Jonathan Ashworth on poverty, the pandemic and why he is 'so angry' with Rishi Sunak

Jonathan Ashworth’s personal experiences of poverty are informing how he handles Labour’s response to the cost-of-living crisis. He spoke to Chris Burn.

From being responsible to leading Labour’s approach to the pandemic to having a key role in the party’s reaction to the growing cost-of-living crisis, it has been a busy couple of years for Jonathan Ashworth.

The Mancunian, who was Shadow Health Secretary for five years, was appointed as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary in November - changing his focus from Covid to the state of the nation’s personal finances just as the latter began to replace the former as the country’s most dominant political issue.

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“I’ve gone from working flat out on the pandemic for the best part of two years to now working flat out fighting for pensioners, fighting for families, fighting for disabled people who are seeing real-terms cuts and struggling with this cost-of-living crisis,” says the 43-year-old Leicester South MP and former advisor to Gordon Brown. “I have been pretty full on, that is true.”

Jonathan Ashworth says more needs to be done to support pensioners in Yorkshire.

His new role has brought him to the Parson Cross Forum in Sheffield and a weekly memory cafe event for people with dementia and their carers. After joining the group in throwing a few shapes to songs like Karma Chameleon and drawing the raffle, Ashworth gets down to the more serious business of hearing directly from those in attendance about the financial challenges they are facing.

“There is deep worry about what is ahead,” he says subsequently. “Everything is going up - the prices in the shops, filling up the car with petrol is going up and people are desperately worried about the big increases that are coming in their heating bills. People are really worried about how they are going to afford it and already pensioners are cutting back.”

Ashworth is better qualified than most in Westminster to understand the mental and emotional toll that comes with struggling to pay the bills.

Shortly after his appointment as Shadow DWP Secretary. Ashworth returned to his childhood home in Manchester and spoke movingly to the Daily Mirror about the financial struggles his single-parent mother faced after her divorce from his father, who was an alcoholic.

Jonathan Ashworth recently spent the morning at a memory cafe event in Sheffield.

“I literally remember when my mum was working in the bar, sitting down with her to count all the penny pieces and 2p pieces she was getting in tips,” he explained. “When you run out of the tokens and you’ve got no electricity in the house - I remember that. It humiliates and haunts you for the rest of your life.”

Ashworth says today that while more single parents are now in work compared to the 1990s, there is a wider social problem of people in employment still living in poverty because their wages do not go far enough.

“The deal was always supposed to be that if you get a job and a pay cheque, you won’t be in poverty. That deal has collapsed. Most of the children growing up in poverty have a parent in work. When you go to food banks, as I do, it is often people on the way back from a shift. Even though they are working all hours God sends, they are still struggling and picking up food parcels to feed their families.

“I went to a food bank in my constituency and heard the story of a woman who was given some fresh food and said, ‘I’m going to have the switch the fridge on then’. She’d not had the fridge plugged in because she couldn’t afford electricity bills - that is what is going on in our society at the moment.”

Jonathan Ashworth speaking to a man at Parson Cross Forum in Sheffield.

Ashworth adds knowing about those experiences led to him feeling “so angry” at what was - and wasn’t - announced in the recent Spring Statement.

Rishi Sunak did so little to help people who are really struggling to keep their heads above water. I was talking to a man here who said the food bank in the area has gone from servicing 150 people to now servicing thousands of people. That just shows you the level of need.”

Ashworth says Labour would have taken a “completely different approach” - cancelling the National Insurance rise, introducing a windfall tax on oil and gas producers to help reduce energy bill costs and moving forward next year’s planned increases in pension and Universal Credit payments to mitigate the impact of the current rapid rise in inflation.

“I don’t buy this argument there is no money. But there isn’t the political will from Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak.”

Ashworth says there is a clear crossover between what has happened during Covid and is now occurring with cost-of-living issues.

“What the Covid experience brought into sharp focus was something we all intuitively know anyway, which is if you’re in poverty and deprivation, you are likely to be hit hardest by illnesses.

“The big lesson from the Covid period and now this cost of living crisis is the Government is letting down the poorest and those on lower-middle incomes.

“They are bearing the brunt of the Covid crisis and are bearing the brunt of the country’s cost of living crisis. I don’t think that’s right. The reason I’m in politics and the reason I’m a Labour politician is because I don’t fundamentally believe that poverty, deprivation and disadvantage are self-correcting. A child born in Sheffield should have the same life chances as a child born in the wealthier parts of the country.

“Those injustices in life are what motivate me and what I’m passionate about. It is why I’m so passionate about doing this job and wanting to be the actual Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to give every child in Yorkshire the best possible start.”

Pride in securing help for children of alcoholics

Jonathan Ashworth says he “absolutely hates” being in Opposition because of how it limits the ability to influence policy - but adds he has had two particularly proud moments as an MP in the past 11 years.

He recalls a single mother in his constituency receiving benefits she was entitled to coming up to him and telling him his support had helped set her daughter on the path to getting a job in the civil service.

Ashworth says the other moment was after speaking out about his late father’s alcoholism, he had worked with then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to create a new national helpline for the children of alcoholics. He has gone on to run three London Marathons in support of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics.

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