The rise of the Ashfield Independents
Standing in front of Nottingham Crown Court, with 24 sexual abuse charges against him dropped at the eleventh hour, Councillor Jason Zadrozny could never have imagined he would be where he is today.
Last week, his Ashfield Independents Party pulled off one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Nottinghamshire’s political history.
They swept the board, winning by staggering majorities in former Labour heartlands which were untouchable just a few years ago.
His unlikely band of councillors – from former Liberal Democrats to ex-UKIP members, and wealthy businessmen to single mums – took the council by storm, winning all but five seats.
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But just a few years earlier, he was battling depression, having lost his dad and his relationship after he was falsely accused of historical sex abuse as he was on the brink of becoming an MP.
When he was arrested, his father had a heart attack and passed away. When he was released from custody, the television cameras were waiting outside his house.
His life had been “completely turned upside down”.
By his own admission, this would have finished the careers of most politicians.
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But he says doorstep politics and helping constituents was “all he had”, as he fought for 900 days to clear his name.
Now, less than two years after all charges against him were dropped, his political career is stronger than it has ever been.
He knew his party thought they would do well in last week’s election, but had “no idea” of the scale with which they would win.
He says: “It was remarkable. I’ve never seen an election like it; those sort of incredibly clear victories.
“We had candidates getting 90 per cent of the vote. We were 23,000 votes ahead of Labour.
“I never thought it would be like this. It’s been genuinely overwhelming.”
It was announced in October 2017 – on the day his trial was due to be held – that the prosecution had no evidence at all to put forward, and his name was completely cleared.
He says: “It damaged me a lot. It took a massive toll on my family. I mean my dad didn’t have a heart attack for no reason. I was arrested, he had a heart attack and died. He was 60.
“That was a massive thing to deal with mentally. It was 900 days before they finally told the courts they had no case to answer. That’s mental torture.
“If I wasn’t such a pig-headed sod, I would have crumbled, and I had some really dark days with that.
“It’s the worst thing anyone could say about you, so getting over that was tough. It was hard.
“I’ve got broad shoulders, I’m happy to put myself above the parapet, but a politician is a human being at the end of the day.
“I’m happy to take some flack – but not that. It’s a toll on your family that people don’t realise.
“My world had crumbled; I lost my relationship, I lost my dad, I lost 10 years of a career in a blink and I didn’t know what was happening.
“It just crumbled, for something I didn’t do. I had no control over it at all. It was horrific and it just went on and on for years.
“So it was utter torment. The only thing that kept me going was the public.
I stood in a ward, Larwood ward, and I had nothing else to do in my life at that point, so I banged my name down on a thing and said ‘you know me, I live here’, and they voted for me.
“The messages I got with people supporting me, and the friends I’ve got here at the council, they all rallied around me and supported me because they knew it couldn’t possibly be accurate.
“They all put their political careers on the line as well, so you can’t give up then, even if you want to at your worst bits.
“If you thought for a second it might be true, that they might have a bit of evidence, you would have folded away, but when you know it’s not right, you just have to prove yourself.”
Now, in the aftermath of his party’s dramatic win, he says there had been a “perfect storm” in Ashfield.
Coun Zadrozny says: “There was a movement in Ashfield.
“There was a mood that was very different. So we obviously did something right and I think it was talking common sense in an open and frank way, apologising when we got things wrong, explaining why we hadn’t fixed the world overnight.
“Ashfield people are good, salt-of-the-earth people who respect you when you’re honest with them and I think that’s been rewarded overwhelmingly.
“There’s an enormous anger about Brexit and this enormous distrust of politicians. On the flip side of that, we’ve been able to genuinely re-earn people’s trust, candidate by candidate, town by town, and show that if you’ve got local people like them who genuinely care about making this place better than what they found it, that this council election mattered, and they could trust us.
“That’s where we had almost a perfect storm.
“We had people so angry with one thing, and then we were able to cheer on something so positive.
“Labour are all but wiped out. When I came in, in 2003, there were 28 Labour councillors. Now they’ve got two.
“It’s going to be tough, we’ve got budget cuts to come, but there’s a huge amount of work going on.”
Asked whether he thought he would be the next MP for Ashfield – the seat is currently held by Labour’s Gloria De Piero – the 38-year-old says: “I’ve had literally thousands of messages since the election, a lot of them asking me to stand.
“I’m confident the Ashfield Independents could win the MP seat. That’s been proven now.
“However, I’ve only ever wanted to stand for Parliament if I thought I could dedicate myself to it and do it properly, and I’m not sure depending when it falls, that’s for me.
“We’ve got 800 members, we’ve got 30 odd councillors who are all very good, so we will definitely field a candidate. Whether that’s me or not I’m just not sure, because it depends when it is and whether I feel I can dedicate myself completely to it. I don’t want to do it unless I can do a good job.”
At the end of the interview, he rolls up his sleeve, revealing a tattoo of a wolf on his left forearm.
Grinning, he says: “Thrown to the wolves, comes back leading the pack.”