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December 07, 2007

Harry Phibbs is pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed Oona King's Diaries: House Music: The Oona King Diaries - Oona King

Posted by Harry Phibbs

House Music: The Oona King Diaries
by Oona King
London: Bloomsbury, 2007
Paperback, 12.99

I started out being prejudiced against the prospect of reading Oona King's book. Not, I hasten to add, due to her being black or Jewish or even a former Labour MP. It was that combination that she was a Blairite loyalist (or now Brownite loyalist) so uncritical of the Labour Government - while not having been rewarded with Ministerial office and so without anything especially important to be indiscreet about. Apparently, the book has been selling poorly so it seems others had the same reservation.

But actually it is a compelling read, a rollicking page turner. She writes with wit, intelligence and candour. The resentment when she is overlooked during Ministerial reshuffles while some nonentity duffer overtakes her is expressed with a frankness reminiscent of Alan Clark.

Then there is the hopelessness of her surgeries in Tower Hamlets. This is nothing to the poignancy of her inability to have children. But she manages to bob back up.

A sense of humour must have helped her such a lot. I laughed out loud at her reflection on her philosophy course in Berkeley:

It wasn't long before philosophy drove me mad. Either it was intractable tomes of Heidegger, or it was imbecilic questions about a table. That bloody table. When you walk out of a room does the table still exist? This is a respected philosophical question. Sometimes it is a table. The fact is, it's there when I come back, so I really don't need to worry what it does when I'm away.

A lot of my philosophy is linked to the "life's too short" school of thought. Life is far too short to worry about the secret lives of tables and chairs. I know I'm being unfair to philosophers not least my father but I've always had other worries on my mind - like getting rid of Tory Governments, feeding hungry children, ending factory farming, unfair trading, global warming, helping freezing
pensioners...Philosophers would say you can't deal with any of those pressing problems unless you have a coherent view based on philosophical tenets. I agree but not to the point where I theorise about what a table does in its spare time.

Reflecting on Gordon Brown's Pre Budget Report for 2nd December 2 2004 the then Labour MP Oona King wrote in her Diaries:
No disrespect to my husband when I say that listening to Gordon at his best is better than sex.
Is that saying that much?

Elsewhere she notes:

It is 9 am and I am searching for pornography on my parliamentary internet account. It's essential I find some pretty sharpish. I am due in hospital for IVF treatment this morning and we need a sperm sample. Neither myself, nor my Italian husband, Tiberio, has ever felt so turned off in our ten year relationship.
MPs for Bethnal Green and Bow have a habit of talking about their sex lives. Oona's successor George Galloway has disclosed that when he worked for War on Want he went on a business trip to Greece returning with "carnal knowledge" of more than one woman, despite being married at the time.

One married couple gave her particular grief. She persuaded Labour Transport Minister Tony McNulty to come and talk to her constituents about Crossrail. It didn't go terribly well and afterwards he asked her:

How could you be so fucking stupid? You're so fucking thick. You don't understand a fucking thing.
A few months later and the Tower Hamlets Chief Executive and Returning Officer Christine Gilbert announced she had lost her seat to Respect candidate George Galloway. Gilbert is married to McNulty.

Oona was brought in by Gordon Brown to front his leadership campaign, or coronation as it turned out to be. She praised him for being a man of principle. But what does she really think?

Being vetted by the Labour Party to be an approved candidate in one assessment in 1997 she was asked:

How do you explain Gordon Brown's failure to match the Conservative spending pledges on the NHS?
Before recording the answer she delivered she records in her Diary:
Correct answer: "To get elected, Gordon Brown has deemed it necessary to move to the right of Genghis Khan."
Most odd.

When she was selected as a Labour candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow and it became clear she was destined to be the second black woman MP she got a congratulatory note from the first one, Diane Abbott. The message read:

Dear Oona,
Congratulations on being selected. I look forward to working with you in Parliament. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of any help with your campaign.
Oona records:
I'd been shocked rigid because I know she hates me.
Wonderful thing the sisterhood.

Oona offers a thoroughly New Labour perspective on the role of Higher Education. She says:

When I found out I'd been awarded a first-class degree I was filled with delight. Now I could become an aerobics teacher without being labelled a bimbo.
Where did it all go wrong? From the point of view of her having used her experiences to produce this very enjoyable book, I am pleased that Oona King became an MP. But she was pretty unsuited for the task. She records on many entries her difficulties getting her own affairs in order in terms of her money and the meetings she has to attend. What hope did she have of sorting out her constituents?

On a more political level while loyal to New Labour it turns out that she had privately kept faith with Socialism. She had kept going during the Tories' years imagining that a Labour Government spending billions of pounds would, for example, banish squalor from the tower blocks.

Sitting in her endless surgeries listening to her constituents plead for a higher slot on the waiting list in the centrally planned chaos on social housing, she never quite manages to accept that Socialism is the cause not the solution of their problems.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and a Conservative Councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham.

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