Labour Norwich candidate Jess Asato speaks to the Norwich Evening News
PUBLISHED: 12:27 28 September 2012
For most Labour supporters Christmas 1997 was a bigger celebration than usual; the Tories had been demolished at the recent election and Tony Blair's shining new government approached its first full year in office.
But for at least one new party member, life had just become a lot more uncertain. Jess Asato spent her Christmas Eve waiting for a train at Norwich station that year.
At age 16 she had just taken the decision, the most difficult of her life she says, to leave the home she had shared with her grandmother since being a young child.
“Life wasn’t easy. I lived in Norfolk until my teens and I was effectively her carer. She had quite serious health problems,” Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Norwich North told the Evening News. “Many young people across the country are carers and they’re very much unheard and ignored; trying to balance your school work and all the other things you have to do and having to look after someone at the same time, it’s almost impossible to do.”
It was her childhood that informed her future political views; living on benefits under a Conservative government that she says “starved” state services of money, wondering where money for food would come from each day and how bills would be paid.
As she looked around her neighbourhood, Rollesby in Great Yarmouth, she became angry at what she saw as a lack of opportunity for the brightest amongst her peers; so the arrival of Tony Blair, a man she saw as a “fantastic visionary”, could not come soon enough.
That summer had seen her vote for the first time and shortly before the election she applied to be a party member, inspired by the New Labour project.
It is in reminiscing about that time that she allows herself to speak passionately about Blairism. Ask her about the political groupings in Ed Miliband’s Labour and she is more cautious.
That is probably partly because of her association with Progress; a think tank with a strong links to Blair that she was acting director of. Over the summer, unions tried to ban the organisation from the Labour party, a move which threatened to open up divisions between Labour’s right and left wings. Asked about the think tank, she said she was not interested in “political labels”; that Progress is mostly focussed on “boring things” like campaign techniques.
But pushed she adds: “I’m very clear that I believe that Labour needs to be in government because Labour in government helps the people that I care about the most; the most disadvantaged, the poorest, the vulnerable.
“[That means] ensuring that we’re in a position to be electable rather than simply playing to our base, which is small groups of people on the left. That is not viable to form a broad-based coalition which is what we did in 1997.”
After leaving her grandmother, she contacted and went to live with her mother. Having come from Flegg High School, in Great Yarmouth, she now found herself at the all girls private school, Francis Holland, in London.
From there she went to Cambridge to study law, which helped her realise it was not in being a lawyer, but a lawmaker, that she could change the world.
On graduating she married her first husband, an “impulsive” decision she says, that led to the pair getting divorced shortly afterwards. She then married her second husband at age 26 but tragedy struck when he died of a heart attack in 2008.
The Labour candidate is more comfortable talking about people she wants to help than herself. She highlighted how the Norwich Food Bank, a group providing food for those struggling to afford it, now helps ever larger numbers due to welfare cuts. She said: “Think about the indignity people have to endure by receiving tins of beans and Spam, simply because they can’t make ends meet. It’s an absolute travesty that this is happening in this country.”
That situation leads the candidate to her opponent, Conservative MP Chloe Smith; someone she wants to “expose” as a member of the government making cuts to charities, rather than the constituency MP who supports them. She said: “Chloe Smith needs to reconcile herself with the fact that she is a member of the government and she is creating all of these problems.
“She has been a huge supporter of the Norwich Food Bank, which is fantastic and well done to her, but people do feel it’s slightly hypocritical that she’ll gather food but not actually change the policy that is forcing people to go to the food bank in the first place.”
For her part Ms Smith dismissed the attack, saying it was “sad for someone turn it into a political football”.
But with just two days before Labour conference kicks off, the focus for now will be on Ms Asato’s party. She says Ed Miliband has done well to set Labour’s “intellectual direction”. Now she wants more.
She said: “We need something over and above that and I’ll be looking for more meat really, because we want to be a one-term opposition. I think we need to provide people of a sense of what we would do in government now.”