Ed Miliband has announced that former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, is to re-enter politics as an advisor to the Labour leader. Whilst much of the media has greeted Prescott’s return to the front line as a joke he does have an unenviable track record in public life.
In 1997, under the Premiership of Tony Blair he become one of the most powerful government ministers in British history by heading the newly created Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions.
This meant he was in-charge of everything from road pricing to council tax capping. He twice asked the public to judge him “on his record” over a particular project, one was his plan to reduce car usage the other was the Millennium Dome project. He lavished public money on both projects, but as car usage rose by 7 percent visitor numbers at the dome tanked.
Prescott later described the dome as the “success” because it had been taken out of his control and privatised. It was then turned into the O2 Arena and plays hosts to major music stars, as well as having restaurants. But prior to the privatisation, it lost £600m for the National Lottery.
The dome was not the only ill-advised regeneration project. In 2005 Prescott broke a long-standing agreement that tall buildings should not be built on the South side of the Thames for fear they might have an impact on aviation.
He approved the 50-storey Vauxhall Tower against the advice of his own officials who feared it would ruin views of the Palace of Westminster. In 2012 a helicopter crashed into the tower, causing two fatalities and risking hundreds more. The experienced pilot had become confused by fog as he attempted to navigate a narrow path created by the tower.
In the field of transport he was also a passionate supporter of renationalising the railways. When he came to power he began a campaign of attacking Railtrack, the company that owned and maintained infrastructure like signal boxes. He appointed Tom Winsor as head of the newly-created Strategic Rail Authority with a mission to intervene in the industry.
Under Prescott, Railtrack was blamed for the Hatfield rail crash, and was handed an astonishing £733m bill for the disaster. This ultimately led to Railtrack’s bankruptcy, allowing the government to replace it with a public body: Network Rail. This led shareholders to claim he had pursued a deliberate strategy of wrecking the company so he could take it into public ownership on the cheap.
Prescott was also the Secretary of State in charge of regulating councils, and capping their taxation. However, during Labour’s term of office council tax doubled, rising from £564 in 1997 to £1,195 in 2010, an increase of 112 percent. This led to an explosion in people being prosecuted for being unable to pay the tax.
He also fought for tough emissions targets for CO2, leading to campaigners to claim he had presided over “an unprecedented transfer of wealth from bill payers to wealthy landowners in the way of green subsidies”. Much like council tax, domestic energy bills rocketed leading to significant hardship.
Prescott was committed to significant constitutional reform, and created a series of regional assemblies without consulting the public. Eventually he wanted to hold elections to the bodies and was forced to hold a referendum in North East England to approve the move. The result was 78 percent against, but this did not lead to Prescott abolishing the assemblies, instead he cancelled the plan to have them elected.
Although he is only acting as a Climate Change advisor to Miliband at the moment he could be appointed as a minister in a future Labour government as he is a member of the House of Lords. This raises the possibility that he may play a significant role if Labour comes to power in May.