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16 May 2005

I’m in shock. But I will fight back

Exclusive - My election campaign diary

By Oona King

Saturday 16 April So the battle commenced, and everything’s gone crazy. Journalists arriving in Bethnal Green from around the world. Today we were out in Brune House, home to mostly Ban-gladeshi families living in overcrowded housing. The mob started their chanting. “Murderer! Murderer! Oona King thinks Muslim life is cheap! She killed 100,000 Iraqis! Oona King, get OUT of here! Murderer! Murderer!” etc.

My Bengali supporters and councillors were great. I gave them a pep talk before we went out: remember, we have a positive message; we’re investing in housing, education, healthcare; Iraq is an important issue, but it’s not the only issue. We don’t want to polarise our community along religious or racial lines. If anyone starts baiting you, don’t rise to it. Be dignified. And don’t worry about me. Whatever gets hurled at us – from eggs to insults – think about the pleasure we’ll feel on 5 May when we win. So let’s go out, door to door, and spread the message.

Last week, I was “attacked” at the anni- versary of the bombing of Hughes Mansions. The last V2 rocket to fall on London during the Blitz killed 130 people in these flats. Nearly all those who died were Jewish, some of them soldiers home on leave. The eggs and vegetables hurled from the surrounding brick balconies didn’t hit me. They only splattered my jacket, but hit a Jewish war veteran and an elderly Jewish woman. It was disturbing: the kids disrupting the event have no idea that the people they hit are the people who gave us the freedom to be here. After all, neither Bengalis nor black Jews would have lasted long under the Third Reich.

My adoption meeting this afternoon had a really good buzz. Helen Mirren came, as well as the journalists Johann Hari and Nick Cohen. Dad arrived from Atlanta and also spoke. Beforehand, I had an hour-and-a-half live BBC London hustings event. The BBC said it was a score draw between me and George Galloway.

The more I think about it, I realise that this means I win on aggregate. After all, if GG, clever man that he is, can’t knock me out when I’ve got Iraq on my back, and when I’m representing an unloved government (and when he can say anything he wants and luxuriate in opposition), then I claim it as 1-0 to me.

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This morning was a 7am start. Woke up before alarm at 6am. Sleep deprivation is kicking in, big-time. Between last Friday morning and Tuesday – five days – I had nine hours’ sleep. Not good. Go to doctor’s and ask for sleeping pills. Not good. When I wake up, I feel like someone’s hit me over the head with a sledgehammer. Resolve never to take them again.

Monday 18 April At this point in a general election campaign, weeks don’t start or end. The hours just pass, along with the doors, the constituents, and the eggs. The Times editorial today is entitled “Pearly king”, and says that “Bethnal Green and Bow should re-elect its MP”. Amen. Inshallah. Would like to know who I need to thank.

Wednesday 20 April Super Wednesday. The campaign changed for me today. For a start, everything kicked off. Vanloads of police. Vanloads of media. Ken Livingstone came to support me. At one point, in a fourth-floor meeting room, the police tell us we can’t leave the building because of an abandoned car that might be a bomb. Five minutes later they say there’s no bomb, and we walk up Brick Lane. Ken says he’s wearing his cheapest clothes, so it doesn’t matter if we get pelted with eggs.

I wonder where the Respect lot are. They’re nowhere to be seen. Then we turn left on to Hanbury Street, and I see them all behind police barriers. Respect said on its website that Tony Blair would be there, as a way to get the numbers protesting up. But there are only about 40. I’m half-expecting a brick, or at least an egg.

As long as it’s not a bomb, we’re laughing. Nothing materialises.

Thursday 21 April Tony rings today. “It sounds pretty bad. How are you?”

“I’m fine. It looks worse than it is.” Actually, I don’t even know how it looks. I should be excited – or at least interested that I’ve made the front-page picture and story for the Guardian. I buy the Guardian most days (although I often never get round to reading it). Today, I fail to buy it all day. It’s midnight and I still haven’t seen it. I’m lost inside the news, with no time to read the news.

Wednesday 27 April Last night David [Lammy, MP for Tottenham] and Nicola came down. On one estate in Shadwell I got split up from the main group. A car with five young people pulled up, shouting: “Jewish bitch, get out of here.” It only affects me on an anthropological level: “How interesting, these people hate me so much because my mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” Mind you, when Dad was walking down my street, some white kids started doing gorilla impersonations.

There’s a job-lot on prejudice.

A Bengali man said he wouldn’t vote for me “because I don’t agree with Oona King spending her parliamentary salary to pay the Israeli army to bomb Palestinians”. And then there was the white man who said: “I can’t vote for you because you pay for your son to go to a private school.” I told him that a) I didn’t have any children, b) I was a passionate advocate and product of comprehensive education, and c) he was confusing me with Diane Abbott. “No,” he replied, “it’s you, Oona King, who pays for her child to go private.”

Monday 2 May, bank holiday Yesterday I did an “extreme sports” version of canvassing. It involved running and jumping up innumerable stairs in tower blocks for about nine hours. I’ve done it many times before, but never running instead of walking, and never in so many 15-storey blocks where the lifts were broken.

I am nearly broken. My husband re- minds me that there are two halves to a marathon. The first half is the first 23 miles. The second half is the last three miles. In the office this morning, the sign on my door says: “Three days till victory.” We’re running down Pall Mall. Win or lose, we’re going to cross the finishing line. And then my extreme canvassing takes a heavy toll. Woke up at 4am last night with a sore throat and a temperature.

