Katy Balls Katy Balls

Jonathan Ashworth: ‘We are at risk of a lost generation’

Jonathan Ashworth (Getty)

Jonathan Ashworth has started carrying a card in his shirt pocket. It’s the licence his father was given when he got a job in the 1970s at the Playboy casino in Manchester. ‘It’s silly, really. But it’s just a reminder that my dad was able to start a job as a croupier from a very poor working-class background in Salford and that completely changed his life,’ the shadow work and pensions secretary says when we meet in his Commons office. It was at the casino that his father met Ashworth’s mother – a Playboy bunny girl working as a waitress. ‘Every week, the Playboy bunny girls had to queue up and had to be weighed by the head of the bunny girls. Isn’t that awful?’

Scales aside, Ashworth, 44, says his childhood taught him early on of the importance of employment. ‘The point is: they were working-class. I’m from a working-class background but these jobs meant they could do so much in life. They could build a home. They could start a family, they could even afford a package holiday to Torre-molinos in the early 1980s… Giving people a chance just opens so many doors. It’s why I am so angry that there is such a casual attitude to this. So many people are just being written off and not being given an opportunity to make the most of themselves.’

Ashworth is referring to the 5.3 million people in the UK who are currently on out-of-work benefits. The pandemic destroyed any progress the Tories had made in cutting the number, and while government talks about reform now, Department for Work and Pensions projections expect the disability benefit problem to get worse. A speech Ashworth gave at the Centre for Social Justice in January caused panic in No. 10 because he sounded like the Tories back when they attacked the Labour government ahead of the 2010 election – the last time the out-of-work benefit figures hit five million.

‘If you want to grow your economy and raise living standards and stabilise inflation, you’ve got to get more people into work,’ he says.

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