The show goes on: bring back Prezza

by Kevin Meagher

John Prescott was supposed to have gone to seed with the passing of the Blair era. His future lay in regaling well-heeled passengers on cruise liners about his forty years in Parliament. But the old sea dog keeps coming back into port. So much so that his retirement from the frontline is barely discernable.

Labour’s Emeritus Deputy Leader has been busy. He led the Go Fourth campaign to get Labour ready for last year’s general election. He has become an unlikely star of Twitter, supplying a constant stream of characteristically pithy opinions. In fact, he has transcended politics altogether and entered popular culture.

He had a cameo role playing himself in the BBC comedy Gavin and Stacey. Then he popped up presenting a documentary about class with wife Pauline. Now he’s sending himself up in that advert for a price comparison website (which he says helps fund his office in the House of Lords).

And when he’s not busy leading the charge against AV, he’s rattling cages about the phone-hacking scandal; jousting on Channel Four’s zeitgeist-y 10 O’clock Show the other week with former News of the World hack Paul McMullen.

Some retirement. But there’s not much effort involved. Prescott’s secret is that the words coming out of his mouth are the same as the thoughts in his head. That nanosecond between brain messages forming into words is detectable to the electorate. They know that politicians apply a filter before saying anything. They sense they are not being told the unvarnished truth. That’s why all MPs are bunched together in the public’s mind as conniving charlatans.

Prescott, however, is treated differently. He is defiantly unvarnished, temperamentally unspun; so he gets marks for telling it straight. The irony for Labour is that a so-called people’s party has produced precious few populist figures like Prescott over the years. Harold Wilson. Ken Livingstone. Denis Healy (to a degree). It’s a short list. But there’s never been a shortage of eminent economists, or smart solicitors. Characters that can make a popular connection with the public, however, are much rarer among Labour’s ranks.

Of course, Prescott is remembered for making a connection with the electorate in a more literal way during the 2001 general election campaign. Specifically, a well-aimed left jab to the mush of a lout who pelted him in the face with an egg during a visit to Rhyl. Despite the best efforts of a po-faced section of the media to whip-up the incident into a resignation issue, he rode out the storm.

And why wouldn’t he? Prescott reacted in exactly the same way that any man with blood in his veins would have done in similar circumstances: he popped his assailant one. Good on him.

Of course, Labour needs to win over floating voters who are said to dislike displays of partisanship. However, expecting politicians not to be partisan is like expecting rain not to be wet. Prescott is an uncompromising Labour tribalist. But Labour needs to galvanise its core supporters too. It needs to convince millions of ordinary people struggling to get by that Labour is still their party. It needs to show that people who sound like them and speak like them are still on the bridge of the ship with influence over the party’s direction. Prescott helped to do that for 15 years. There is no-one performing the same role today.

But he was no mere token. As any reading of the slew of memoirs from Labour grandees during the Blair-Brown years attests. Prescott was Kofi Annan between warring Blairite and Brownite tribes. He was the peacemaker who helped keep Labour’s show on the road. But he was a competent minister and
creative policy-maker too. The use of private investment to finance infrastructure projects – a cornerstone New Labour policy – was first suggested by Prescott when he was Labour’s transport spokesman before the 1992 general election.

He was also a fantastic shadow minister. Prescott knows how to do opposition. As shadow employment secretary in the mid-90s he was the last Labour frontbencher to lead the charge against Tory-inspired youth unemployment.

He knows how to make noise, have an opinion and put it across. Robustly. Prescott establishes dividing lines as soon as he pulls his face. Labour frontbenches are always full of decent and industrious people. But being effective in opposition requires chutzpah too. A willingness to sock it to the opposition. To rally your own side. To exploit tactical opportunities. It’s not rocket science; but so few do it well.

As deputy leader, his annual end-of-conference speech was a treat; part Vaudeville, part fixed-bayonet charge against his hated Tories. A masterclass in geeing-up your own side. All parties need those moments. Much as he would hate the comparison, Michael Heseltine performed a similar role for the Tories.

British politics needs more characters like Prezza and Hezza. And Labour certainly does. It is doubtful Luck and Flaw would use much latex on half of the current shadow cabinet. Not a criticism per se, but simply a recognition that there has been a significant changing of the guard on Labour’s frontbench and it will take years – literally years – for many of the party’s new generation to have a fraction of the brand pull that Prescott still has even now.

It’s hardly surprising. Twenty years of media training has turned our entire political class into a bunch of weathermen: careful, non-committal, unobtrusive ciphers; struggling to pitch complicated information at a lay audience. Prescott shows that not being media trained is the new being media trained. His convoluted streams of consciousness might have public schoolboy sketchwriters sniggering behind their Mont Blanc fountain pens, but he gets his points across nevertheless. And of all the adverse criticisms that can be levelled at John Prescott, insincerity is not one of them.

Clever positioning and iron discipline are cornerstones of modern political opposition. But they can rub along happily enough with a dose of populism. Labour can afford to wear its heart on its sleeve a bit more. It can show a bit more righteous indignation at the government’s performance. It can crack the odd gag. Tweak the odd ministerial nose. Show that politics takes place on an emotional as well as cerebral level.

Politicians who end up as national treasures are usually living off past glories, desperate for respectability and validation for the decisions they made in their heyday. But John Prescott is still out there in the field. Mixing it up, taking the fight to his opponents, calling it as he sees it.

He is clearly not going to go quietly into the night, so there’s only one thing left to do.

Put him back in the shadow cabinet.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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8 Responses to “The show goes on: bring back Prezza”

  1. doreen ogden says:

    “Put him back in the shadow cabinet” Yes please ! Real Labour .

  2. Really great article, and so true.

  3. Tom barker says:

    Great article, I totally agree, bring him back now !

  4. Tim Sewell says:


  5. iain ker says:

    Yes please, put him back in the shadow cabinet.

  6. MG says:

    Very, very good article, Kevin!

  7. Kevin Meagher says:

    Thanks folks. Any other suggested returnees from the great political retirement home?

  8. paul barker says:

    I want to destroy Labour & I agree – bring him back !

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