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Camden New Journal - OBITUARY
Published: 8 March 2007
Lena Jeger, MP who turned poetry of ideals into practice

LENA Jeger, my predecessor as MP for Holborn and St Pancras South, was one of the most influential politicians never to serve as a minister and more influential than most who have, writes Frank Dobson.
Brave and decent in both her politics and her private life, she took up causes which are now accepted by almost everyone.
The thing about Lena is that she took up these causes when they were unpopular, when their advocates were mocked and derided. With unflinching commitment, she joined with others to give a lead to public opinion and make popular the abolition of capital punishment, the legalisation of abortion, equal rights and equal pay for women, the ending of apartheid, providing decent homes for all, anti-racism and the independence of Cyprus as well as warning of the dangers of smoking.
She did all this with a never-ending supply of human warmth and earthy humour.
The people of our area elected Lena Jeger as their representative for almost 30 years, starting as a St Pancras councillor from 1945 to 1959 and as a member of the London County Council from 1951 to 1954.
She served as our MP from 1953 to 1979 except when she was briefly and narrowly ousted in 1959 by a Tory, not for any fault on her part, but because the local Labour Party was in chaos.
A member of Labour’s National Executive in 1960/1961 and then from 1968 to 1981, she was chair of the Party in 1980 making a brilliant job of chairing the Annual Conference in that difficult year.
After retiring from the Commons in 1979, Lena became Baroness Jeger of St Pancras and served as an active member of the House of Lords until this was curtailed by failing health in recent years.
The daughter of a postman in the Forest of Dean, Lena did a degree in English and French at Birkbeck College. She joined the civil service. During the Second World War, she served in the Ministry of Information and later in Moscow as deputy editor of a British propaganda newspaper the British Ally.
She had an outstanding way with words both as a speaker and a writer, going on to write for the Manchester Guardian and becoming a distinguished columnist for the Guardian as it later became.
Once when Harold Wilson, referring to Marx, said that the problems of modern Britain weren’t to be resolved by the theories of someone lying dead in Highgate Cemetery, in her next column, drawing on local knowledge, Lena’s riposte was that they certainly were as Michael Faraday was buried there and we wouldn’t get very far without electricity.
In 1948, Lena married the MP for South East St Pancras, Dr Santo Jeger who, following boundary changes, became MP for Holborn and St Pancras South in 1950.
Dr Jeger was a passionate advocate of a National Health Service and the need for public health measures, including school milk and decent housing conditions. Lena chaired the St Pancras Borough Housing Committee.
When Santo Jeger died in September 1953, Lena was narrowly selected as Labour’s candidate for the by-election which she duly won on her 38th birthday. She used to regale us with stories of that by-election. Canvassing a woman in a flat in a block in Camden Town, she launched into the great left-wing issue of the day – German re-armament and the threat that it posed to international peace and security.
When she paused for breadth, the constituent asked “Did you come up in the lift?” “Yes dear”, said Lena. “Stinks of piss doesn’t it?” said the woman. “Yes dear,” said Lena. “Can’t you stop ’em pissing in the lift?” asked the woman. “I don’t think I can,” said Lena. “Well,” said the woman, “if you can’t stop them pissing in our lift, how can you expect me to believe you can stop the German’s re-arming?”
On another evening, she was canvassing on the edge of Soho with Frank Pakenham, later Lord Longford.
Most of the flats in the run-down Georgian terrace were occupied by prostitutes. The great man, innocent as ever, had no idea what was going on. They struggled up to the garret flat and as they were canvassing her, its occupant spotted a professional colleague and client coming up the stairs.
She enquired: “How are you doing tonight Meg?” to which Meg replied: “He’s the seventh tonight so I am doing pretty well but these stairs are killing my feet.”
Pakenham looked puzzled when Lena laughed her head off – just as she did when re-telling the story.
Before her maiden speech just over 52 years ago Lena was advised to devote it to ‘women’s issues’. In the event, she talked about the threat of nuclear war, of what it would mean to her constituents and pointed out afterwards to her critics that peace and war, life and death were just as much women’s issues as they were men’s.
Lena was starting off as she meant to go on, undeterred by the establishment, the rich and powerful, speaking up for people in need and, most of all, for women.
She believed that politicians and Parliament often had to give a lead to public opinion and not always follow it.
So it was that, in a substantially Roman Catholic constituency, she campaigned for abortion rights for women and was proud to be one of the sponsors of the 1967 Abortion Act.
Having advocated independence for Cyprus, she didn’t start backing off from that cause when British troops were facing EOKA (the Cypriot freedom movement which wanted union with Greece) and her friend Archbishop Makarios was exiled to the Seyshelles.
She contributed a large section to the 1962 Penguin book ‘Common Sense About Smoking’ at a time when the liars employed by the tobacco industry were still denying any connection between smoking and ill health.
Her friend Barbara Castle always emphasised the part Lena played in the campaign for women’s rights and equal pay when reactionaries did nothing but mock the whole idea – in other words when it was “politically correct” to be against equal rights, not just for women but also for anyone who wasn’t white or wealthy.
I feel proud and fortunate to have succeeded such a worthwhile predecessor and I felt flattered when, although we were never particularly close, she tipped me off some time before it was made public that she intended to step down.
Lena is an example to all elected representatives and, most particularly, Labour ones. The peroration of her speech which opened the 1980 Labour Conference is worth repeating.
She said “We have to take the poetry of our ideals and translate it into the prose and practicalities of everyday life.
“We have to combine our personal attitudes with a collective effort towards the achievement of freedom and world peace. Do not let us forget that this is the context of our work this week and now – let the work begin.”
Good advice for Labour on how to conduct the forthcoming elections for Leader and Deputy Leader.
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