Scotch pies and ciabatta on the Prescott Express

Labour's deputy leader woos the almost-forgotten council estate Labour voters with the appearance, if not the promise, of socialism
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Until the final question of the evening, John Prescott was doing well. The community centre was low-ceilinged and grey, paint peeling off in layers, but as he spoke its meeting room seemed to glow with the occasion. Mr Prescott was in Northampton last week, on a council estate at the edge of town; a cold dusk was settling across the football pitch outside; yet in here, under the strip lights, a hundred pairs of eyes never left him.

He started with quips, fast and automatic as a stand-up: "Mr Major's happy to stand on his soapbox..." Pause. "He's not prepared to stand on his record." Ten minutes in, Mr Prescott's voice began to leap. His hands loosened on the lectern, began to wave and jab. He repeated lines, catching each block of seats with his gaze as he did so. And as sentence blurred with stirring sentence, and word with word, and syllable with syllable, Mr Prescott stepped from behind the lectern and advanced, perceptibly, towards his audience.

Then the woman asked her question. She was middle-aged and well-dressed and wanted to know about state pensions. Would Labour raise them or not? Mr Prescott, she said, had sounded sympathetic without making any commitment. He listened, until the answer poured out of him: "John Smith promised that in 1992. He was honest... and the Tories said we'd spend pounds 30bn." He stepped further forward, feet away. His stare had become a glare, a flash of anguish beneath it. "We've been beaten four times, and we're not going to be beaten a fifth!"

The evening had always been a slight risk. In rhetoric, as in accent and demeanour, John Prescott still bellows Old Labour. Aneurin Bevan's vision for the NHS, the desperate need for a minimum wage, Sheffield's free buses for pensioners - these had been his speech's best-delivered sections. There are benefits for Labour in this. In Northampton, in front of single mothers and serious young men and pensioners with manual workers' tans, Mr Prescott's applause grew louder as his hints about utopia grew prouder.

For the last two weeks, he has been bellowing in Labour's "key seats", the 90 constituencies the party calculates it must capture, chugging from meeting to walkabout in a bull-nosed bus called the "Prescott Express". Mr Prescott's task is a delicate one, though. Contrary to appearances, the Labour Party still needs the votes of socialists. The support of the Volvo classes may already be secure in the leafiest market towns; but without the party's loyalists on the council estates, all those exhaustively wooed swing voters would make no difference. Then again, anything too radically promised in a small hall in Northampton could end up on hundreds of Messrs Saatchi's Tory billboards. What Mr Prescott must provide is the appearance of socialism.

Last Tuesday, he did so expertly. The Prescott Express slid into Welwyn Garden City at noon, a great grey shape among the redbrick semis so carefully spaced out in an earlier, more idealistic era. The sun was catching the cherry blossom; Mr Prescott wore a smile that did not match his pinstriped suit. He barrelled into an old people's home. Lunch was being served.

Some of the pensioners were already lining up plum stones on the rims of their bowls; Mr Prescott shook hands and said hello. Others were still waiting for their first-course stew; within two minutes Mr Prescott was behind the serving hatch in a chef's cap. He ladled the stew with the easy action of a veteran. Then he saw another opportunity: on the hot- plate another dish sat untouched. "I'm going to have one of these Scotch pies," Mr Prescott shouted through the clatter. He picked one up, yellow and dry, and popped it on a plate.

The pie became his passport to every corner of the dining room. Mr Prescott pointed to it and gestured with it. He chewed and talked at the same time, a little piece of pastry clinging to his lower lip. With each bite, the barrier between resident and visitor disappeared: old ladies touched his arm, old men smiled and made pledges. "This was not planned," said one of Mr Prescott's slim young minders from party headquarters. "He's natural!"

Mr Prescott was still buzzing on the bus afterwards. What had been the purpose of the visit? "For me to get pies." What was the Tory majority in Welwyn? "About a 5.8 per cent swing." He leaned across the conference table installed at the back: "I've got a personality that people like to meet... You're exploiting an image they've seen on TV. People meet you, then they go to their pub or club and tell other people about it."

Mr Prescott may do more than 5,000 miles in his bus between now and 1 May. "I can sleep anywhere," he said, as it pulled on to the main road with a gentle rolling motion, like one of the ships he once served on in a light sea. The bus used to belong to Paul Weller, a socialist rock musician; now it has been segmented for politics: mobile phone holders at the front, powerpoints for laptops in the middle, desks and curtains for privacy at the rear. The name was Mr Prescott's idea. He opened his diary to show off his jottings. "Vote Catcher" and "Road Runner" had not made the grade.

Observers of the Labour Party's internal politics might have other suggestions. Sending Mr Prescott to the provinces, it has been said, may be as much a means of sidelining his charms as promoting them. Last Tuesday, he denied this: "I don't not do anything I want to do... My press people are in Walworth Road, at the press conferences. They tell me what's gone on." But could he be both a policy influence and "a personality"? Mr Prescott mentioned Denis Healey. "I would not like people to think I'm just a nice man." The flat fields of Bedfordshire drifted by. "I want to see if I can become the kind of minister people remember. Or whatever Tony wants me to be."

The next day, Mr Prescott's personality was not quite enough. Luton airport was cold and nearly empty. He began bouncily, making the security guards laugh by the main gate, but once inside the terminal's hard bright spaces Mr Prescott's energy seemed to dissipate. There was no din to plunge into, no mess of humanity to handshake and backslap, just check-out desks and the odd traveller in a hurry or a trance. When Mr Prescott approached one, the man asked whether Labour would permit over-mighty trade unions. "That's all scare rubbish," said the deputy leader, and moved quickly on. The next man wanted a comment on Northern Ireland. Mr Prescott offered justifiable criticism of the Government's closeness to the Unionists - except that two IRA bombs had exploded that morning. The Conservatives were passing around Prescott's quote within hours.

He was late to Lincoln for his next public appointment. More journalists were waiting this time, with questions about gaffes and re-briefings on Ulster from London. Mr Prescott walked into his next community centre with eyebrows down and a trace of his harassed grin from the airport. His minders seemed to be shepherding, not restraining. He spoke without fire.

But it did not matter. Mr Prescott saved the evening, in the end, by simply saying "Vote Labour". Two decades of waiting crashed around the hall as applause. On the chilly pavement outside an elderly lady said, "He's super. Better than Blair. A working man." Her voice was sure. "We'll be putting a poster up."

And on the bus, after he had brushed away the gaffe questions, Mr Prescott had the chance of a small reward. On the food shelf, between austere portions of roast vegetable salad and filled ciabatta, there were three Tupperware containers, labelled "Cakes". The slices inside were thick sponge, shrink- wrapped and heavy with cream.