The Labour Leadership: Prescott wins respect as 'honest socialist': Colin Brown reports on changing perceptions of the MP who was a favourite target of Tory ridicule

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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT yesterday underlined his loyalty to the leadership of Tony Blair. Whatever rows they may have, he intends to keep them in private. 'It is going to be a co-operative. There will be a merging of their two offices,' one Prescott supporter said.

Mr Prescott will probably have a key role in shaking up the party's organisation and launching the mass membership drive that Mr Blair promised yesterday. But many of those who took part in his successful campaign will want him to be a driving force on economic policy as well.

Mr Prescott promises to be a powerful drum major for the new- style Labour Party, appealing to those parts of the Labour Movement that at the moment Mr Blair does not reach.

He was lampooned as a dinosaur at last year's Conservative Party conference. A huge screen showed the Labour deputy leader at his own party conference the week before, but his words were coming out backwards.

It had the Tory representatives weeping with laughter, and it is a piece of character assassination that is likely to be played again as the general election draws nearer. The Tories like poking fun at Mr Prescott.

Nicholas Soames used to joke about Mr Prescott's background as a merchant seaman on Humber ferries, and his time as a waiter. 'A whisky for me Giovanni, and one for my friend,' he once shouted across the chamber, when Mr Prescott was at the despatch box.

But increasingly Tories are praising Mr Prescott as an honest socialist. It may suit them to patronise Mr Prescott's working-class roots. By praising his political 'honesty', the Tories cast aspersions on Mr Blair's alleged lack of an ideological anchor.

However, the popular picture of Mr Prescott as the blundering bruiser from a long-dead age of socialism is as false as the Flintstone cartoons. It is true, as he is the first to acknowledge, that he has trouble with words.

His speech in support of John Smith to the Labour conference, cruelly ridiculed by the Tories, was a passionate, moving performance, putting those who saw it in mind of Aneurin Bevan. It was unscripted, and written down it looked incoherent. The Labour rank and file knew what he meant, and backed him in the vote.

That vote on One Member One Vote democracy in the party was the turning point for some on the left, against Mr Prescott. They include Dennis Skinner, who shared a flat with Mr Prescott at the London headquarters of the former National Union of Seamen.

But Mr Prescott's success yesterday showed that he has lifted his appeal beyond the narrow band of the hard-left purists. He has been a driving force behind policy modernisation in the party: he is passionately opposed to the privatisation of British Rail but seized the initiative from the Government over transport by arguing years before it became fashionable for BR to raise money for investment from the private sector. In his leadership campaign, he suggested council housing could be transferred to private housing associations.

The centre-piece of Mr Prescott's campaign was a commitment to full employment. At his opening press conference, he was caught into a commitment to reducing unemployment to 2.5 per cent or down to 700,000, from which he distanced himself as the campaign progressed.

More worrying for Mr Blair will be Mr Prescott's avowed support for progressive taxation. He believes the rich should pay more. The argument will be over the point at which taxpayers should qualify as rich.