Focus on Essex North

Ted Jeory watches the campaigning in Essex North, a seat which disappears at the next election.FOR the past eight years, Bernard Jenkin, the incumbent Essex North representative, has been known in some circles as the "doughnut" MP.

Ted Jeory watches the campaigning in Essex North, a seat which disappears at the next election.

FOR the past eight years, Bernard Jenkin, the incumbent Essex North representative, has been known in some circles as the "doughnut" MP.

But the epithet is a description of the geographical shape of the largely rural constituency and not a reflection on one of Westminster's more forward thinking Conservatives.

Encircling the central wards of Colchester borough, which make up their own separate town seat, the Essex North doughnut seat is making its final appearance at the General Election ballot box.

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Boundary changes mean that next time round, the traditionally Conservative seat will fragment into three with this year's winner then forced to choose where his or her future lies.

Stretching from jam-making Tiptree in the southwest, Essex North encompasses the Dedham Vale and Constable Country up to the Suffolk border, before turning clockwise through Manningtree, Wix, Weeley, St Osyth, Wivenhoe and Brightlingsea.

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Home to artists, poets, writers and academics, constituents range from the cultured and cerebral of Essex University to the grittier seafarers of Mersea Island and the farmers around Frating.

The area is generally wealthy and is a favourite for the increasing exodus of middle class Londoners searching cleaner air and a higher quality of life.

But these newcomers are also partly to blame for pushing house prices beyond the reach of younger voters and in many places traditionally close-knit communities are being displaced and destabilised.

Partly to counter this, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has earmarked the county for hundreds of thousands of new homes and in Essex North developments have been touted for a triangle around Frating.

As with other Essex constituencies, fear of crime is top of many voters' priorities, except that in this constituency, it is rural crime that troubles people.

Conservative leader Michael Howard has tried to make traveller and gypsy sites an election issue, but in Essex North the question of where to home itinerants has long vexed local residents around Colchester.

Similarly, anger and tension has been mounting against "unreliable" train services which are the bane of many people's lives.

AS the red Labour tide engulfed large swathes of middle England in the 1997 and 2001 elections, Essex North remained decidedly blue.

With the help of his indomitable wife Anne, Mr Jenkin – a Cambridge University choral scholar – has struck the right notes with voters for 13 years – five in the old constituency of North Essex and for the last eight in his current seat.

The 46-year-old son of the former Thatcher cabinet minister, Patrick, Mr Jenkin, who is a venture capitalist by training, lives in Hatfield Peverel and owns a weekend retreat in Brightlingsea.

Life in Westminster is well known for its highs and lows, but the last four years have been a political parabola for the popular Mr Jenkin, whose nickname his "Badger".

When William Hague resigned after ballot box obliteration in 2001, Mr Jenkin seemingly backed the right man by spearheading Iain Duncan Smith's leadership campaign and was rewarded with the prestigious shadow defence portfolio.

During this tenure, war broke out with Iraq and his probing Parliamentary questions about the "dodgy dossier" were highlighted in the Hutton Report about the suicide of Dr David Kelly.

Mr Duncan Smith resigned and the Essex North MP, who is defending a majority of 7,186, was handed the less high profile front bench role of shadowing the regions by Michael Howard.

Not too downbeat, Mr Jenkin looked to his political idol, Churchill, and his childhood hero Spiderman, whom he describes as "strong, compassionate and had to face life's complications", for inspiration.

Indefatigable, he bounced back to claim responsibility for helping to "defeat" Labour's plans for elected regional assemblies.

On the forthcoming election, he said: "The big question is the same in Essex North as everywhere: do you want five more years of Blair or not?

"Locally, council tax has gone up by more than 85% and this hurts many, especially pensioners. "People are totally opposed to Labour's plans to build thousands more houses on greenfield land in places like Elmstead and Frating.

On crime, he said: "Local people want to see the police out from behind their desks and back in our towns and villages.

"The cost of the NHS has doubled under Labour, but more people are waiting longer for operations and GPs no longer can provide a personal service.

"Employers and parents are concerned that schools don't give children the discipline and skills they need.

"Generally, I find issues like illegal travellers encampments have destroyed all faith in politics - all people want is just to be left to get on with their own lives.

"I dream of serving in a new government which truly believes in its duty to improve lives by restricting government to what it can do best and limiting what government spends.

"In that way, the British people can be free and prosperous and Britain can play a full part on the world stage.

"Today, we have too much government, our freedoms are under attack, and Mr Blair uses the world stage for posing.

"I would like to be the minister that restores the independence of shire and city government in


Outside politics, Mr Jenkin spends time sailing and fishing with his two sons and he also enjoys chopping logs, running, mowing the lawn and singing.

He said his closest political ally is his wife, Anne. "Woe betide me if I ever forget that," he added. "And you'll have to ask Anne why I'm called Badger."

Mr Jenkin's main opponent could be distinguished academic and Liberal Democrat, Professor James Raven.

Although the Lib Dems were third in 2001, the 45-year-old Essex University historian has the advantage of being a local man and well liked.

