Paid-up member of the awkward squad

Kenneth O Morgan takes a long view of Labour's great survivor
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Fighting Talk: the biography of John Prescott by Colin Brown, Simon & Schuster, pounds 15.99

John Prescott, crowd-pleaser in the ring and on the platform, has become the improbable linchpin of New Labour. Measured against the typology of Labour leaders, he is instantly identifiable. His passion, his syntax, his body language, embody the style of the classic working class. In a movement mostly led by middle-class professionals, from the Webbs to the Blairs, he follows in the grand old tradition of Jimmy Thomas, Ernie Bevin and George Brown as the Labour front bench's token proletarian.

For most of his 59 years, he has been a paid-up member of the awkward squad. Always, he battled against "metropolitan values". He became a seaman, waiter to the capitalist passengers on Cunard liners and (not surprisingly) a militant leader of the Seamen's Union. Even in his student days, at Ruskin College, Oxford and then Hull, sympathetic tutors like Raphael Samuel and John Saville found him combustible. In the House, he was a Tribunite and Bennite. On the Shadow Cabinet he clashed with Neil Kinnock over taxation and unemployment. Even as deputy leader, he stands apart, the one front-bench figure identified as an Old Labour socialist. His hero, we learn, is Oliver Cromwell, and Prescott could be seen as Labour's Roundhead. But Cromwell was no Leveller, and Prescott is no puritan.

Despite excursions into pop journalese (Rodney Bickerstaffe becomes "a Buddy Holly lookalike"), Colin Brown's book offers helpful insights into New Labour's leadership. It shows that Prescott's politics were fundamentally pragmatic. Although on the left, he was never of CND; on Europe, he was sufficiently positive for James Callaghan to offer him a Commissionership. He was never one of Labour's virgins, cherishing their purity in the wilderness.

Prescott and his flatmate Dennis Skinner (another Ruskin product) steadily went their separate ways. Prescott's role model was Ernie Bevin, Attlee's right-hand man. Thus, at the critical conference in 1993, he saved John Smith's bacon over OMOV (individual voting by members). Like Bevin, Prescott has always wanted power. Three more months and he will get it.

Brown's book shows up the false distinction often made between Old and New Labour. Of course, the party now rejects the neo-Marxism of constituency zealots and the union anarchy of the "winter of discontent". ButPrescott forms a bridge between the Wilson-Callaghan years and today's more fluid politics.

Then as now, Prescott was looking for alternatives to nationalisation.

He accepted the demise of Clause Four. More originally, in the early 1980s, he promoted English regional government. Earlier than many, he fought for greater democratisation, including trade-union ballots and a much wider party membership.

Parodied as an unsophisticated Rambo figure, he has in practice been a force for continuity and cohesion. This fact was first blurred by his bad relations with Neil Kinnock, and then by spin-doctored attempts to dismiss the entire history of the Labour Party. But, like Everest, it is still there.

What is different is not what Prescott says but where he comes from. Almost single-handedly, he symbolises Labour's living roots. Despite the flamboyance - Jaguars and Ronnie Scott - he combines new ideas with a history that remains essential to a Labour election victory.

If he is given a real job and his temperament stands the strain, he could become our most important working-class politician since Bevan: New Labour's unlikely instrument of Socialism in our Time.