Prescott, John


Prescott, John
▪ 1995

      In an era when politicians in many countries were becoming as bland and manufactured as processed cheese, many people took special pleasure in John Prescott's election as deputy leader of the U.K.'s Labour Party in July 1994. Prescott's robust manner, working-class roots, and trade union background provided an ideal foil for the party's new leader, the middle-class, Oxford-educated lawyer Tony Blair.

      Prescott was born on May 31, 1938, at Prestatyn, North Wales. His grandfather was a coal miner; his father a railwayman. After leaving school at the age of 15, Prescott worked for two years as a trainee chef and then as a steward (1955-63) on Cunard Line passenger ships. He became active in the Labour Party and the National Union of Seamen. In March 1966 he stood unsuccessfully for the House of Commons. Three months later he helped to organize a seamen's strike, although Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson condemned the "tightly-knit group of politically motivated men" behind the strike.

      Wilson's rebuke, however, did nothing to prevent Prescott's being nominated for the safe Labour constituency of Hull East, which he won in 1970. Prescott displayed many of the traits of a left-winger, notably in his opposition to the U.K. membership in the European Communities. He was never a standard, bash-the-party-leadership left-winger, however, and by 1981 he began to distance himself from the far left. In 1983 he backed Neil Kinnock's campaign for the party leadership and was rewarded with a place in Kinnock's shadow cabinet. In 1988 relations between the two men came close to a breaking point when Prescott unsuccessfully challenged Kinnock's incumbent deputy, Roy Hattersley, for his job.

      After Labour lost the 1992 general elections, Kinnock and Hattersley stepped down, and Prescott stood again for the deputy leadership. He was defeated by Margaret Beckett but soon established a rapport with Labour's new leader, John Smith. (See OBITUARIES (Smith, John ).) In the fall of 1993, Smith entrusted Prescott with making a speech to close the debate on reforms to the party constitution. Prescott's syntax and grammar were terrible, but his passion swayed a number of undecided votes, and he was deservedly given the credit for the victory.

      When Smith died suddenly in May 1994, Prescott ran for both leader and deputy leader. Blair won the leadership easily, but Prescott defeated Beckett for the deputy leadership by 57-43%. He quickly proved an indispensable ally to Blair, supporting him in his policy initiatives and launching a campaign to overhaul Labour's organization and increase its membership.

      (PETER KELLNER)

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Universalium. 2010.

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