Prescott declares for middle classes

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Political Correspondent

Now that Tony Blair has made it safe to admit to being middle class in the "new" Labour Party, the first out of the closet is . . . John Prescott.

In the wake of Mr Blair's American speech defining Labour as a centre party for middle-class people, Mr Prescott admitted yesterday that he no longer regarded himself as working class: "I was once, but by being a Member of Parliament, I can tell you, I'm pretty middle class."

But he denied he had sold out. "We're not selling our soul. We think we can be fair to middle class or working class. We want to be fair between them all," he told the BBC's Today programme.

Although Mr Blair has not publicly provided any figures, he has allowed his definition of "middle-income Britain" to be set for him on his American trip. He complained to his New York business audience that people who are "hardly rich" pay the top rate of income tax. This comes in at about pounds 30,000 a year, while he did not deny suggestions that he wants to guarantee no tax rises for anyone up to pounds 40,000 a year. This income bracket just happens to include Mr Prescott on his MP's salary of pounds 34,000.

Mr Prescott, long the angry voice of working-class socialism, barely containable on Labour's front bench, was never quite as working-class as he sounded.

His father, Bert, was a railway controller, and, although his mother Phyllis comes from a solid Labour Welsh mining family, he was brought up in a leafy suburb of Chester.

His agent, Harry Woodford, a Hull city councillor, said: "I don't care what bloody class anybody is as long as they vote Labour. John is a great constituency MP and he lives in the heart of the constituency."

What Mr Woodford did not say is that Mr Prescott and wife Pauline live in an ivy-clad detached house and the local Labour committee meets in his front room. And, although he says he always buys them second-hand, he drives a Jaguar.

Maggie Smith, who lives on the Sutton estate near the Prescotts' house, said: "He's like nobility round here, let alone middle class. He's a lovely man and it doesn't matter what class he is he does a great job and it shouldn't matter how he sees himself socially."

But not all former left-wingers accept the bourgeoisification of Labour so easily. Chris Mullin, MP for Sunderland South, was the only member of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs to vote for Mr Blair in the leadership election. But Mr Blair's ruthless appeal from America to the top tax-paying classes was too much for him. Yesterday he said Labour should not "pander to the greed and myopia of that section of the middle classes whose votes brought Mrs Thatcher to power".