The Right Honourable John Leslie Prescott (born May 31, 1938) is a British Labour Party politician who is presently Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State. He is also MP for Hull East. He is well known for the mangled syntax that he often employs while speaking. He became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party after coming second in the Labour leadership election in 1994, and became Deputy Prime Minister after Labour's landslide victory in the 1997 General Election. A former ship steward and trade union activist he is often seen as the working class conscience of the "New" Labour party dominated by modernising middle class university educated professionals. Alternatively he is seen by some as having little real influence within the Blair government despite his elevated title.
The son of a railway signalman (and Labour councillor) and grandson of a miner, Prescott was born in Prestatyn in Wales and brought up initially in Brinsworth in South Yorkshire. He attended Brinsworth Primary School, where he sat but failed the Eleven Plus examination in 1948. His family moved to Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, which meant he would attend the Grange Secondary Modern School. His younger brother, Ray, passed the eleven plus, to John's annoyance. This bitterness of experience of differences in success would perpetuate for many years. He became a steward in the merchant navy, working for Cunard, and was a popular left-wing union activist. He then went to the independent Ruskin College in Oxford and gained a degree in economics and economic history at the University of Hull.
He returned to the National Union of Seamen as a full-time official before being elected to the House of Commons as MP for Hull East in 1970. From 1974-79, he concurrently served as an MEP and Leader of the Labour Group, when its members were still nominated by the national Parliaments.
Prescott held various posts in the shadow cabinet, but his career was secured by an impassioned closing speech in the debate at the Labour Party Conference in 1993 on the introduction of "one member, one vote" elections for the party leadership. The support of an old-school unionist like Prescott helped swing the vote in favour of change. When the party first voted for its leadership under the new system, following the death of John Smith in 1994, Prescott became deputy leader. He became an important figure in Tony Blair's "New Labour" movement, as the chief representative of "old Labour" interests at the Shadow Cabinet table, and a reassuring presence for critics of the project.
Deputy Prime Minister
With the election of a Labour government in 1997, Prescott was made Deputy Prime Minister and given an impressively large portfolio at the head of the newly created Department for Transport, Environment and the Regions. He pursued an integrated public transport policy, though his reputation as a friend of public transport was hardly helped by his love of large cars, which gained him the nickname "Two Jags". The "Two Jags" epithet is a play on the Monty Python sketch, Arthur Two Sheds Jackson.
While attending the Brit Awards in 1998, Chumbawamba vocalist Danbert Nobacon poured a jug of iced water over him, saying "this is for the Liverpool Dockers". Dock workers in Liverpool had been involved in a two-year industrial dispute - a strike that had turned into a lockout - until a few weeks earlier.
Prescott has on occasion been described as a Champagne socialist. In 1999 an official chauffeured car was used to transport Prescott and his wife 300 yards from their hotel to the venue of the Labour Party Conference, where Prescott gave a speech on how to encourage people to switch to public transport. Giving the reasons for this Prescott stated:
Because of the security reasons for one thing and, second, my wife doesn't like to have her hair blown about. Have you got another silly question?
The 2001 General Election campaign was marked by an incident when Craig Evans, a protester in a crowd, threw an egg at Prescott, who responded with a left jab, hitting the protester. A scuffle developed and the two had to be separated by Prescott's police minders. The incident, overshadowing the launch of the Labour party manifesto on that day, was captured by television crews, and frequently replayed during the campaign, causing the name "Two Jags" to be temporarily replaced by "Two Jabs". However, a NOP poll found that the incident appeared to do no harm to Prescott's reputation, and might even have benefitted his standing among male voters. After the election his "superministry" was broken up, leaving him with much reduced responsibilities. In the reshuffle that followed the resignation of Stephen Byers in 2002, he regained many of his former responsibilities for local and regional government, which were moved to a newly-independent Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
Prescott is publicly identified as a supporter of regional government in England. Early in his term he introduced regional assemblies (consisting of delegates from local authorities) to oversee the work of new Regional Development Agencies in the standard regions of England. Following Labour's second election victory he pressed for the introduction of elected regional assemblies which would have seen about 20 members elected under a similar electoral system to that used for the Greater London Assembly. However, due to opposition the government was forced to hold regional referendums on the switch. The first three were intended to be in the North East, North West and in Yorkshire and Humberside; the referendum went ahead first in the North East (where support was felt to be strongest), but resulted in an overwhelming vote against. The plan for elected regional assemblies has not made any progress since then.
Prescott's conduct of his Department has been criticised in relation to housing development. The Department believes that the rising number of households especially in the south-east means that new houses need to be built to accommodate them, and given that there are insufficient 'brownfield' (currently developed) sites for the houses, that some greenfield (undeveloped) sites must be used including some in the Green Belt. Prescott had made a gaffe in 1998 when he declared "The green belt is a Labour achievement, and we are going to build on it".
In the North of England, Prescott has approved the demolition of some 200,000 homes that are judged to be in 'failing areas' as part of his Pathfinder Regeneration scheme. In some cases these areas are abandoned, in other the communities are resisting.
Rebellion over education reforms and 'Class War' remarks
On the 17 December 2005, Prescott made public his disapproval of Tony Blair's plans to give state schools the right to govern their own finances and admission policies, and to increase the number of city academies. Prescott, who himself lost out on grammar school tutelage on the basis of the controversial 11-plus examination, said that the move would create a two-tier educational system that would discriminate against the working classes. In an interview that was the first that Prescott has made against Blair since his election as leader in 1994, he also said that the spirit of 'fighting class' should be brought back to the Labour Party, an ideal that sits uneasily amongst many middle-class MPs in his parliamentary party.
Confused speech patterns
Prescott has gained a reputation in the British press for confused speech, mangled grammar and syntax. This may be because he suffers from dyslexia. One example of this is an impromptu speech given in Witham, Essex during the 2005 election campaign:
Look I’ve got my old pledge card a bit battered and crumpled...we said we’d provide more turches churches teachers...and we have I can remember when people used to say the Japanese are better than us, the Germans are better than us, the French are better than us, well it’s great to be able to say we’re better than them. I think Mr Kennedy, well we all congratulate on his baby, and the Tories are you remembering what I’m remembering boom and bust negative equity remember; Mr Howard I mean are you thinking what I’m thinking I’m remembering it’s all a bit wonky isn’t it?”
It is notable that like United States President George W. Bush, Prescott's speech problems usually occur when he is speaking off the cuff and not from prepared notes.
The Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart once commented that "every time Prescott opens his mouth, it's like someone has flipped open his head and stuck in an egg whisk". An oft-quoted but unverified story, quoted in Jeremy Paxman's The Political Animal, is that before being accepted as transcribers to Hansard, applicants must listen to one of Prescott's speeches and write down what he was trying to say.
On 12 January 2006, Prescott apologised after it was revealed that the council tax for the government flat he occupies at Admiralty House was met by the public purse, rather than by Prescott himself. He repaid the total amount (which came to £3,830.52 over nearly nine years).