Belfast Telegraph

These 'ermine vermin' only wanted to win the rat race

By Eamonn McCann

John Prescott always fancied himself as a bit of a bruiser and must have believed he'd landed a knock-out blow when he told my friend the late Paul Foot in the course of a Right (Prescott) versus Left (Foot) debate: "What would you know about it, anyway? I'm a former seaman, you come from a long line of toffs.''

Which was true enough. Paul was grandson of Liberal grandee Sir Isaac Foot and son of Hugh, last governor of Cyprus and, as Lord Caradon, UK ambassador to the United Nations.

"Then we have one thing in common, John," Foot shot back. "We have both betrayed the class we came from."

The exchange came back to mind last week as I looked over the political memoirs of the former Labour deputy leader, Prezza: Pulling No Punches.

Elected for the seafaring constituency of Hull East in 1970 mainly on the strength of rank-and-file union militancy, Prescott bolted from his background, buying a house "once owned by some rich merchant ... It was huge with eight bedrooms and lots of turrets". From then on, he used his working-class credentials mainly as leverage to lift himself up the political ladder.

None of this would matter much - just the old story of radical principles turning to dust upon the attainment of office - were it not that Prescott's account of how he ripped himself free from his roots says something about Labour that's still relevant today. It seems not to have occurred to Prescott that some he'd been associated with would see his behaviour as reprehensible.

He describes an encounter during the 2002 fire-fighters' strike - when he fronted the Blairites' assault on the union - with an old friend he'd been at sea with whose son was on the picket line. "His dad told me I was a f--g sell-out, letting down the workers when I was supposed to be a union man."

Was he embarrassed, ashamed, defiant, regretful? None of the above, it seems. Questions of applause or opprobrium didn't arise. It wasn't that he'd come to believe in ideas which contradicted his youthful convictions, but that he'd come to believe in nothing at all.

The underlying assumption is that society isn't divided any longer into classes or separate interest groups but has become an undifferentiated mass to be appealed to, not on the basis of any coherent ideology but according to the whim and fashions of the moment. Advocating "the new pragmatism" in the Independent last week, shadow minister Tessa Jowell explained: "In so many aspects of our lives our way of life is converging. We buy our furniture at Ikea, travel with Ryanair and watch X Factor at the weekend." So 'tribal' politics have to be put in the past, to be replaced by the politics of whatever you're having yourself.

There's an insight here into what lies at the heart of Blairism. In his own book, A Journey, Blair candidly admits he'd been a closet Thatchetite all along. Harold Wilson and Ted Heath had made "an evolutionary attack on trade union privilege" when "only a revolutionary (attack) would succeed. And she had the character, leadership and intelligence to make it happen".

Why then had he joined Labour back in 1975 rather than the Conservatives? Well, there was "their stuffiness, their pomp, their worship of tradition ... their baggage, airs and graces". Not a mention of their ideas. He hadn't joined the Tories because Thatcher hadn't yet arrived.

Likewise, Peter Mandleson tells in The Third Man that Labour under Neil Kinnock should have denounced the miners' strike of 1984/85 from the outset and had been "on the wrong side" in the confrontation between Rupert Murdoch's News International and the print unions in 1986. Thatcher had got it right in both instances, he reckons.

Mandleson was never more at home than when hob-nobbing with the super-rich, especially on yachts.

Blair made a bee-line for the honey-pot the day he left Downing Street, trousering £237,000 for a speech to Chinese developers, £240,000 for a "motivational address" to entrepreneurs in Barcelona, £2m a year for "advising" Wall Street bank JP Morgan, £500,000 a year from insurance giant Zurich etc., etc.

Prescott has joined what he'd once described as the "ermine vermin" of the House of Lords and taken to the lecture circuit to supplement a ministerial pension of more than £1,000 a week. He is currently starring in TV ads for Money Supermarket.

Their aim has never been to change a society divided into haves and have-nots but personally to make it into the ranks of the have-lots. You don't have fixed beliefs for this purpose, just to purport to believe at any point what's most likely to aid your ascent.

Anybody who pins hopes on the emergence of another Labour government to stave off job losses and cuts is ignoring the key lesson of the last 13 years - that Labour generates leaders who have no unbending principles but who rather go rigid in the presence of riches.

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