The Young Fabians are proud to call Jess Asato one of our own. A long-standing member of the executive committee and Chair in 2003/04, Jess continues to support the organisation that became her first political home to this day- speaking at events, writing for Anticipations, and flying the Fabian flag as a member of the senior society executive.
As grateful as we are for her continued patronage, so Jess credits the Young Fabians for first inspiring her to get involved in politics.
“The first thing that made politics exciting to me and made me feel that I had a part to play in it was when I went to a Young Fabians conference on Europe in 1998. I remember being there and thinking: all these young people, like me, are standing up and expressing their views and talking about what they want from the European Union. I thought that was incredible, and seeing them do it made me believe I could do it myself. It gave me the kick up the bum to get stuck in,” she says.
That first kick has propelled her far- to the very threshold of Westminster. Jess leads in Norwich North over Tory incumbent Chloe Smith by a single percentage point. At number 67 on Labour’s target seat list, her race has totemic significance for the party. If she wins on a uniform swing, Labour will have a governing majority of one.
It’s a far cry from her first campaigning experience with the Camden Labour Party during the 1999 European elections. Jess recalls a “dingy office on a side street in Camden” where she and an army of activists spent their days printing leaflets and stuffing them into envelopes. “I was in charge of the risograph [a large printer for publishing leaflets] called ‘Big Bertha’ or ‘Big Bertie’ or something similar. It was my job to keep it running all day. Keeping my ears open in that office taught me so much about organising and I met some Labour stalwarts who taught me the ropes and gave me a feel for campaigning.”
These early experiences are serving her well on the streets of Norwich. The very fact that Labour is favourite to win in a seat it lost by 10 per cent in 2009 is a strong endorsement of the campaign so far. What’s Jess’ secret? “Localising the national,” she says.
“All the national Labour messages are resonating in Norwich. The cost of living issue is huge over here. We’re stressing how low wages are, how lots of people have to do two or more jobs just to make ends meet, and how so many lack the leisure time and resources to have a happy healthy life.
“We also link the government reorganisation of the NHS to the A&E crisis locally. That’s key, linking the national message to real local issues.”
Labour’s ability to connect with the public is intrinsically linked with its ability to put on a united front as a party, Jess adds. “We succeed when we adopt what Tessa Jowell has called ‘winning behaviour,’ when we all sign on to the idea of the Labour party as a broad church and focus relentlessly on winning, rather than looking inwards.” Without unity, Labour can just end up talking to itself rather than the people it was founded to represent.
What drives Jess on personally? An unshakeable belief that people’s life chances should never, ever be constrained by accident of birth, wealth, or health. “Our positions in life aren’t predetermined. I remember the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ which we used to sing at primary school. One of the verses goes: ‘The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate’. I was taught that but I didn’t believe that was how it should be.
“It was only when I started to learn about politics and learned about socialism that I understood there was a belief system out there that said everyone is born equal. There isn’t high and low- everyone deserves an equal chance to be the person they deserve to be and to use their talents.”
She recalls old school friends and acquaintances who had masses of talent but believed society had ordained that their role was to leave school early, “boys to the field and girls to the beauty parlour,” and never fulfil the promise of their potential.
“They weren’t taught to push for anything higher, because they were told they’d fail or that they’d let down their communities and that was selfish.
“I’m Labour now because we’re still the party that fights for the 99 per cent of people- working people. I look out the window and I see streets kept clean by working people, streetlights that are built and maintained by working people, pavements laid and fixed by working people. That’s who Labour is working and fighting for.”
The digital pamphlet ‘Fifteen for 2015’, profiling fifteen of Labour’s new candidates, is available to read online here.