Opinion: On the campaign trail with Jenny Woods and Meri O’Connell in Reading

Jenny Woods and Meri O'ConnellLast September, the Greater Reading party was gearing up to select its Prospective Parliamentary Candidates for the two seats in our area: Reading East and Reading West.  It was the fevered period just before the Scottish referendum, yet discussion about the looming General Election was increasing, including discussion of the number of women in Parliament and ongoing debate about women in the Liberal Democrats in the light of past events.

I was therefore delighted when Jenny Woods and Meri O’Connell were selected, enthusiastically and overwhelmingly, to stand for Reading East and Reading West.

Jenny is that rare thing in politics (less so in Lib Dem politics, it seems!) – a scientist, specialising in sustainability and policy making.  She joined the party in Reading in 2010 out of sheer frustration with how politics deals with science and funding.  She made her mark on the 2012 Spring Conference by proposing a policy amendment against the incipient Snooper’s Charter.  It was thanks to her that Julian Huppert and the rest of the party were able to take up the fight and kill it in Parliament; it is directly thanks to her efforts that the Snooper’s Charter and its cynical successor are not law.

Meri also joined the party in 2010.  Always a Reading local, she has also been a tireless supporter of children.  Working for children’s homes, in education welfare, on a youth offending team, and for children’s social services with at-risk kids, it was having children of her own which drew her into politics.  In her words, she realised that “shouting at the TV wasn’t enough”; she was drawn to the Liberal Democrats due to our opposition to the Iraq War and internal democracy.  A native of Tilehurst, she was inspired to stand for Council there by veteran Lib Dem Councillor and former Mayor of Reading, Peter Beard, when he retired in 2012.  She is the latest in a proud and unbroken succession of PPCs in Reading West, where the Lib Dems have selected female candidates at every general election since at least 1987.

Jenny and Meri are a classic double act.  Jenny – a scientist; thoughtful and engaging – and Meri – a youth worker and Borough Councillor (and qualified lifeguard!); disarming, incisive and down to earth – are both remarkably warm, funny and passionate people.  I had the pleasure of attending Autumn Conference with them in Glasgow last year, in the weeks after their selection, and their enthusiasm was, and remains, infectious – not only for their own campaigns, but for each other’s.  With Meri’s passion for supporting young people and Jenny’s for science and sustainability, it can reasonably be said that Meri wants to make the world a better place for your kids, and Jenny wants to make the world a better place for your grandkids.  The two Reading seats could have no better candidates.

As well as fighting for Jenny and Meri, campaigners from Reading have also been going to help another fantastic female scientist PPC: Layla Moran in Oxford West and Abingdon.

* John Grout is a Lib Dem activist and lives in Reading.

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  • Good luck to them both. It is a long time since we made our first breakthrough in Reading East, Peppard Ward back in the early 1980s. Ian Fenwick was a great inspiration to us and we won the by-election. He lost the following year iirc, but won it back and then went on to be leader of the Lib Dem Group on the council, taking over from Jim Day who held Tilehurst for us. Ian was a scientist too, lecturing at Reading Uni on Geology. Great times. I hope they come back soon.

  • Helen Tedcastle 24th Apr '15 - 12:20pm

    Yet another article stating a candidate is a scientist and likes science, is involved with science and wants science funding (even though this area, in contrast to the Arts, has been protected from cuts) etc etc..

    At least the other candidate is a youth worker. Nice change.

    In actual fact, aren’t their qualities as a person, their values and their ability as a campaigner more important than their occupation? I would say so.

  • @Helen Tedcastle “In actual fact, aren’t their qualities as a person, their values and their ability as a campaigner more important than their occupation? I would say so.”

    I’d say occupation was at least as important, given that one of the charges most often levelled at our politicians is their lack of experience of life.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Apr '15 - 12:46pm

    We need to support the science budget. Recently it dropped below 0.5% of GDP. A lot of science also needs to be privately funded, but I do have a new found interest in science. 😀

  • I don’t want to take anything away from the reputation of Ian Fenwick or the Liberals in Peppard ward, but the first breakthrough in what is currently in Reading East was made by Beth Cheyne in Bulmershe ward in 1969.

  • Thanks for that, David and Keith; I hadn’t known that. Of course, Bulmershe and Whitegates Ward is now in Wokingham, but it still has a strong Lib Dem presence, and on Woodley Town Council.

    Helen, I tend to agree with TCO that a candidate’s background is important as well as their personal qualities. The reason people tend to highlight Scientists ™ at the moment is that there are so few in Parliament. And Eddie is right about science funding; it’s well below where it should be.

  • David Evans 24th Apr '15 - 2:05pm

    I think you are right Keith, but it had all been lost in Reading East for quite a few years by Ian’s time. I don’t know to what extent it grew in Reading East after Beth was elected, I know we had held Caversham Park Village at some previous time (it might have been in Oxfordshire then) and that was what we built on. For some reason it was always difficult to make significant progress across the rest of Reading, but with a lot of hard work there was a decent sized group for a good few years. It is a real tragedy now to see they are in fourth, fifth or even sixth place in most wards across Reading now.

  • @David Evans I suspect there has been significant demographic change in Reading since 1969 given the increase in housing and the ethnicity change in other parts of the town.

  • David, what was the Bulmershe ward of Woodley in 1969 largely became the South Lake ward in 1979 and is still Liberal Democrat after 46 years. You are right so far as the wards in the Borough of Reading are concerned. Peppard was in the former Reading North constituency which concentrated solely on Tilehurst until Ian and others formed a branch in 1974.
    John, according to Electionmaps.co.uk, Bulmershe and South Lake are in Reading East constituency. Is that not so?
    Anyway, good luck in greater Reading.

  • John Grout,
    thanks for this report from the real world of campaigning, it is a great relief to read about people who are getting on with it in their communities and taking action which will pay dividends after 8th May.

  • David Warren 25th Apr '15 - 9:51am

    My home town of Reading should be fertile territory for a liberal party.

    In the my time here the Katesgrove, Kentwood, Norcot, Peppard, Redlands and Tilehurst wards have elected Liberal or Lib Dems councillors.

    Sadly only one of those has Lib Dems now.

    The coalition has taken its toll on support for the party and some local problems certainly haven’t helped.

    Having two enthusiastic candidates may well keep the flag flying but there is still a long way to go from where I am sitting.

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