As summer comes to an end, a darkness looms: things in the UK are about to get worse. Another sharp hike in energy prices in the coming weeks means more people will struggle this winter – even with new prime minister Liz Truss’ measures. For us to survive this cost of living crisis takes government intervention, Jonathan Ashworth tells me. As Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, he says we can expect ‘significant structural changes’ to the economy should Labour be elected at the next general election.
“The country is in a mess,” Ashworth says. “We’ve got a third of children growing up in poverty, people in work turning up at food banks, pensioner poverty increasing again, half a million children growing up destitute. That means they don’t even have access to the basics such as heating, food, shelter, or toiletries. This is an absolute scandal. And at the same time, we’ve got the highest tax burden for 70 years.”
It’s high summer when we meet over Zoom to discuss his new plans for welfare and employment, just as the Conservative leadership contest kicks off. “We will have a new prime minister by the time this Fabian Review comes out and it’s unacceptable that in this leadership contest their focus is tax cuts. Not one of them has offered any serious plan as to how they’re going to protect families and pensioners when the energy price cap rises this autumn,” he says.
Ashworth, who was elected Labour and Co-operative MP for Leicester South in 2011, has served in the party’s shadow cabinet since 2016 – first as its longest-running Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and now, since 2021, turning his focus to work and pensions. Throughout those six years he has toured the country, learning what life is like for those below the breadline in Britain.
Things have worsened. He relays tales from teachers of children scavenging in bins and asking for food from their friends. “Can you imagine a situation where a child is so hungry that they have to beg from their friends to have some of their sandwich?” he says in disbelief. “And just think of the way in which poverty holds children back. There is a wealth of evidence that shows children who are hungry and from poorer backgrounds will do worse at school.”
“I heard a story at one food bank of a mother who was given fresh food and said: ‘I’m now going to have to put my fridge back on’. She’s not been able to afford the electricity bill associated with keeping the fridge running. I’ve heard stories of pensioners forgoing hot meals, forgoing hot showers for needing to save on their energy bills. And of course, this is only going to get worse.”
Of note is the pervasiveness of in-work poverty. “Because of this Tory approach to our economy, run on low wages, limited hours and temporary work, you’ve got people turning up to food banks to pick up a parcel for their family on the way home from a shift,” he says.
“Yet even though work is not a guaranteed route out of poverty, it’s still immeasurably better for somebody to be in work, because I believe being out of work damages lives and it undermines a sense of solidarity in society,” adds Ashworth.
It is clear that solidarity between workers has been vital this year – but perhaps not just in this way. It feels as if not just employment itself has increased solidarity, but that more people are coming together to fight the government’s assault on our living standards. Over the last few months we have seen large numbers of workers voting in favour of industrial action against real terms pay cuts and unfair employment practices like fire and rehire – all as companies make record profits.
“The unrest that we are seeing across the country is a symptom of austerity, and a symptom of the Tory philosophy that argues inequality is necessary to make your economy more efficient,” Ashworth says.
Yet during nationwide rail strikes this summer, Labour leader Keir Starmer banned his frontbench from appearing on picket lines. The move has been met with much anger and resistance from trade unionists who are disappointed with the party’s direction. “Keir didn’t want us to become a sort of distraction in the dispute,” Ashworth tells me. “We wanted to keep the focus on the government who were failing to negotiate a fair deal with the trade unions, whereas the government were trying to suggest that somehow it was all the Labour party’s fault that workers were on strike. It’s actually their fault because they run the economy in such a way that the value of workers’ wages is being squeezed,” he says.
Despite growing tensions, Ashworth still believes the partnership between Labour and the unions will ‘always endure’ and is vital to ending poverty.
A key concern for Ashworth is not only that poverty and deprivation ‘denies people the chance to make the most of themselves’ but that it stunts our economy by undermining productivity. “And that’s why tackling this ingrained poverty will be one of my driving missions,” he says.
“And it’s also a driving mission because of the personal circumstances of my own childhood,” adds Ashworth, who has spoken candidly in the media about growing up in poverty. “My dad was a croupier and my mum started up as a bunny girl in the Playboy casino. These are not particularly well-to-do occupations”.
“I’ve seen poverty through times in my life and I know it haunts and humiliates. I’m not one to claim that this particular set of experiences put me on sort of a Monty Python-esque pedestal – I can only speak from my own point of view, but of course, they have made me really determined and utterly resolute in wanting to change this society,” he says.
First on Ashworth’s agenda is to provide ‘quality’ employment opportunities ‘for all’. “That means moving away from the system that we have at the moment, where the jobcentre essentially polices those who are looking for work by imposing ever-more sanctions and ever-more threats. Instead, we need to provide personalised help, tailored to the needs of that individual and breaking down the barriers that prevent people from moving into work,” he says.
Particular attention is being paid to older people’s employment. “The Tories tell you that we’ve got this employment miracle. It’s actually a myth. Overall, employment is down since the pandemic. We’ve had the lowest rate of employment progress of the major G7 countries, and actually hundreds of thousands of over 50s have left the labour market, whether that be because of sickness, caring responsibilities, or just because they want to leave. That means we’ve lost a lot of skill and expertise at a point where we have record vacancies, inflation and a cost of living crisis. So I’m looking at what support we can provide the over 50s whether that’s skills and retraining, more access to carers’ leave or more tailored support,” he says.