FUCK. How could I fuck it up so close to the end? Just another three days.

Someone tells me that a minute during an election campaign is like a day.

These three days seem like for ever.

Wednesday 4 May, 10.30pm At midnight, “050505” will turn from a catchphrase into today. 050505 seems like a long-lost relative I’ve been waiting for ever to meet. I’ve written a victory speech, but no losing speech. So many people have come out to help me, from all parties – but mainly, of course, the Labour Party – that I feel overwhelmed. Their kindness could kill me, or at least turn me into an emotional wreck. Cannot, cannot, CANNOT afford to start crying. I’m convinced I’ll win, but that I’ll do a Gwyneth Paltrow, and all the relief and pressure will result in me blubbering like an idiot. I cry at EastEnders. What hope have I got? Actually, I remember what’ll keep me strong. The Respect lot are reliable. They’ll act like a bunch of tossers.

Get a text message that says: “You’re doing well on postal votes. Fab news.”

Ring my campaign team, who tell me I’ve got 50 per cent and the Tories have got 50 per cent. What?? I didn’t think we really meant it when we kept saying the Tories could win.

Now I know I’m not going to sleep all night. Maybe I’ll write the “loser’s” speech instead.

Thursday 5 May Do extreme canvassing for most of the day, particularly towards the end, then go home and have a bath. My heart is pounding. And then I remember music. Get my iPod and play “California Soul” by Marlena Shaw. My anxiety disappears instantaneously. Completely. By the time I’ve listened to the song three times, I’m ready to go out and perform. Victory, defeat, whatever, it was time to get out on stage. The Day Nurse kept my temperature down, and my throat wasn’t too bad. It would’ve been nice to be on top form physically, but it’s always more important to be mentally sorted.

I now knew for a fact that I’d hold it together. But why hadn’t I thought of music before? I packed my iPod and headed for my Labour Party event. The police had cordoned off the road. The borough commander was standing outside, and called me to one side. The police had received information about a possible attack by an extreme Islamic group. The police would rather I went straight to Canary Wharf, where security was tighter. Options running through my head:

1 Go to Canary Wharf and leave all my supporters to be blown up.

2 Go into my own bash, and get blown up with all my supporters.

3 Cancel the event, even though there was only a minuscule risk of anything happening. After all, that’s what gives terrorists the advantage – they only have to plant the seed of terror, and you do the rest.

The police were crawling all over the place. They even had plain-clothes police inside. I’ve had enough death threats to know they don’t want to kill you, they just want to scare you. So I thanked the borough commander for the infor-mation, and walked into my event to a rapturous welcome. Stayed for an hour, and then went to the count. I ask Graham, my agent, how it’s going.


“You’re kidding me?” He shakes his head. I’ve been utterly convinced for the past two weeks that I’m going to win, and win well. All the Labour tellers say it’s too close to call. After two hours, I go into the “candidates’ room” to watch some news and see what’s happening in the rest of the country. A newsflash comes on Sky News saying: “Oona King has just lost Bethnal Green and Bow by 2,000 votes to George Galloway.” How the hell do they know that if we haven’t finished counting yet? Go back on to the floor, beneath all the world’s press – wave to the BBC news correspondent Rageh Omaar – and listen to my iPod. “California Soul” again. The waiting is just interminable.


Change the song to “Elevate Your Mind”, a great dance version of the Sly and the Family Stone track. Tell myself to elevate my mind, which I do. I feel fine. My mind is up above, but fully under control. I’m cool. It’s as though I have an invisible shield around me, and nothing will pierce it. I’m thinking: “Let’s do it.”

And still, when the Tannoy announ-cement comes – “Would candidates and agents make their way to the returning officer” – it feels unexpected. I stand next to the returning officer, and immediately scan the figures. I’ve lost.

What do I feel? I feel deep, deep shock. Somewhere, I feel devastation. But most of all, I feel it’s not the end of the world. The Labour Party says we should challenge anything under 1,000. When I ask what the majority is, the returning officer says it’s “about 800”. She then refuses to accept my agent’s request for a recount. We request again. She is implacable. So we are called on to stage. George is smiling. I’m standing behind him, listening to him give his acceptance speech. He calls on the returning officer to resign – the person who just refused me a recount, and en- sured he was fast-tracked to victory. He says the council is corrupt. He’s talking about Iraq. Half the council workers get up and walk out. In fact, I realise, he’s giving his “losing” speech, because he never expected to win.

He leaves the stage, and the Respect lot are going wild. I take the microphone and make my speech. I’m as calm as I’ve ever been. And I feel strong. I know we’re right, he’s wrong, and in a very short time the rest of the country and constituency will see that.

And if my political career’s over (which I know it isn’t) – well, what the hell, I tried my best and I was a good con- stituency MP.

One thing I know for certain: I will not run to be an MP in any other place. People implore me not to make that statement “so early”. But it is like Brighton rock straight down the middle of me; it is a decision that will never change – just like my decision to be a Labour person. Call it stubborn or call it loyal – the East End is my home and that’s where I’ll stay because I love it, and because there’s so much to be done.

The Labour Party will be in the East End for ever, and it is our task to build a community that rejects sectarian politics. So if you want to join our fightback, please contact me at

And remember, as long as Labour is in government, losing anything else is absolutely fine.

Copyright Oona King 10.5.05