Stop going on about women's rights, Prescott tells Harman

John Prescott has unleashed an outspoken attack on Harriet Harman and blamed a lack of talent for Labour's failure to communicate a clear message to the public.

In a frank interview on the eve of Labour's crucial annual conference in Brighton, the former deputy prime minister said that a lack of direction from the top had left the party wallowing in defeatism.

He told The Independent that the Government had no clear campaign strategy which left it reliant on somehow producing a desperate "knock-out punch" in the "last round" of the fight to win the general election.

He warned that Gordon Brown was being poorly advised and that Lord Mandelson was the only major figure left organising the Labour fight behind the scenes. "There is no direction in campaigning – we are drifting," he said. "You ask yourself, why did we get in the Gurkhas situation? That would never have happened before. So there's a feeling in the party that, somehow, we're not getting a grip on it. There is something lacking."

He accused Ms Harman, his successor as deputy Labour leader, of spending too much time championing equalities issues. "I think the deputy leadership role is for going out and campaigning," he said.

"I suppose, if I was being honest about it, I think too much of the emphasis has been on female rights, which I have supported all my life, and we're not getting other messages across. Most of it is about the equality issue. It is very important, but it is not our biggest campaigning issue, whatever they say about it."

Ms Harman and Labour's election co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander, were not motivating the party and accused the leadership of "hiding behind a lack of money" to fund a campaign strategy, which meant that David Cameron was "not being challenged". "Those who have responsibility for campaigning – it is not reaching out to the depths of the party," Mr Prescott said. "I don't believe, neither will I accept, it is simply about money. We've got a whole bank of MPs who should be out there, doing that job.

"I worry somehow that we've been in a 15-round fight. We're just losing the other rounds when we shouldn't and it's almost getting to the stage where we have to win with a knock-out. There's got to be leadership and there's got to be a message. If we don't get that, then we won't get the knock-out punch in the last round. And we are in the last round."

A lack of experience within Labour's team of special advisers was "an increasing problem", he said, but MPs needed to do more. "We've got a whole bank of MPs, but everybody seems despondent. There's too much defeatist thinking. There's no central direction to campaigning.

"Look at the European elections. We decided we were going to lose it, so we did nothing. My main worry is, are we about to do the same thing again?

"What I cannot understand about our position is that I don't know of any other Labour government that has got as superb a record as this one. Given all its blemishes, given all its difficulties, whether it's on the economy, public services, hospitals or the minimum wage, we can talk about how we turned things around since 1997."

Mr Brown was the right man to lead the party into the general election: "We can still win because we've got the man with the big, clunking fist. But it cannot be just one man making a speech. It has to have direction. I was hoping that would happen last September, but it didn't. And I do worry that it might not happen again. But we don't have any options left."

Labour lacks strategists of the calibre of Alastair Campbell, Philip Gould and Jonathan Powell, who led the party to victory in 1997: "We would have a reply within minutes of a story coming out. Alastair had a good smell for that. These people were exceptional. I don't think the same talent is around today."

Mr Prescott said that Lord Mandelson, who has become the de facto deputy Prime Minister under Mr Brown, was the "only one making a real campaign" for the Government.

"Peter was always the core of that team. We've got individual ministers saying things about their departments, but there's no overall message."

He criticised the former pensions secretary James Purnell and the influential backbencher Jon Cruddas for spending too much time with think-tanks, rather than knocking on doors: "They're a bloody party of whiners, when what we want is a party of campaigners."

Mr Prescott said that he believed Rupert Murdoch had turned decisively against Labour, comparing The Sun's treatment of Mr Brown to its campaign against the party's former leader, Neil Kinnock. The day of the 1992 general election, the paper ran a headline declaring: "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights".

"They have decided that is what they're going to do," Mr Prescott said. "They've gone back to that. They want to be able to say, 'We led the change'."

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