Image by Chris King Photography.
"David Cameron, do you realise that the National Health Service was set up in 1948 at a time in British history when the country was at its worst state?" asked 76 year old Maureen Childs looking him squarely in the eye. Then, hands shaking and stunned by her own audacity, Childs turned her back on the Prime Minister to address the audience directly. Like the others, she was furious.
Known as "the lady who attacked the vicar" for his defence of NHS cuts, Maureen Childs is the outspoken chairperson of Green Seniors, fierce advocate for the elderly and Green party candidate for Limehouse and Poplar constituency at the General Election. Straight talking Childs says she could write a book about the ways older people have been affected by austerity cuts and gleefully recalls David Cameron's castigation at last month's now infamous Age UK conference. "It was a good thing he was on the stage" she chuckles "Or some of them would have throttled him!"
But while the pensioners' heckles and PM's visible discomfort made for comical newspaper headlines, Childs says that the response reflects the exasperation of a generation who believe Cameron is systematically destroying the NHS they laboured to build. "We've been working all our lives and look at the state we're in" she says "There are so many commercial agencies that older people don't know whether they're coming or going. They've paid National Insurance all their lives and now struggle to get an appointment with a doctor. I always tell old people never to get ill at the weekend."
A London-born survivor of World War II, Childs is a woman of extraordinary determination and endless accomplishment. Founding the British Computer Society, launching a successful newspaper, raising four children as a single parent, delivering some of the first programming courses, running a website management company, undertaking a challenging university degree in her 40s. And now politics. Aged 76, Childs has just accepted a political communications role and is standing in Tower Hamlets for an improved NHS, affordable housing and greater focus on community.
"Nobody in London knows their next door neighbour's name anymore" she says "But by investing into community - libraries, youth clubs and community centres - people can get to know each other. They'll know their neighbours and they'll know what's happening." Cuts to social care, she explains, have left older people particularly isolated and disconnected. "Many don't even have the internet. I'll tell them to visit the library and use the facilities there. But then they find their library's been closed down so they have no access to any information".
Childs doesn't understand the attraction of Starbucks ("Who needs them?") and is adamant that locally owned businesses should be supported to benefit the entire community. She smiles when asked how she'd address the unequal distribution of wealth in Tower Hamlets.
"What inequality? We're all bloody poor! They don't live here, do they?" she says waving in the direction of Canary Wharf, whose imposing towers border the less prosperous parts of the constituency "We're fine with the large corporations that pay all their taxes but we'll always prioritise local, independent companies that support the creation of local jobs".
Community. It's the solution to a lot of problems insists Childs. A stronger, more inclusive sense of community in Tower Hamlets could even prevent Islamic State radicalisation of vulnerable young constituents. For it is only when people feel neglected, she argues, that extremist groups like IS or the English Defence League hold their appeal. Incidentally, she won't agree that community problems can be blamed on immigration. Bangladeshi people - who comprise around one third of the Tower Hamlets population - are usually first to offer their seat on the bus she comments approvingly. They respect community and they respect their elders.
Campaigning is proving a lot of fun for Childs, who enjoys meeting locals and hearing their views. It can be advantageous, she says, to be an older woman in politics as voters consider her sufficiently non-threatening to drop their usual misgivings about politicians and openly discuss their concerns. It also allows Childs to be direct in a way that those wary of "fluffy" political language can respect. "Don't be so bloody ridiculous" she tells a group of East End shopkeepers "You can't really think that homosexuality is contagious. If you're a man, you're a man. If you're a woman, you're a woman. If you're gay, you're gay."
"I had a go at Boris Johnson once" she recalls "I told him I'd recently met a little old man in the bank who was there to change his rental payments. His wife had just died so he had to pay extra for his two bedroom flat, where they'd slept in separate bedrooms. This man must have been 85, if not older. I was so angry and told Boris that for all the rent he'd paid, the elderly man could have bought his flat twice over. It's for the people like him that I decided to stand for Parliament"Suggest a correction