 1992, she returned to Britain for a few months, where she worked as a research/campaign assistant for MP John Smith. She also applied to be selected as a Labour candidate for Parliament, at the exceptionally young age of 24. As King recalled in an interview with Helen Weathers of the Mirror, she was asked at the time, “What on earth makes you think you could do the job?” Though her attempt to win a place on the ballot was unsuccessful, this patronizing remark merely fired her ambition.
In 1993, King returned to Europe, taking a post as political assistant to MEP Glenys Kinnock, who was also the wife of Neil Kinnock, former Labour Party leader. “I always said Oona would go on to great things because I could see she had real political acumen,” Kinnock recalled years later in the (London) Observer. “...She’s a very important role model for women. She’s also a great asset to the Labour Party.” During her time at the European Parliament, King met Tiberio Santomarco, who worked for an Italian MEP. In 1994, the couple married in Naples, Italy.
The following year, King left Brussels to become a regional trade union organizer and equality officer for one of Britain’s largest trade unions, the General Municipal and Boilermakers’ Union. She enjoyed the job so much, she told the Times, that she nearly changed her mind about becoming an MP “But as soon as you decide you don’t want something, it comes to you on a plate,” she told Grove.
However, King’s selection as the Labour Party’s candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow was fraught with controversy. With Bengalis making up more than 25 percent of the area’s population, there was a heated campaign for a Bangladeshi MP. Still, race—or age or gender—was not the deciding factor, King told Helen Weathers of the Mirror. “I don’t think I was chosen because I’m a young black woman,” she told Weathers. “People are interested in what I can do.”
Race did play a role in the election itself, when King ran against Asian candidates from both of the other British political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. “Although I’m very multi-ethnic, I have no Bengali in me,” King told the Times. The district is a Labour stronghold, however, and at the end of the night King had defeated her closest challenger, the Conservative candidate, by 11,285 votes.
Bethnal Green and Bow, King’s constituency, is one of the poorest and most crowded areas in all of Britain. Unemployment is high, and more than half the population lives in public housing. It is also one of the country’s most ethnically mixed areas. More than 79 languages are spoken there, many of its residents have immigration problems, and racial violence is all too common. After her election, King threw herself into the struggle for her disadvantaged constituents, but admitted to Grove, “I feel an overriding guilt, because I’m getting 300 letters a day, four times more than most MPs.”
Despite King’s youth and inexperience, her efforts were quickly recognized. “She is one of the new breed of Labour’s young women MPs who are changing the face of British politics,” Weathers wrote in the Times a year after King’s election. During a debate, Weathers wrote, “Oona proved her mettle, outshining older, more experienced panelists as she deftly defended Labour’s more controversial policies.”
As a black MP for an ethnically mixed district, King has occasionally received threats from racist organizations. In 1999, a group of extremists, the White Wolves, bombed a busy shopping area in her constituency, and sent her a hate-filled letter claiming responsibility. “I think people failed to realize it, but the black community is living every day in fear of racist violence,” King told the Daily Telegraph. “...Racism thrives on ignorance and where people do not have the opportunities in life.”
Despite her successes, King has repeatedly criticized Parliament as an old boys’ club, where women and minorities are not made to feel welcome, and where outdated traditions hold sway. During speeches, for example, members must address each other by special titles, and clapping is banned. “I felt very stupid saying ‘hear, hear’ for the first time,” King said in the Daily Telegraph. “I’ve seen in Europe that there are better ways to run a legislature.”
In addition to her duties as an MP, soon after her election King began campaigning for an end to her father’s exile from the United States. In 1998, she traveled to Georgia to argue her father’s case, which had received a substantial amount of media attention in both countries. “We are not looking for a pardon,” King told David Millward of the (London) Daily Telegraph. “We are looking for something which strikes the conviction from the record and acknowledges that it was wrong.” Partly due to his daughter’s efforts, Preston King was allowed to return to the United States in 2000, after 39 years in exile.
While King is often quoted in the British media about issues involving minorities or women, she also receives a fair amount of frivolous press coverage. In 2000, the Daily Telegraph included a brief item noting that she had worn running shoes in the House of Commons. That same year, readers of the British newspaper New Nation included King on a list of black sex symbols, along with Mel B of the Spice Girls and model Naomi Campbell. “I am totally amazed...but of course I’m flattered,” King said in the (London) Observer.
The Daily Telegraph (London), 21 March 2000; Feb. 26, 2000; 26 April 1999; 15 Oct. 1998; 3 Aug.1997.
The Mirror (London), Mar. 8, 2000; Jan. 7, 1998.
The Times (London), May 30, 1997.
The Observer (London), May 14, 2000, Feb. 27, 2000
Additional information was obtained on-line at www-.blackbritain.co.uk, and www.thechronicle.co.uk
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