Labour Party Conference: The Sketch - Memory lane revisited in rugged splendour of Big John's Country

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BEFORE JOHN Prescott came on for his conference speech we were first given a bit of Baldrick, who appeared on the podium screen as the delegate for Dunny-in-the-Wold and invited us all to the grand Labour centenary bash that evening. He had high hopes for this event, he said, indeed he "might even get a snog off John Prescott".

Before Mr Prescott had spoken I might have guessed that he would be grateful even for so malodorous a gesture of affection. After all Tony Blair had yesterday singled out transport as one of the must-try-harder areas for Labour in government, and even as the Deputy Prime Minister rose to the podium, transport difficulties in London were making a mockery of the Archer-like ebullience of the headline on that day's official conference newsletter: "Now Britain's Really Moving". He needed some kind words. By the end of his speech, though, it was pretty clear that Mr Prescott could scrub Baldrick from his dance card; he had no shortage of admirers here.

Working out why was a bit more difficult. True, Mr Prescott is a shameless wielder of the conference's most reliable rubber mallet - the pretence that any well-worn achievement is actually box-fresh. Even as the words "I can announce" are leaving his lips you can sense the collective tendons twitching. Then, as soon as the sentence is finished, the knee-jerks and the hall erupts, whether the announcement is new or not. You could probably apply the technique to almost any social advance of the past 200 years and still get the same result: "I can announce," the speaker would say, voice trembling with radical achievement, "that under this Government no child will ever have to climb a chimney again!" His final words would be inaudible beneath the explosion of collective pride.

But surely even party loyalists would be disappointed by the lack of substance to his speech and its curious blindspots. Anyone, for example, who had been looking forward to the prospect of Mr Prescott's ministerial limo picking its way through the multiple pile-up of recent transport disasters would have been disappointed. He simply spotted the congestion ahead and diverted to a scenic ring road - announcing, in one of the few genuinely novel revelations of his speech, that he would be creating two National Parks in the South Downs and the New Forest.

It was only then that I understood the secret of his genuine appeal to the party activists. Mr Prescott has been declared a National Park himself, an enclave of unspoilt countryside protected from the slow suburban creep of Blairite modernisation. No split-level Third Way bungalows here, wired up to the electronic highway. No clearance schemes, demolishing the traditional you-up, me-down terraces of working men's housing in favour of a new science park and leisure centre. This is a region that will be preserved for generations to come, so that delegates and their children can share in its rugged splendour.

Like any National Park it may be a place that you'd rather visit than live in full time - it lacks the conveniences of urban life, the little compromises that make existence easier. But even if you don't visit very often it's nice to know it's there - an unmanicured wilderness, unmarred by the presentation tailors and factory-farm ideology production units. Here ancient folk skills linger on - the art of Tory bashing, the deft and authentic references to socialism. Delegates loved their day-trip, cheering and whistling as the time came to go back home again to the humdrum but necessary grind of contemporary life. And it was probably only then that they would remember that Prescott Country also shares a less attractive quality with the most popular National Parks of Britain. It's usually surrounded by traffic jams.