Jonathan Ashworth gratefully accepts a cup of tea when he arrives at the warm and welcoming Pallion Action Group in Sunderland, thankful to have escaped the morning downpour that marks his visit to the city as part of Labour’s local election campaign.
There can be no doubt as to the message Labour will hammer home in these council elections, in what will be another key test for Keir Starmer since he became leader two years ago.
The cost of living crisis is biting hard across Britain, sending the price of oil, gas, petrol and food soaring. An inflation rate of 7% is steering the country towards the worst fall in living standards since the 1950s, and the Conservatives stand accused of not doing enough to provide immediate relief to struggling households.
The picture being replicated across the country is stark: millions of people are unable to feed their families or heat their homes. Many are falling foul of loan sharks for a temporary respite, and then spiralling even further into debt.
It is a reality the workers at the Pallion Action Group know only too well.
The community centre, which was set up in 1993, is stepping up where, arguably, the state has failed to step in — offering money, debt and welfare advice to local residents who are struggling like never before.
Before the cost of living crisis hit, the centre would help on average 100-200 people per month. In February, that number rocketed to 500. Even pensioners — whom they say are traditionally “too proud” to ask for help — are starting to relent.
A lot of those bearing the brunt are in work, community worker Sam Ayre explains.
“If you earn a certain amount, then you don’t get help with your council tax or your housing— so you might only just be over that threshold [under Universal Credit],” she says.
“So basically, you’re going to work and you’ve got very little to spend on leisure things.
“We’ve had families where the parents haven’t been eating because they’re feeding their children instead.”
Ayre talks of one case where a man was sleeping on his sofa in a sleeping bag because he couldn’t afford to have the heating on in his house.
“He was in debt with his gas and electric company, so with some funding we had, we actually paid his bill for him, which was £600,” she says.
The situation is so bad that some of the workers receive desperate telephone calls at 12am from some contemplating taking their own lives.
Ashworth, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, has spoken openly about his own experience growing up in poverty. His father was an alcoholic while his mother literally counted the one penny and two penny coins.
Sometimes, he would be forced to go to school with holes in his shoes. When he asked his mother why she didn’t get a job, her response was that she’d be “worse off”.
It’s a point made among the workers at the centre, who say people do the calculations with Universal Credit and find out “they can’t afford to live if they get a job”.
The government has repeatedly stressed that getting people into work is the best route out of poverty, and that changes to the national insurance threshold included in Rishi Sunak’s spring statement will help the poorest households.
But Ashworth notes that this doesn’t come in until July, and argues that even when it does, if you’re on Universal Credit, the 55% taper rate means you will only receive about half the benefit of the increase in the threshold.
“It astonishes me that there is no real help coming from the government,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“The welfare state should be there to support the vulnerable. The safety net should be there to offer people support in times of hardship.
“It’s supposed to take the shame out of need, and actually you’ve got a situation where families have got to make choices between feeding themselves or feeding their children or feeding their electric meter.
“I’ve got nothing but total admiration for the volunteers and the staff here…but it just tells you how desperate things are. There’s real hardship.”
One aspect of the welfare state he has set his sights on is Job Centre Plus: a vehicle that was originally designed to get people into work but has ended up as a means to punish them, according to Ashworth.
He pledges that if Labour gets into power it would reform the system to take the emphasis away from sanctions and on to delivery, using local councils to help to that end.
One local worker says there has been a “real push” to sanction people at the centre since the pandemic restrictions eased, while there is also pressure to get a certain number of people in for face-to-face interviews despite many of them not being fit for work.
The DWP insists that people are only sanctioned if they fail to meet certain conditions and that the sanctions rate remains below pre-pandemic levels.
When asked to compare his experience growing up to the stories he has been hearing, Ashworth says he believes things have got worse since his childhood in the 1980s.
“What I think is extraordinary is that this is worse than the Thatcher years,” he says.
“Child poverty is going to be higher.
“In the Thatcher years, unemployment was high, but if you got a job, you could lift yourself out of poverty.
“People in work are in poverty because wages do not stretch, your pay packet does not stretch anymore, and you are faced with these huge bills for energy, transport, petrol and now the prices are going in the shops as well.”
Ashworth spent six years as shadow health secretary, serving under Jeremy Corbyn and then Starmer.
His move to work and pensions surprised some, given his reputation as a steady pair of hands during the Covid pandemic and his survival under two very different leaders.
However, he is keen to dispel any suggestion he resented being moved, stressing his “passion” for the new job.
“I’m shadowing the biggest government department and the biggest budget, and yet they could be doing so much more to help people in desperate need,” he says.
“I’m not sure how happy my staff are because it feels like we went from being all out on the pandemic to being all out on the cost of living crisis,” he jokes.
“But I quite like being out there campaigning.”
Coinciding with the fallout from partygate — and the fact that the prime minister and chancellor have now been fined for breaking lockdown rules — the thinking is that at this point in the electoral cycle, this set of polls should prove fruitful for Labour.
But Ashworth strikes a more modest tone.
“I think people are looking again at the Labour Party,” he says.
“We obviously went through an absolute monstering in the general election — which some of us predicted,” he laughs, a possible silent reference to the time he was caught on tape saying voters “can’t stand” Corbyn.
“What we are doing is we are putting forward, I think, sensible solutions to help people during this absolutely desperate crisis such as Rachel Reeves’ proposal on the windfall tax on energy bills.
Asked whether he thinks the party will gain seats across the 146 councils up for grabs, Ashworth’s answer is heavy expectation management.
“I’m not a psephologist and we take nothing for granted,” he says.
“I’m not an expert on which seats are up and so on, and I’ve seen different pollsters arguing different things.
“What I do know is that this cost of living crisis is dominating everything.
“About six months ago, I was raising in our shadow cabinet that inflation was back in the system and this is going to cause all kinds of problems in 2022, which is why I was so keen and happy to move into this new portfolio because I could just see that this was going to become the dominant issue.
“Whether that translates into local elections results I don’t know, but we are fighting very hard for every single vote.”
Ashworth says Starmer is doing “brilliantly” and that under him, the party has made “tremendous progress”.
“It’s been a sticky wicket of course, because for the first two years we were in a pandemic where we couldn’t meet in person, and it’s always difficult in a pandemic because you’ve got to act in the national interest but also hold government to account where you can.
“As I know from every media interview I did over that period, I would get emails having a go at me for supposedly not being supportive of Boris Johnson and emails hammering me for not screaming about Boris Johnson.
“It was an unusual time in British politics but I think he navigated it well.”
One issue that may crop up for Labour and Starmer is that while there might be widespread annoyance with the government over issues like partygate and the cost of living, this might not necessarily translate into votes for the opposition. Voters instead might be so disaffected with politicians as a class that they don’t turn out for any of them.
Ashworth is quick to seize on this.
“I don’t think people are disaffected,” he explains. “I think people are angry over partygate and that anger is still there, despite all the Tory bravado and bluster trying to dismiss it.
“There is anger about the tax increases and the little help that has been on offer to get people through this crisis.
“I don’t think people are apathetic, I don’t think people are fed up of it it all.
“I see it in people’s faces, I feel it in their handshakes — there is a yearning for change.
“People want something different.”