Prescott prepares European offensive: Labour's deputy leader defines his role in the run-up to the next election in an interview with Colin Brown

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The Independent Online
IF JOHN PRESCOTT is worried about suggestions that he, not Tony Blair, is about to become the main target of Tory attacks, he is not showing it. Brushing aside suggestions that he will be the butt of an autumn ministerial offensive, Mr Prescott intends to put himself at the head of Labour's campaign on Europe, both at Westminster and in the constituencies.

In his first full newspaper interview since being elected Labour's deputy leader, Mr Prescott revealed he is concentrating on a new co-ordinating role on Europe which could have important implications for the party.

He told the Independent that he would not be taking up a departmental portfolio at Westminster, but he intends to speak in the Commons on European issues.

Mr Prescott, who voted against Britain joining the Common Market, now believes Labour's commitment to Europe proved a vote-winner in the European elections, and will win support at the general election.

The Euro-sceptics in the Labour Party may fight the leadership, but Mr Prescott said Europe was crucial in delivering full employment with improved workers' rights under the Social Chapter. He reiterates the policy set out by John Smith that Labour would reserve the right to hold a referendum if the 1996 Inter-governmental Conference supported further steps towards European federalism.

He will concentrate on co- ordinating Labour campaigns and policy development for the next election manifesto.

The seats Labour won at the European elections, including Kent, will be used as a springboard for winning more seats in the South in the Westminster elections.

Mr Prescott said he was committed to using his position as deputy leader to bind the Labour movement in Britain with allies in Europe, including European trade unions and Members of the European Parliament.

'I would be free of a portfolio in the departmental sense. These are the details we are working out on the parliamentary side. But what we have generally agreed is the deputy leader can have an integrated responsibility on Europe, as well as an organisational role. The two come very much together. This is a very important and significant development in the Labour Party's thinking, of how we have organisation tied to the politics of ideas.

'These ideas have considerable consequences right through our party structure. We are having a major shift in thinking away from treating European policy as a subdivision of the Foreign Office. We are giving it a major boost in our organisation.'

His Westminster office, overlooking the Commons, has been busy with calls. In one corner is a coal-black clenched fist, with the word 'Hull', his constituency and the port where he was a seaman, inscribed underneath.

Mr Prescott laughed off the Tory strategy of attacking him as the power behind the Blair throne, resistant to change. 'If there's any strings being pulled, it's going through the party machine, and arguing the case . . . If it comes to being a dinosaur, my ideas about private financing on transport have just been accepted by the Government, and yet for years they were telling me I was out of my time. Now they are pinching my ideas.'

As a warning to Tory Central Office, he said the press had not uncovered much against him during his leadership campaign, in spite of a media onslaught. 'They thought I fought an intelligent campaign. All the studies in the Tory Party show that I am a lot more popular than they thought I was.'

What battles does he expect to fight with Tony Blair? 'I don't think any. The Labour Party voted for a leadership team, that was more of a team than any previous leadership . . . Sometimes on things like one-member, one-vote there might have been differences but it was for the party machine to decide. Now, as deputy leader, I have the privilege of internal discussions between us to influence decisions.

'I like change and argue for change. People say I was not a moderniser. I would claim that the modernisation that took place with the unions, if you look at the block vote, it was the unions who were the first to suggest it.'

He is passionate in his belief that Labour should not cut its links to the unions. The pounds 3 levy for trade union members to become members of the Labour Party and take part in party ballots is seen by Mr Prescott as a way of fulfilling his goal of widening Labour's membership, particularly in the southern seats.

Does he not fear the southern voters, attracted to the Blair image, will be put off by traditional Labour policies? 'I don't believe they are put off by the idea that the National Health Service should be properly funded, or that the railways should have more investment. I think our traditional values are more relevant.'

He insisted Labour would not 'run away' from pledges to full employment, the centrepiece of his leadership campaign, and the Social Chapter.

True to his word on loyalty to the leader, he refused to make any commitment about tax rates. 'I think on taxation, it's right for people to say when the time comes, we will enter into that debate. The Liberals have made a contribution, but two years before an election is not the proper time.'

(Photograph omitted)