Oona King begins her talk this morning by apologising for not dressing as she wanted. She’s wearing a blue hoody, black skirt and leggings and looks great. She was up for over five hours last night with a cranky baby and it was only after she got her to sleep that she realised that she didn’t dare go back upstairs to get her clothes for fear of waking her. It’s mildly depressing yet completely appropriate to find a female ex-MP talk about appearance before everything else; later she responds to a question about feeling she had to look the part. “I had to go out and buy lots of M&S blouses,” she says.
King clearly relishes not looking the part. Once, at a work event, I spoke to a newly elected white male MP about the Houses of Parliament. “It’s like Hogwarts,” he said, looking every bit the schoolboy enjoying the excitement of it all. In comparison, on Oona’s first day, she found she had 5,000 letters waiting for her. Being a mixed-race, identifying as black, Jewish, young female MP ticked a lot of boxes and people responded. Finding herself some stationery, she looked for a way out of the building and was directed through the Chamber of the House. Inevitably there she encountered three – how shall I put this to remain neutral? – stereotypical MPs, the kind of person whose been in the House for hundreds of years (did that work? Do you know who I mean?) whose jaws quite literally dropped at the sight of her being a representative in Parliament.
It’s a nice anecdote that neatly sums up Oona’s (we didn’t meet but I feel I can use her first name, I hope she doesn’t mind) attitude to politics. More “normal” people need to get involved. The event had been organised by Bright Ideas in conjunction with Kemet FM and WEA, as part of the Nottingham Women’s Conference Fringe event programme. We sat in the Council House, women all, old, young and in-between, and from a range of ethnic backgrounds and discussed politics. This does not mean we just discussed childcare. (Note to politicians the world over: women are interested in more than just childcare issues. Thanks) In fact, apart Oona’s broken night’s sleep, we didn’t discuss children much at all.
So what did we talk about? International development; genocide; how to steer young people and especially young men into engaging with the system and not gangs or conspiracy theories as to why their life is hard; women only shortlists (as a short term fix) and early years intervention (as a long term fix); the benefits of being mixed race (you can walk about alone for a short period in the Gaza Strip though she wouldn’t necessarily recommend it); Ed Miliband (she went to school with him); Obama (it isn’t just that he’s black, it’s that he is extraordinary. It’s the same if you’re mixed race, a woman or anything, to get a British Obama, we need to find that “one in a million” person) and two of her Desert Island Discs (Harvest for the World and I Say a little Prayer). Among other things.
What came across to me, and I think everyone, was how passionate and funny she was, about how committed she was to making a difference and trying to break a status quo that is so entrenched in how we have built our society and lives. She encouraged us to join political parties, to go to conferences, to make time, to make compromises, to raise your hand, to GET INVOLVED. Get a mentor, work hard and get a grounding in how it works. Above all, she quoted Oprah’s theory of luck: “It’s the intersection of preparation and opportunity.”
It’s so easy to think that the diversity agenda penalises people in some way. But if we can improve the acceptance of diversity in Britain, everyone benefits. It’s not just box ticking, life can improve for all. And, if we support women, we can change the world. Not just in politics but everywhere.
It may be obvious to you I felt quite inspired! I think we all did. And having taken our applause, Oona was off to Nottingham Ice Rink. Since Dancing on Ice she’s become a really keen skater and tries to fit it in between her three jobs and three children. “I’ve got a skating exam tomorrow at 6am,” she said, flashing us a smile. Appearances be damned, this was all about substance.
The Nottingham Women’s Conference is this Saturday, 21 September and is sold out but there are still fringe events available all month. Go to the NWC website for more details.