The ex-Deputy Prime Minister is back on the hustings again, but party politics are far from his mind. By Oliver Wright
It would be fair to say there are two professions Lord Prescott does not hold in high regard. The first is the police, which has tempted him back into electoral battle at the age of 73. The second is journalism.
So it is with some trepidation that I head to Lord Prescott’s home city of Hull to meet the former Deputy Prime Minister, a few hours after he announces he intends to become Humberside Police’s first independently elected police commissioner.
But when we retire to a local café he is in good spirits – lambasting corrupt policemen, newspaper editors and their arrogant proprietors.
First off, though, why on earth does he want to take on a full-time elected office again at the age of 73?
“I am not a slippers man, for God’s sake,” he shoots back. “My wife said to me, ‘I thought you and I had ended with all this stress of your job’. I said, ‘what stress? I’ve lived with that all the time.’ She said, ‘no – you’re going to be home six or seven days a week – it’s my stress I’m worried about’.
“Now we’ve had a serious discussion about it because I think she thought that when I was finished in Parliament it was time for slippers up, and now and then have an interesting journey somewhere. But I can’t do that – “I’d die in my slippers. So I’m back on my campaign bus, going around villages and towns.”
So what about the accusation that having opposed the policy (along with his party) he is now somewhat hypocritical to be standing for the new job with its £70,000 salary?
“I never supported the policy and neither did the party because we thought there was not a big demand for it,” he says. “We were also not happy with the basic principle of putting the police under political control as well. But, you know, the Government decided it was coming in and I recall I voted against the Common Market and still worked in Europe.”
One of Lord Prescott’s motivations for the job, he says, is to try to impose some accountability on the police, of whom he generally has a low opinion.
While the noble lord is quick to make a distinction between regional police forces such as Humberside (which he respects) and the Metropolitan Police (which he doesn’t), he makes it quite clear that a Commissioner Prescott is not going to be taking a back seat. “The police always argue that [many things they do] are a matter of operations and politicians should not be involved. Well, I’m afraid I have a big argument with that.”
He cites the case of the 2006 police raid on a street in Forest Gate in east London. “At one stage the police were going to turn out all the residents of the street at 2 o’clock in the morning. John Reid was the Home Secretary and I was working with him. Andy Hayman, who was in charge, wanted to turn them out and I said to John Reid: ‘No, you can’t do that.’
“He said: ‘John, it’s operational’. I said: ‘Sod operational – there are political considerations here.’ Turning out a street of Asians at 2am with the allegations of a gas plot and we don’t know what the evidence is for that. I am not against the police running the organisation, but there are times someone should just say: ‘Hang on. I don’t think that’s right. Convince me about it.’ In that case, as we now know, one person was shot and was eventually found quite innocent.”
So when was it that he first started to take such a dim view of the police?
“I’ve always thought the Met Police were questionable,” he says. “Twenty years ago, I remember looking at how many police officers retired from the Met – for obviously very funny reasons. And they kept their pensions and nobody ever got sacked. We’ve been through four or five commissioners who said they were going to change that and nothing’s happened.”
But it is the phone-hacking scandal that most angers him. Earlier this month he finally received an apology from the Met for failing to inform him over a period of years that his phone had been hacked. This only happened after a judicial review. “The police were lying to me for five years – I just think to know it’s a lie and to continue doing it is open contempt. They took a gamble that they could get away with it and that’s contemptuous.”
But what about the big political picture? How does he think Labour is doing under Ed Miliband?
He has been heartened by the way Mr Miliband has taken on the bankers and Murdoch but, thinks the party needs to do more to communicate in new ways. “You’ve got to find a new way of talking to young people. There is no good knocking on doors,” he said.
So when he returns to the campaign trail – as much on Twitter as on shoe leather – what will he say to voters who remind him of his own brush with taking the law into his own hands with his famous punch during the 2001 election? “Somebody suggested on Twitter that my campaign slogan should be ‘A left hook for the crooks’.” He laughs. Then, perhaps fearing even i will take this out of context, adds: “It won’t be, by the way.”