Hancock’s Half Page




Two areas of current debate are irritating me. One is what to do about Syria, the other what to do about representing the centre ground in British politics.

The issues are totally different, but they have this in common; futile, even dishonest, hand ringing by politicians.


It gives me no pleasure to write that sub heading. Syria is ill served by the butcher Bashar-al-Assad. He is the main survivor from this century’s turmoil in the Middle East that saw the removal of many of the region’s dictators. In the brutal world of Middle East politics, it was a mistake to depose these dictators who, at least, ensured stability in their countries.

The West was heavily involved in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan in the early years of this century motivated by securing oil supplies, fighting terrorism or introducing western style democracy depending on your point of view. The result was bloody chaos and the rise of the so called Islamic State.

This led to a complete volte face by the West as people in America and Britain understandably questioned why blood and treasure was being wasted on hopeless causes.

When opponents of Assad in Syria rose up and called on the West to help, we did little. As the slaughter became more widespread, President Barack Obama warned Assad not to cross the “red line” by using chemical weapons. They were used, and the USA did nothing. The UK Parliament voted in 2013 against air strikes in Syria.

So, intervention doesn’t work, and the current cautious policy of the West has been an invitation to Russia and Iran to fill the vacuum in Syria.

The sporadic threats and interventions of President Trump are too late, incoherent, will prolong the conflict and could lead to a global confrontation with Russia and Iran. With John Bolton as the new American National Security advisor anything is possible.

Of course, there should be peace talks but, Assad is going to win, so the earlier the violence ends the better. Meanwhile the West needs to decide what its real red lines are in relation to Russia, China and Iran.

And by the way the collapse of the EU, as forecast by an academic this week, would not help with stability.


Tony Blair is never off the airwaves these days. I find his interviews frustrating. They start with an excellent analysis of the polarised state of British politics with the vast centre ground unrepresented.

Then he is asked to take the logical step of helping to form a new party and he goes all coy concluding that he is staying with Labour.

He is not alone. Many centrist politicians are happy to brief the media about £50m being available for a new party and how important it is that voters have a choice other than Brexit Tory or Statist Corbyn. But you never see names attached to these stories.

So, my message to Tony and his friends is either stop this self-indulgent chatter, get on with forming a new party or work with the Lib Dems with whom you have few real differences.

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Channel 4’s new “national base” should be in Liverpool. The city has a great cultural tradition and potential location sites that would surely be attractive to staff currently working in their cramped Horseferry Road headquarters.

It would have the full support of the Liverpool City Region mayor, Steve Rotheram, who has recently launched a major cultural initiative. It would also help to balance the growth of media related industries in the North West following the huge investment that has followed the BBC’s move to MediaCity in Salford.

The chance for Liverpool to welcome Channel 4 comes after a major wrangle between the TV company and the government. Ministers are determined to end the hugely disproportionate location of media jobs and editorial decision making in London. Channel 4 did not want to move hence a messy compromise whereby they will have a national headquarters outside London but will still retain their base on Horseferry Road. Although they are pledged to locate executives in their out of town “national” base, constant vigilance will be required to stop them slipping back.

I remember the era when the BBC was located in Oxford Road Manchester when departments that were formally located in the city and executives fleeing back to London on Friday afternoons.

Liverpool will face competition from the likes of Birmingham. We have already seen from the choice of the Midlands for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, over Liverpool’s bid that the presence of a Conservative mayor there is doing them no harm.


The media is increasingly important providing hi tech and creative jobs in the northern economy. It is also at the centre of the current debate around fake news and data mining.

To keep up to date with developments I recently attended a major media conference in Oxford where the first subject on the agenda was a very old one; the future of the BBC. I think we can put that on the backburner following remarks by the Culture Secretary Matt Hancock. He pointed out that licence fee funding had just been agreed for the new charter and what’s more there is overwhelming public support for it. Nevertheless, in the longer term one fears for that method of funding one of our great institutions.

Fake news inevitably came up and in a way that horrified me. Apparently on the night of the Manchester Arena terrorist outrage, a fake story was put out that Oldham hospital had also been targeted. The more sensational the story, the more clicks it gets. That’s the pernicious economic cycle that must be broken as Google and Facebook hopefully move from adolescence to maturity.

200 local papers have closed in recent years and there was a session on the issue of who is now reporting our courts and councils? Some good community sites have sprung up, but they are no substitute for professional and regular coverage by journalists. And into the vacuum come the angry, the ill informed and people with agendas.

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If only Jeremy Corbyn hadn’t been elected leader of the Labour Party. If only people had voted to remain. If only Donald Trump hadn’t been chosen as President of the United States.

Amid the quite legitimate concerns about Corbyn’s sluggish reaction to anti-Semitism in the party, Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit vote, and constant questions around Trump’s fitness for office; there is an underlying feeling that some are motivated by an inability to accept decisions of the people or party members.


