Parliament and Politics: Subtle facets of a rough diamond: Nicholas Timmins interviews the Labour deputy leadership candidate John Prescott, the brassiest champion of the party's trade union link

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Indy Politics
IF JOHN SMITH'S progress in the Labour leadership race has been the most stately, Margaret Beckett's the most invisible and Bryan Gould's the most angst-ridden, John Prescott has plainly had the most fun.

Labour's favourite frontbench rough diamond has been in his element - stomping the country, rousing union conferences to ovations, lambasting Kinnock aides for being 'out of control', and frequently horrifying his rivals.

While some Labour frontbenchers have been muttering not-so-privately about the need for a divorce between Labour and the unions, it has been John Prescott who has been the brassiest champion of the link. It should, he says, be strengthened, not broken. The unions have informed Labour's values, brought it unity and strength, and provide the political drive for better working conditions that industrial action alone cannot produce. So what does he say to those who delightedly see the former National Union of Seamen official as the neanderthal wing of the Labour Party, defending the outdated? He snorts with laughter, produces an unprintable reply, and adds: 'Outdated values like what - winning elections, for example? There are people who say, 'He'll take you back to the Seventies', and I can't help saying, 'Well, we did win elections then'. The image wasn't confused, nor hidden by the rose. People voted for us.'

His defence of the trade union link turns out to be a lot subtler than crude headlines would suggest. For when he talks about strengthening it, Mr Prescott actually means weakening it - at least numerically. The trade unions themselves, he says, have 'in the main' accepted that the conference block vote will fall from 90 per cent of the total to 70 per cent. 'Some are talking about 50 per cent - so there is a keenness to maintain that block vote but reduce its imbalance.'

Behind the 'Prescott defends the unions' headlines, he has been talking quietly about turning levy-paying trade unionists into party members as part of his campaign for a mass membership - something that, by definition, would diminish the numbers the unions affiliate to Labour.

He has talked not just of reducing the size of the block vote but of splitting it - so that delegations would cast votes reflecting individual views both within their ranks and within the union membership. No longer would one man wave a card worth a million votes.

He also favours an option not formally listed in Labour's review, of having rank-and-file members, not the unions, electing the women's section of the national executive committee. That would mean about half the NEC being elected by party members - not less than a quarter, as at present.

Mr Prescott's 'modernised' links between Labour and the unions thus rapidly begin to look nothing like the status quo. What he is really talking about is 'a more equal relationship' - but one that he argues will be stronger because of that. 'I hear an awful lot about how the Labour Party needs to have distance between itself and the unions. But I think if some of those people understood the unions more, they would see equally the demand for more space for the unions from Labour.' At present, 'it's a David and Goliath situation with membership and money, which is exploited by our enemies and which we are forever defensive about'.

Numerically, he says, 'to have 90 per cent control of something is better than 50 per cent. But in the strengthening of a relationship, it is far better to have two equal and independent parties than a David and Goliath, where, whatever David says, he is believed to operate under the dominance of Goliath'.

Mr Prescott argues strongly that the unions have not abused their strength. 'If anything, they went missing over the last couple of years; they did everything aware of the price Labour might pay.' But their apparent dominance over Labour provides just one more reason for the Government not to talk to them.

The progressive emergence of still fewer and yet bigger unions - the electricians merging with the engineers, and Cohse, Nupe and Nalgo all planning to unite - make change all the more inevitable. 'Unless we get this relationship right,' Mr Prescott says, 'it will look more and more as though two or three people have decided the complete issue.'

It is not a one-way traffic. If the unions want to retain some voice through their party members in the selection of candidates, that will have to be looked at. He is reluctant to spell out what he would like to see, because as a member of the review group he shouldn't prejudge, and because 'I am open to the arguments'. But he says: 'While I might be represented as the trade union heavy in all this, it doesn't mean I can't think and argue about the openness of the relationship.'

When he sits on the committee, with its mix of trade unions and MPs, he says: 'I am going to be more influenced by the ideas people are putting forward about the future relationship than how many votes they represent around the table . . . Sometimes those of the same trade union background are less likely to be intimidated by the trade union rhetoric because they are from that very machine itself. History teaches us that is the way change often comes . . .'

(Photograph omitted)