A seaman of hidden depth

Fighting Talk
March 21, 1997

Like much else in his life, John Prescott's entry into further education was far from straightforward. Classed as an 11-plus failure, he left school at 15 without an O level to his name and it was only while working as a waiter on cruise liners that he undertook the correspondence courses from the Workers Educational Association which finally qualified him for a place at Ruskin College, the trade union movement's "finishing school" or staff college.

But even then, as a stroppy shop steward, he was denied a grant by his union, the National Union of Seamen, which he and many others at the time regarded as being too close to the employers for its own or its members' good. Nor was Tory-controlled Cheshire County Council keen on providing its rate payers' money to educate a seafarer whose ambition was to become a union official. So, on the advice of Raphael Samuel, a tutor at Ruskin, he applied to Cheshire again - this time backed by 30 people who affirmed that Prescott's aim in life was to become a teacher.

When he told this story to the TUC General Council at a meeting last month, he added that the Cheshire Tories, having been alerted to this subterfuge - probably as a result of Colin Brown's book - were now considering asking to have their grant repaid, on the grounds it had been obtained under false pretences. It would not be the first time the Tories had plotted against Prescott, and it would certainly not be the first time he had suspected them of doing so.

Prescott is one of the great characters of modern British politics. His high speed, combative speaking style earned the Member of Parliament for Hull East the sobriquet "The Mouth of the Humber". It gave Brown his title "Fighting Talk" and it was memorably captured in Matthew Parris's Times sketches - quoted at length by Brown - in which Parris describes how in one speech the former seaman boxer had "gone several rounds with the English language and left it slumped and bleeding on the ropes". There are some indications that the deputy Labour leader would like to leave his newspaper critics in a similar state. But it says much for the man that he can mock his own troubles with syntax along with the best. And for all the unorthodoxy of his speaking style, you always know what he means and there is never any doubt about the clarity of his thought or the quality and originality of his thinking.

Prescott has been variously portrayed as a Disney character: Thumper to Tony Blair's Bambi; the former seafarer who provides the old Labour anchor to prevent Blair's new Labour ship from drifting on to the rocks; sour John to complement Tony's sweetness; the hard part of a hard man/soft man partnership and the rough of a rough/smooth combination. The Blair/Prescott combination also carries some echoes of earlier Labour double acts. Harold Wilson had his George Brown - for a while. And Clem Attlee relied on the Prescott-type qualities which Ernest Bevin brought to the postwar Labour government. Brown highlights both comparisons.

But there is far more to Prescott than the easy caricatures or historical parallels. He is nothing if not his own man. The rough street fighter also wooed the wealthy passengers as the cruise liner's "Hollywood waiter". The working class hero, who once shared a flat with austere Dennis Skinner, drives a Jaguar and lives in an eight-bedroom house - known in Hull as Prescott's Castle. Most significantly, this old Labour stalwart was one of the first to advocate bringing private finance into public transport.

But the key to understanding John Prescott lies in his trade union past when as a young shop steward he faced opponents on two sides - the employers and a quiescent union leadership. Prescott was a thorn in the management's side. More than once he led his fellow crewmen in a dispute over terms and conditions and more than once he was sacked. Yet one of the first occasions on which his oratorical skills were put to the test was not in support of a strike but calling on his fellow seafarers at a mass meeting at Liverpool's pierhead to accept an offer, as the best they were going to get and to return to work. Knowing when to urge people welded together in a sense of solidarity that they have got as much as they are going to get and it is time to cut losses and go back to work is one of the most difficult but most valuable skills in a union leader's armoury. Prescott's ability to do that and to do it effectively at a young age demonstrated a mature pragmatism that sets him aside from your average activist. He can explode and he can rabble-rouse with the best. But he can hold his tongue and he can do the smooth talking.

Brown's portrait of Prescott is much like the man. It is full of detail and some surprises. We are told Peter Mandelson's appointment as Labour's director of communications owed much to Prescott's glowing reference. There is praise for Prescott from some unlikely quarters - Michael Heseltine and Alan Clark both offered their own warm words on occasions.

The years of transition under Neil Kinnock's leadership are shown as a difficult time for Prescott and despite their many similarities he was far less at ease with Kinnock than he was with John Smith or is with the very different character of Blair.

Brown's work is more one of journalism than scholarship. Like a Prescott speech it runs at a pace and sometimes the joins show. The same phrases to describe Prescott's Westminster office occur again and again. And there are some factual howlers. A former lobby correspondent of the Yorkshire Post might have been expected to know that the town of Beverley, where Mrs Prescott buys her dresses, is in East Yorkshire not North Yorkshire and that Grimsby is in Lincolnshire not Yorkshire. The reference to Kevin Keegan playing for Liverpool in days of Yosser "Gizza Job" Hughes appears at odds with the fact that he left the club in 1977.

But none of these is in the same league as the description of Ken Gill playing a key role in the "One member one vote" debate of 1993 - Prescott's finest hour to date according to Brown and others. In fact Gill had by then been retired from the MSF union for more than a year.

Brown claims Fighting Talk as "the biography of John Prescott" and it is that assertion I would question more than these errors of fact. Within months the chances are that Prescott will hold one of the highest offices of state. I believe, and I think this book shows, that he has all the quality to make a fine minister. Indeed I would go so far as to say that he could yet rate alongside Ernest Bevin, his hero from his early trade union days, as one of the great Labour ministers of his generation. There is still much of the Prescott story to be written, or, as he would probably put it: "you ain't seen nothing yet".

John Monks is general secretary, Trades Union Congress.

Fighting Talk: The Biography of John Prescott

Author - Colin Brown
ISBN - 0 684 81798 5
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Price - £15.99
Pages - 344

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