Labour will also be reforming welfare – and to do this well, Ashworth says he is looking to the Fabian Society for guidance, which he joined as ‘a nerdy, precocious 15-year-old’ and of which he is still a keen member.
“Beatrice Webb was a great Fabian, who in the commission on the poor laws and the minority report from the poor laws, this is all over 100 years ago, argued that what is needed is universal welfare provisions as a right of citizenship – something which then came into fruition around 40 years later when a Labour government implemented the Beveridge report. So we need reforms – universalist reforms – where we challenge the degradation of welfare that we’ve seen under the Tories.”
If in power, Ashworth hopes to transform our universal credit system which, he explains, ‘wilfully impoverishes’. “People have to wait five weeks for a payment, which means that they are already indebted and have to pay back their debts. Because the system demands it’s paid on a monthly basis it projects people into all kinds of debt,” he says.
To this new brief, Ashworth clearly brings his passion for health policy – particularly around the issue of mental health. He recently visited Cambridge University to explore research on the impact our long hours work culture is having on mental health. “If you do reduce working hours and give people more leisure time, that does generally lead to better mental health outcomes” says Ashworth.
His prediction is that in the next 10 years – if not already – mental ill-health will be the leading cause for someone to be absent from work, whether that’s for a particular episode or long-term absence. And he believes the option of ‘less work and more leisure’ would be an important new approach.
“But there is some evidence now that integrating your employment support with your mental health provider can actually help people move into work,” he adds.
“I have to be very clear on this. This is not remotely forcing people into work who should not be working. But there is some evidence that some people with mental health conditions will find being in work, even if it’s limited hours, will help them recover.”
In the months ahead, Ashworth is looking forward to seeing the results from several pilot studies around the country which are looking into this. “It’s a very different approach from the Conservatives who are forcing people to apply for jobs even if they’re not suitable, with the sword of Damocles hanging over them that if they don’t, their benefits will be docked. That’s not the right approach to reforming welfare. The way to do it is to support people and then you make progress.”
And there is a final ‘new frontier’ of welfare reform which Ashworth is keen to explore: how Labour encourages people to save more and build up assets. Here, Ashworth – who worked as an advisor to Gordon Brown before becoming an MP – believes two of the greatest initiatives of the last Labour government can be built on: the automatic enrolment into workplace pensions and the introduction of a child trust fund, which the Tories scrapped.
This is what Ashworth summarises as his ‘big approach’: helping people into work, supporting them out of poverty and giving greater access to savings. But for Labour to be trusted to run the economy, he says it must show how such a vision will be funded.
“The Conservatives always lie about our record. So Labour will be going into the election with a completely costed manifesto.” This, for Ashworth, diverges from the past where manifestos ‘felt like they were promising the earth to everybody’. “People don’t believe that,” he tells me.
Looking ahead, Ashworth points to three major trends in the economy which he believes will be crucial for Labour keep in mind. ‘Digitisation’ is the first of these – and how, in a world of increased automation, Labour ensures good, well-paid jobs which people can advance in.
The second is ‘demographics’; with an ageing society comes more retired people than ever before. “It provokes big questions about the right support in terms of income, pensions and social care,” he says.
But it is the final D – ‘decarbonisation’ – which feels most pressing to discuss: our chat took place as temperatures in the UK exceeded 40°C for the first time in history.
“Climate change is an existential threat, but there can be new jobs to help us transition to net zero. And our employment support reforms are a key part of that,” says Ashworth.
“I know this from my health days, I feel very passionate about this. We understandably talk about the climate change threat. But it’s not just about the impact of global warming and of days like this which are an obvious health risk. If we don’t tackle climate change, we put ourselves at more risk of future pandemics as well. The more that we destroy biodiversity, the more that we disrupt natural habitats across the world, the more that we are at risk again of a zoonotic disease spread from animals to humans. And the more the globe warms up, you’ll see mosquitoes with malaria making their ways to parts of Europe they’ve never been before. So climate change is a very real health risk as well,” he says.
Despite these apocalyptic forecasts, Ashworth is steadfast that we ‘mustn’t worry’. “People should mobilise, campaign, rally and petition because that is the way in which you bring about change,” he says.
But with the draconian policing bill which significantly restricts our right to peaceful protest being passed in April, plus both Starmer and shadow justice secretary Steve Reed calling for a ban on peaceful protest tactics after a disruptive campaign to end fossil fuel extraction by Just Stop Oil, it is any surprise that some, particularly the young, have lost faith in politics?
For them, Ashworth has a message: “I really urge people to keep faith in what we are trying to do,” he says. “Because I’ve only seen a Labour government elected once, and we can look back on that Labour government, and it did make mistakes as every Labour government in history has made mistakes. But it was the best government of my lifetime.”
“It was a government that lifted a million children out of poverty, it lifted pensioners out of poverty, which brought waiting lists down in the NHS to the best they’ve ever been. Yes, there were things that disappointed us, but my God is it better than what we have now. And I think a Labour government can make a change in society that we desperately need. And I’m determined to play a part in that next Labour government and fight for these causes that I passionately believe in.”
Image credit: Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Alan Shearman, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons