The Strange case of John Prescott

It's amazing how people change. And it's even more terrible when you forget your roots. This is surely the case with poor old John Prescott, once National Union of Seamen firebrand, and now "responsible" statesman and minister in charge of the Labour Government's stand against the just demands of Britain's firefighters.

"Take the gun away from the head that there's going to be a strike, because that's not the way to negotiate." JOHN PRESCOTT

It's amazing how people change. And it's even more terrible when you forget your roots. It always leaves a bad taste in the mouth. This is especially the case when a poacher turns game-keeper, and you end up defending the indefensible. This is surely the case with poor old John Prescott, once National Union of Seamen firebrand, and now "responsible" statesman and minister in charge of the Labour Government's stand against the just demands of Britain's firefighters. At that time, Prescott was on £13.76p for a 56 hour week, a bit less than his present salary as deputy prime minister of £124,000 a year.

John Prescott's present position - and his blocking of the original 16% offer - has placed him at complete loggerheads with the firefighters, many of whom voted to return a Labour Government. He has made it clear he is opposed to the "excessive" wage demand and the "unnecessary" FBU strikes, which the union should abandon forthwith.

This position is far removed from the time when John "the Red" Prescott was a prominent leader of the "irresponsible" seamen's strike of 1966. At that time, seamen faced their own bitter opposition from a Labour Government, which imposed a state of emergency. The government threatened to use the navy and even the RAF to break the strike. "The government must protect the vital interests of the nation", stated Prime Minister Harold Wilson. They also established their very own inquiry, led by Lord Pearson, "into certain matters concerning the Shipping Industry".

John, together with the seamen's union, opposed the Pearson Report. "From the beginning our strike, though essentially industrial, has been overshadowed by political implications and attacks", wrote Brothers Prescott and Hodgins in "The Seamen's Reply". The then Labour Prime Minister attacked the NUS leaders as "politically-motivated men", which was taken up as a hue and cry by the gutter press.

"So biased is the Pearson Report against the seamen's case that one cannot but feel that it was simply set up to capture public opinion… and marshal it against us", stated the young Prescott. "The rank and file have understood that our fight is a worthy one, and that it is their fight too. Our case must not be distorted by the efforts of employers, government, Courts of Inquiry, and the like."

"We fight a good fight, and we are proud to ask for the solidarity and support of the labour movement at this critical time."

Again, in regard to the Pearson Inquiry: "on general economic grounds alone, our suspicions as to the Inquiry's bias in favour of the owners is profound."

"In para. 7 [of the Report] the tone is set, when it is pointed out what great advantages seamen enjoy in their job!… AND if the advantages of the job are an essential part of one's pay, would it not be a good idea to start reducing the earnings of Judges, Civil Servants, College Professors and members of Prices and Incomes Board, to name but a few?" asks John Prescott.

Ironically, just as today's Bain Inquiry has a fig-leaf trade union figure on it (in the form of Sir Tony Young), so the Pearson Inquiry had Joe O'Hagan, chairman of the TUC Finance and General Purposes Committee. At the time, the seamen's delegation fiercely objected to the TUC over this matter, as have today's FBU.

In a clear parallel with the present, striking seamen were attacked by the newspapers, including "The Sun", so much so states Prescott "that Hull seamen have refused to buy the papers again." Nothing ever changes, well almost nothing. "The Sun" newspaper is once again supporting the Government…. Today, firefighters are taking a leaf out of the book of the Hull seamen of 1966.

Prescott pointed to the fact that the employers and the Labour Government worked closely together. "Well, they have certainly done that during the strike!" states the Reply.

"Despite the common misconception largely encouraged by the mass communications of press, TV, and Government, the Inquiry's suggestions, which neatly juggled with percentages, offer no firm basis for positive improvements to seamen in their fight…" states John Prescott. "To talk of a basis for compromise shows a fundamental lack of understanding of exactly what seamen are being asked to accept."

While their demands for increased pay and shorter hours were rejected, employers conceded paltry concessions. "We were left with no alternative but to take strike action", states our young militant.

Interestingly, the NUS claim was introduced in November 1965, and the employers' final offer was made on May 16, 1966. Not much different from today's FBU negotiations.

"There is a wealth of evidence we could produce to show that behind the Government, in its resistance to our just demands, stand the International Banks, the financial powers which really direct the Government's anti-wages policy…

"The goodwill of the bankers, the ill-will of the working class. How familiar a story that is of Labour Governments, when we cast our minds back to Ramsay MacDonald and the 1929-31 government. It was the trade unions then who stiffened the Labour Party against the attacks on unemployment pay. They must rally to the cause in the different circumstances of today."

We could not have put it better!

"Millions of people throughout the trade union movement have expressed their solidarity with our struggle. We say to them… that our case has not changed, that we fight the same fight, and we are confident of your continued support in a struggle which has become one involving the whole trade union movement and its right for its members' living standards."

"The job of the Inquiry was to discredit the seamen's case, and to deliver up the sailor for sacrifice on the altar of George Brown's Incomes Policy", concludes John Prescott. Today, all we need to do is substitute 'firefighter' for 'sailor' and Gordon for George! It is a shame we can't substitute poacher for gamekeeper.

(Taken from "Not Wanted on Voyage: The Seamen's Reply" by John Prescott and Charlie Hodgins, June 1966, published by the National Union of Seamen Hull Dispute Committee. Price 1/9d. All proceeds to the Strike Fund.)