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Last Updated: Sunday, 14 March, 2004, 15:41 GMT
Tribesman Prescott's battle cry
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News Online

John Prescott was in election-fighting mode
John Prescott was in election-fighting mode
John Prescott is tribal Labour and here he was with his spear pointed firmly at the Conservatives, urging his fellow huntsman to join the chase.

His war path is the election trail and at Manchester's spring conference he branded the 10 June local and European polls as the "most important set of elections in the party's history".

Mr Prescott loves elections and his face lit up as he mounted a spate of attacks on his hated foe - the Conservatives.

Only this tribesman is going armed for the campaign not with a spear but with his fist.

"This is a weapon of mass communication," bellowed the deputy prime minister, bearing his clenched hand at the audience.

Some delegates looked anxiously at one another, no doubt remembering the last time Mr Prescott's fist coincided with an election was his infamous punch at an egg-throwing protester.

This time, however, the knuckles were only for knocking on doors as Mr Prescott exhorted Labour members to get onto the streets and start spreading the word.

The pen and the shovel

He recalled the old Labour Party badges showing a quill and a shovel.

"Now there's a time for the quill, and there's a time for the shovel," he said. "This is that time, time to start grafting, time to start campaigning."

Let's be the first generation of Labour people who refused to tear themselves apart
John Prescott

The conference wind-up had Mr Prescott appealing for unity in the Labour tribe, effectively telling those MPs attacking the government in the media to take a hike until after the next general election.

"Let's break that age-old pattern. Let's be the first generation of Labour people who refused to tear themselves apart and by default saddled the British people with yet another Tory government," he said.

One choice really mattered, he said, whether to win or lose the election.

Cuts claims

But the rebuke for the internal critics was nothing compared to the tirade Mr Prescott directed against the Conservatives.

"If there is anyone left in any doubt about political dividing lines just listen to Michael Howard advocating Howard's Way.

It was just what we need to get us out and do the 'knock, knock, knock' as he said
Sandra Fenwick
Labour councillor

"Michael Howard. The oldest, new game show in town: 'Opportunism knocks.'"

Admitting the Tories had sharpened up their act, he gnashed his teeth with claims of a Tory cuts agenda and dissected Mr Howard's record in government bit-by-bit.

"This party's always at the best when it's attacking, not defending and we've got something to attack for," he added.

'Rabble rouser'

It was the kind of tub-thumping the Labour faithful loved: they applauded and cheered him and left with smiles on their faces. The tribesman had them ready for battle.

Simon Stockill, leader of the Labour group on Westminster City Council, said: "It was a typically rabble-rousing appeal to the core activists to go out and spread our message and fight the cynicism.

"There is a time for internal debate and discussion and it's right that political parties have that but there's always time for unity, especially at election time."

Hartlepool councillor Sandra Fenwick said: "I was carried along, it was really enthusiastic. It was just what we need to get us out and do the 'knock, knock, knock' as he said."

Rob Evans, deputy leader of Oxfordshire County Council, was another delegate impressed by the rallying cry.

"It was a great fighting speech setting out how we need to get out the vote in June," he said.

"It's very important after Madrid to fight terrorism through the ballot box. The only people who actually benefit from low turnout are extremists."

Race under way

The three-day conference has seen Labour set out its battle lines for the June polls and beyond.

Their key themes are that people are happy with their personal experience of public services and just need to be persuaded they are not just the lucky ones.

And with ministers openly saying the Tories are a bigger threat now, they are pushing their own choice agenda - geared around the idea of a "personalised" welfare state, with treatments, learning or childcare choices centred around people's individual needs.

The tribes are going to war - and it's one which will run until the general election, which is expected next year but may not happen until June 2006.

The BBC's Shaun Ley
"Mr Prescott warned party members that internal divisions would only help the conservatives"

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