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IN-DEPTH: Softly-spoken Karen Jennings on her quest to win

PUBLISHED: 12:02 06 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:53 07 September 2010

Karen Jennings

Karen Jennings

DO not be fooled by the softly-spoken demeanour of Labour Party candidate for Hornsey and Wood Green, Karen Jennings. As anyone who heard her passionate speech at the march to save the Whittington A&E will tell you, that soft voice – no dou

Rhiannon Evans

DO not be fooled by the softly-spoken demeanour of Labour Party candidate for Hornsey and Wood Green, Karen Jennings.

As anyone who heard her passionate speech at the march to save the Whittington A&E will tell you, that soft voice - no doubt honed by her bedside years as an NHS nurse - can quickly turn into a ferocious rallying cry.

Asked if never having been a councillor, or a political candidate before, she worries that her soft voice won't carry too far among the clamour of the House of Commons, she fairly but firmly reminds me that as head of health at Unison - Britain's biggest public sector trade union - she has had plenty of practice holding her own.

"I would like to think I've taken into trade unionism female qualities - I don't think you need to be masculine and attacking people," she says.

"I think you need to make your arguments, but you should work collaboratively - you are much stronger with a mandate behind you.

"I know what my values and principles are, but I take my mandate from listening to people and talking to people and arriving at a consensus.

"I've appeared on Newsnight and argued with ministers on the Today programme so I think I've got the strength of character to do that."

These are qualities the 56-year-old promises to bring to parliament should she persuade voters to abandon incumbent Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone after just one term in power.

"Being a strong parliamentarian is very important and I think that's what Hornsey and Wood Green has suffered from under a Lib Dem MP," she says.

"I don't think Lynne has been strong enough - she has asked a lot of questions but most of her work has been local and that's what local councils are for.

"I think it's important to have a strong voice in parliament and I intend to make sure my voice is heard.

"I intend to make sure Hornsey and Wood Green issues are heard nationally - it's very important to me that the local and parliamentary issues are blended and I don't think that has been the case."

One of the main issues she says she would take to parliament would be the possible closure of the Whittington A&E, but if she was given the chance to be the area's member of parliament, what other issues would she be fighting for?

As a former NHS worker herself - from a nurse to ward sister - and a Labour Party member for more than 30 years, she places the public sector at the top of her list.

"I would not want to see savage cuts and I would be very clear about that," she said.

"I support public services because public sector employees spend about 70 per cent of their income in the local economy, so that's also important.

"If you start the savage cuts, that's when you enter the double dip recession. The approach that Gordon Brown has taken has stopped us going into a depression.

"Unemployment is now reducing because we are keeping the economy going and the interest rates have been kept low and people have been able to keep their homes."

As a Unison worker during Thatcher's government, Ms Jennings says she has plenty of practice fighting hard against public cuts.

Next up on her agenda is housing, she says.

"To keep this a vibrant area where people want to live we have got to do something about housing. You need more decent homes, they are important to the health of the community.

"Environmental issues are also going to be big for me, firstly because I think we have got a good record here in terms of recycling.

"But I also want to see job opportunities through environmental opportunities."

She is also fighting the Lib Dems-proposed mansion tax, which she says would hit hardest the people in the area who are asset-rich, but cash-poor.

With a seemingly-strong Lib Dem contingent in the area following a strong anti-war vote in 2005, does she think the Labour Party has a chance to win back the hearts of voters?

"I think there's a real fight on - Lynne got voted in because there was an anti-Iraq war vote," she said.

"This has been a real solid Labour seat since the early 90s and I think residents will be thinking very acutely about whether they want a Tory government.

"Lynne is already pitching herself as in alliance with the Tories and so are the Lib Dems nationally - there are large similarities between the two and I think locally people will not want that to happen.

"People will be thinking that if we have a swing nationally towards the Tories and the Lib Dems support a great many of their policies, that they will want someone here in Hornsey and Wood Green to stick up for public services and will do that no matter which government is in.

"I will be a strong parliamentarian whatever government is in."

Ms Jennings also says she is confident that the anti-war vote will not continue five years on.

"What I'm hearing on the door is that the press are cruel to our Prime Minister, I'm hearing he has handled the economy well, and I think they are still disappointed the Labour government entered a war, but what comes up is the economy, then health, then schools and jobs and green issues," she says.

With her background in healthcare, would she be able to guarantee that Haringey never again finds itself mourning for a Baby P?

"I think this is a really sensitive issue and I don't think anyone can promise it will never happen again," she said.

"The bottom line is Baby Peter's closest family did that to him.

"Having said that, we have to learn all the lessons from it and make sure we redouble our efforts to ensure the social services, child protection workers and health and police service are communicating and those obstacles that were in their way are overcome.

"This became a high-profile case and it's deeply sad and regrettable, but it has happened elsewhere and I think we need to make sure lessons are learned and it's not just a political football."

Having moved to the area 12 years ago, and now living in Muswell Hill, Ms Jennings says she is passionate about the area in which she lives, and especially treasures its diversity - so what qualities would she bring to championing it nationally?

A mother-of-two, who has lived in both Canada and the UK and worked her way up the NHS ladder, she says it is life-experience she would bring to her constituents.

"I think I have life experience, I have been a mother and a nurse and worked in the public sector," she says.

"I'm one of six children, I have experienced immigration.

"I've lived in council housing and I have been a single mother so I know what hard knocks are and I will be sympathetic to that side of life.


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