I desperately want to stop Brexit by parliamentary means or by a vote on the final deal. However, I don’t think the cause is helped by trawling through the alleged financial chicanery by Vote Leave. Is there the slightest prospect of the 2016 Referendum being declared void? No, so let’s focus on the major task of changing public opinion.

It is a major task because top pollsters are reporting that a year before we leave, public opinion is where it was in 2016; divided down the middle. Furthermore, pollsters believe that won’t change because people are resistant to arguments that potentially could alter their minds.

When Remain focus groups are presented with expert findings that Britain will be fine in a global market, a substantial majority not only reject the findings but also express distrust of the expert. Experts fare no better when Leave focus groups are faced with gloomy forecasts for post Brexit Britain.

So, there is work to do, but trying to invalidate the 2016 Referendum isn’t a productive course of action.


Turning to Trump’s victory, it is deeply disturbing to realise that the huge viral growth of slogans like “crooked Hillary” was orchestrated by Cambridge Analytica. We have had wall to wall coverage of Stormy Daniels allegations of having sex with Trump. There is also the ongoing Mueller investigation into possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign.

None of it matters a damn to Trump supporters who look at the improving economy and give him their approval. Again, Trump opponents should stop trawling the last election, warn people not to be fooled by orchestrated social media next time and present some convincing arguments to vote Democrat this autumn in the midterm elections.


Finally, we come to all the flak that Jeremy Corbyn has been facing over anti-Semitism. The problem here is that Corbyn and those around him feel passionately about Palestine and rightly so. Palestine deserves to be a state and Israel should not be putting settlers into the illegally occupied territories. However, Israel has every right to exist within internationally recognised boundaries, respecting the civil rights of all its citizens.

Criticism of the Israeli government is completely legitimate but when that spills over into anti-Semitism, it is completely wrong. The problem is that some pro-Palestinian organisations that Corbyn, and his top aide Seamus Milne, support have anti Semites on their fringe.

Labour needs to act more quickly to identify and expel those who are anti Semites, campaign for a Palestine state and an Israel that once again has its own strong Labour Party.

Corbyn opponents in the Labour Party need to realise that they are now in a party that,in its internal structures, personnel and policies, is a socialist party. If they want to represent the huge disenfranchised middle ground, they need to forget the “sins” of the Lib Dems over tuition fees and questionable campaign tactics and link up with them to give the centre a voice.

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For me Christmas was the turning point for those of us hoping to stop Brexit. When the European Commission pretended sufficient progress had been made to move on to the next stage, I concluded they wanted shot of the UK provided the deal didn’t encourage others to depart as well.

This week’s transition deal marks another significant milestone on the road to departure. The Prime Minister has made big concessions to the EU, but the crucial point is that, however much Jacob Rees Mogg and his extreme Brexit friends may bluster, they will do nothing to derail the process provided they ultimately get their hard Brexit.

Business has also broadly welcomed the transition period as it gives them more time to prepare for the bureaucracy filled world that will follow our departure.


So, have all the fears about job losses and plant closures gone away? Well I was in the Commons this week for a debate about the future of the Vauxhall car plant at Ellesmere Port. Vauxhall are now owned by the giant PSA Group and Brexit has brought great anxiety to the excellent workforce who have made it one of the most successful plants in the PSA Group. Nevertheless, Brexit has brought fears that if the management are looking to reduce capacity, the plant outside the EU would be an obvious candidate.

Management have denied any such plans but the local MP, Justin Madders, remains sufficiently concerned that he initiated a special debate supported by many Labour MPs in the surrounding area of the plant. He fears the corrosive effect of Brexit uncertainty despite this week’s transitional deal. He wanted everything possible done to cut costs and not give the French owners a Brexit excuse to close the plant. Things like energy costs, business rate relief and the location of part suppliers on spare land around the factory.

Birkenhead MP Frank Field called for a sectoral deal, although a period of silence would be better from this arch Leaver.

The ministerial response from Business Minister Richard Harrington was woeful. He’s massively overpromoted. He came over as an out of touch Tory toff with no answers to the specific points raised.


Contrast that ministerial reply with another one I witnessed after the Oldham MP Jim McMahon had called a debate to express his support for Greater Manchester’s Metrolink line to link up the outer boroughs. It has been called the Circle Line project, although McMahan’s initial proposals look to link up areas like Ashton and Bury with Oldham Mumps as a hub.

On this occasion the replying minister was Jesse Norman who appeared sympathetic and engaged. He listed the considerable investment the government have made in transport in greater Manchester whilst not being specific about the prospects for the Circle Line.


In the debate praise was heaped on Cllr Andrew Fender who is stepping down this May after 41 years’ service to the Greater Manchester Transport Authority. I have had the pleasure of reporting on him and latterly working with him and I wish him a happy retirement.

While we are on personal matters, I was sad to hear of the passing of Brenda Dean. She led the print union SOGAT during the time when first Eddie Shah in Warrington and then Rupert Murdoch in Wapping brought in new newspaper production methods in the teeth of opposition.

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