Born and bred in the Colchester area, Professor Raven lives in Fingringhoe with his barrister wife, Karen.

He joined the Liberal Party in 1974 and was runner-up to Mr Jenkin in 1992.

He has been both an Oxford and Cambridge don and has spent time at Yale and Harvard lecturing and writing about British and colonial history.

He cites Roy Jenkins – a "great humanitarian" – as his political idol and his late father – a "brilliant carpenter and inventor, who never said a bad word about anyone" – as his childhood hero.

He said he wants to become an MP because he "cares deeply for this area and its future" and added: "I have lived here most of life and my family have worked in the villages around Colchester for generations."

"I want to work for others and to give voice to my long-held beliefs about justice and fairness in our society and the wider world.

"I want to replace the hated council tax with a fairer local income tax. I want to protect our green fields against ill-thought out housing developments, safeguard the future of local post offices and provide greater security in our villages by increasing the number and visibility of our police officers."

Like most Liberal Democrats he said was also vehemently against the Iraq war and voiced concerns about its aftermath.

He said: "There is real and understandable anger about Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq, a there's a belief that this has been destabilising rather than a counter to the terrorist threat, and a deep concern about Labour's erosion of civil liberties."

"We need electoral and constitutional reform to halt our slide to authoritarian presidential-style politics in which a prime minister can take a country to war for dodgy and changing reasons, in the face of overwhelming public opposition."

He said he enjoys painting, tennis and gardening, but was quick to concede he is not particularly skilled in any.

"But they all give me great pleasure," he added.

Asked what have been his greatest achievements in life, he said: "A secure and happy family and being given the chance to go to university.

"Coming from my background I doubt I could now afford to do so."

Labour candidate Elizabeth Hughes is the only one from the three main parties not to live in Essex, but she is the only woman.

However, her father is from Thorrington and her extended family live throughout the north of the county.

Married, she works as a legal assistant, but recently became a councillor on Hounslow Council, which covers the area around Heathrow Airport.

She describes herself as neither "New" nor "Old" Labour, rather "a middle-aged 40-year-old Labour member".

She insists Tony Blair went to war with Iraq full of "honourable intentions", but said she was disappointed the aftermath was now a "horrible mess".

Her favourite Cabinet minister is John Prescott and her political idol is the founder of the NHS Nye Bevan.

One of three sisters, she is a keen gardener and allotment holder and said her childhood heroes were her "brilliant parents".

"They taught us to work hard, do the right thing, to be useful members of the community and, most importantly, to take the time to have fun," she said.

On the issues facing Essex North voters, she said: "I firmly support the principle that young people should try to stay on at school or college after 16 to complete their studies either academically or to train in a skill or vocation.  

"The government's grant to 16-19-year-olds to assist in their daily costs whilst living at home and continuing their studies has been a great success and I would like to see more young people take this up opportunity in North Essex.

"The constituency is seeing a lot of redevelopment and new home building. We have a tremendously exciting and varied cultural and environmental heritage - and a balance has to be kept between the practical needs of a growing population and the protection and celebration of what is really good about the area.

"I understand people's concerns about travellers' sites and nobody wants to live next to them. There is legislation in place, but we do have to be sensible and sensitive."

On transport, she said: "Public transport needs an overhaul, especially the bus and train services.  "There needs to be a recognition that not everyone has access to a car and the centralisation of a lot of essential and specialised services, such as medical care and local government, relies on access to them being supported by a clean, efficient and affordable public transport system."

"A lot of people commute to work into Harwich, Colchester and London and the transport infrastructure frankly isn't good enough. 

"The train service is awful," she added.

Asked what one policy change she would enact if in power, she said: "Free infant and after-school childcare provided by the state for the children of working families."

Meanwhile, George Curtis, who is standing for the UK Independence Party is campaigning under the slogan, "Your liberty is at stake".

The 68-year-old former Royal Navy serviceman believes all European Union politicians and employees are "above the law" and that European law gives the state absolute power over the citizen.

"Britain or the EU: which state do you want to live in?" he asks.

Married with two sons, Mr Curtis has farmed in Dedham for 38 years. He stood in Essex North in 2001, but said he was not initially keen on politics.

"I hated it like the plague, but what's been happening to our country has made me so bloody angry," he said.

A late entrant into the race is Dr Christopher Fox who is standing for the Green Party.

Born in Buxton, Derbyshire, the 39-year-old now lives in Wivenhoe with his wife and twin daughters.

He is a reader in computer sciences at Essex University and has been a member of the party for more than 10 years and has previously stood for local council elections.

With a main interest in sustainable transport, he has been concentrating his campaign in the Wivenhoe area and claimed one in 10 people there had indicated they would vote Green.

He added: "It's imperative that we sort out public transport in rural areas, for example with a hail-and-ride bus system.

"There needs to be a far more flexible routes."


General Election 2001

*B Jenkin (Con) 21,325, P Hawkins 14,139 (Lab), T Ellis (LD) 7,867, G Curtis (UKIP) 1,613. Con maj 7,186. No change. Turnout 62.77%. Electorate 71,605. Swing 2.6% Lab to Con.

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