Paid-up member of the awkward squad

Kenneth O Morgan takes a long view of Labour's great survivor

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015