Prescott is leading light in Labour’s use of new media

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Indy Politics

When Tom Watson, the internet-savvy former Cabinet Office minister, logged onto Facebook last Christmas, he was shocked to find a message from a new online friend. “Be afraid,” read the note from John Prescott. “I’ve got a Blackberry.”

Since then, at the tender age of 71, Mr Prescott has become an unlikely leading light in Labour’s use of new media, helped every step of the way by his son, David, who co-ordinates his use of blogging, Facebook and Twitter. Though the former Deputy Prime Minister admits to having been “a bit sceptical” at first, joining Facebook was a revelation. “All of a sudden I had 5,000 friends,” he said. “I’ve never had 5,000 friends in all my life.” It was not long before he realised its potential. Soon after joining the social networking site, he told his Facebook friends that he would be around in Sheffield for a chat before a party fundraiser. When he arrived at the venue, 200 people had turned up for a quick word.

It was his army of online followers that helped him make a crucial decision – whether to buy an iPhone or a Blackberry. “I asked them which I should get,” he said. “One guy came back and said, ‘Well, get them both, John – you’ve got two Jags'.” In the end he opted for a Blackberry. “I found the iPhone a bit too sensitive,” he explained. “You press one thing and two things come up.”

Sceptical users who believed that Mr Prescott was not really behind his growing online profile were soon trying to catch him out. One challenged him to use the words “coconut shy” in a forthcoming interview, a feat he managed with relative ease. “It’s important that people believe it’s really you,” he said. “Secondly, it’s important you are a character – I think I can accept the character role. You have to use humour, too, which I like.” The height of his success came with a campaign against bonuses for executives at Britain’s bailed-out banks. His online petition attracted 30,000 signatures and earned him a meeting with Stephen Hester, the head of RBS.

He is now using the technology as a quick rebuttal system, similar to the tactics pioneered by Alastair Campbell in the mid-1990s. “I can do a video blog and in 15 minutes it can be on the BBC,” he said. “We did that after a protester threw green custard over Peter Mandelson. Now that’s a whole new world altogether.”

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