Prescott makes merry as man of people

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Indy Politics
"We've got Mr Soames, now there's a man. He's that walking food mountain you see on TV. Mind you, I shouldn't talk too much ..."

The speaker pushed his hair from his forehead, and his jowly features into a sly smile, and waited for the laugh. The delivery may have been pure Les Dawson - but the words were pure John Prescott.

In the second week of his "Prescott Express" nationwide tour of 90 key seats, the deputy leader of the Labour Party was working the crowds with the professionalism of a veteran cabaret performer. Whether he had, as was rumoured, been "exiled" to the regions to prevent him from saying something too blunt for the spin doctors, or whether he was simply deemed the best person to bring new Labour's message to a cynical electorate, there was no doubt he was playing to his strengths.

Striding out of the reach of his ever-changing team of minders, Mr Prescott appears determined to keep the scent of stage-management from his dealings with real people.

Donning a server's hat to dole out meat pies to pensioners, or bringing terror to his advisers' faces by donning a toy policeman's hat in front of toddlers and photographers and asking "What am I if I've got this on?", Mr Prescott certainly does it his way. Just as plain-speaking Clare Short has been redeemed in the eyes of the electorate, the deputy leader's manner elicits an unusual level of warmth. Gemma Layton, and Jacqui Bednarek, both 18, from Leighton Buzzard, spent some time discussing with him Labour's plans for education. "He's not high and mighty at all," they said. "He's down to earth. Not like that John Major."

And did they trust him? "Yes".

It is the issue of trust that Mr Prescott is pushing hard, capitalising on a continuing barrage of Tory sleaze allegations. Everywhere he travels, Mr Prescott is handing out "pledge" cards and signing them. These outline Labour's early pledges for class sizes, young offenders, NHS waiting lists, youth unemployment and the economy (and the means of financing them), and they are headlined: "Keep this card and see that we keep our promises."

The cards are a key feature of the tour. "The signature is a personal thing. We're hoping it will help build trust," Mr Prescott says. "There's a lot of cynicism around and we're coming to areas where you very rarely see politicians, during elections or otherwise."

Indeed, the looks of incredulity that greet Mr Prescott in Northampton or the departure lounge of Luton Airport, suggest this may be true. One teenager who had his pledge card signed hissed at a friend: "That's the leader of the Labour Party."

To drive home this theme, Mr Prescott in his first rally on Tuesday night opened with a rounding attack on Tory sleaze. Speaking largely off the cuff, he captivated an audience of locals and party members at Parklands Community Centre, Northampton, as he rapped with lively and seamless political oratory.

But while drawing easy laughter on the subject of William Waldegrave's tribulations over the arms-to-Iraq affair, or Neil Hamilton's "bad judgement", he gets questions from voters in reply that are not about sleaze, but the issues that directly affect them - pensions, education, unemployment and crime.

The answers they get appear to satisfy. Mr Prescott is, he keeps saying, only going to be "realistic". He won't promise what he can't deliver. Sometimes he is quite blunt, but were the message coming from anyone other than this apparently belligerent, bluff Northerner one wonders whether they would take it so readily.