Hancock’s Half Page


During one of Tony Benn’s great rants against the modernisation of the Labour Party, he forecast that one day delegates to the party conference would be told that they weren’t there to debate issues but merely to blow up balloons for the leader’s triumphal entry.


Benn’s forecast came to my mind as I watched the recent Republican and Democratic conventions. With our version of the conventions, the party conferences, starting this weekend I thought it might be worth comparing the two.


Way back in American convention history, they were the events at which candidates were chosen and policy formed, not any more.


The primary contests which start across America in the previous winter mean that the candidates are known well in advance. The last time a Republican Convention met with any uncertainty about the candidate was in 1976 when Ronald Reagan attempted to wrest the nomination from Gerald Ford. In the Democrats’ case it was Ted Kennedy’s effort to unseat Jimmy Carter in 1980.


This year yet again there was no opportunity for delegates in Tampa, Florida or Charlotte, North Carolina to influence the policy platform. Similarly while there will be debates on policy motions at the Labour conference in Manchester and the Tory gathering in Birmingham, it will only be Liberal Democrat delegates who will actually make policy line by line when they meet in Brighton.


The wives of political leaders are playing a growing role on both sides of the Atlantic. Here we’ve seen Sarah Brown introduce her husband at a Labour conference. Sam Cam is a fixture with the Tories, but they are bit parts compared to the central roles that Anne Romney and Michele Obama played at their conventions this month. Both put on sparkling performances in contrast to the more staid performances of their husbands, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.


Celebrities at party conferences were certainly a feature of the Blair era and many of Hollywood’s finest supported the Democrats this year in Charlotte. The Republicans however scored an own goal with a bizarre rambling performance by the ageing Clint Eastwood. It didn’t make their day.


So what might be coming to our party conferences in the future? The CNN news channel played the party videos shown to the delegates whereas the BBC always cut away when similar screenings are made at our party conferences. The BBC says it isn’t in the business of broadcasting straight party propaganda. That strikes me as odd considering the rest of the conference is just that.


In the American videos we saw the families of the candidates heavily featured. Everyone with a distant relationship to Romney or Obama was interviewed.

Another striking feature was the emphasis on families with relatives serving in the military.


It’s a close race in the US election this year with the Republicans turning up the heat on the economy and Obamacare (the President’s attempt to introduce something like the NHS to America). There is no doubt that the “Yes we can” Obama optimism of four years ago has faded but incumbent Presidents are rarely turned out. Only Jimmy Carter (1980) and HW Bush (1992) have suffered that fate since 1945.


So in 2012 will we just get balloons and stage managed baloney at our conferences? The Liberal Democrats do still have a real policy making conference and all credit to them. Labour needs an honest debate on its economic policy as the party is taken more seriously again and those Tories who really are unhappy with Cameron need to come out of the woodwork. I doubt it will happen.


The massive failure of the institutions of the state revealed by Bishop James Jones’ team must not fail again. There must be new inquests. There must be prosecutions for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. But will it happen? The Hillsborough families have no faith in judges, police, coroners, some senior politicians and some journalists.


It will take the delivery of justice, individuals being held to account to begin to rebuild trust.


The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s findings are a vindication of the extraordinary persistence of the families in the face of a whole range of public institutions which failed them. The list is long. The stadium without a safety certificate, failure of police control on the day, the poor medical attention, the lies about the fans, the police cover up, the inadequate Taylor and Stewart Smith reports, the disgraceful inquests, the failure of the judicial system during the private prosecutions and not least, it must be said, an often unspoken wish of some people not directly affected for Hillsborough to be forgotten as an episode from a dark time in Britain’s history.


To try and explain (but not excuse) this establishment failure and deceit on such a large scale we have to remember the political world as it was in 1989. The Thatcher government was in the process of introducing legislation to make football fans carry ID membership cards. It was a daft idea but it was in response to rampant soccer hooliganism.


Hillsborough, without a safety certificate, was not alone in being a dump. Facilities in our ageing Victorian football grounds showed contempt for the fans comfort and many responded accordingly. Most stood and you still hear nostalgic calls for “the right to stand”. Let’s hope those cries are silenced now.


Also in 1989 memories were very fresh about the Miner’s Strike and the crucial role played by the police on behalf of the Thatcher government. Since the Independent Panel reported there has been a sharp exchange about this between two former Home Office Ministers. Labour’s Jack Straw claims the police had developed a sense of immunity from criticism after the strike, while Tory David Mellor criticised the remark and pointed out that the Tories had introduced major legislation on the police.


Not only do we need prosecutions, we also need a change of culture from within the organs of the state. We like to think we have moved on from the 1980s in terms of accountability. One barrister recalled this week that back then if you suggested in court that a police officer might be lying, you’d get short shrift from the judge. But has the mindset of those in the know really changed?


Tony Blair brought in the Freedom of Information Act, but now calls it his biggest mistake. The new post of Chief Coroner to oversee the creaking coroner’s system was nearly scrapped by the Coalition Government and there are moves to increase secrecy in cases involving national security.


Some politicians have emerged with credit from this sorry business. The Home Secretary Theresa May has redeemed her promise to allow all documents to be put before the Independent Panel. Local politicians like Leigh’s Andy Burnham and Walton’s Steve Rotheram have been outstanding.


But for a long time many politicians gave the impression that they wanted Hillsborough to go away. Jack Straw asked Lord Justice Stewart Smith to reinvestigate the tragedy in 1997. The inquiry revealed little. When asked this week if Stewart Smith had access to all the documents, Straw said “he wasn’t certain”. He was only the Home Secretary for heavens sake and should have ordered the full document disclosure that has, at last, been so effective.


I really hope the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney General realise they have to be proactive now and the families don’t have to drag justice out of the institutions of the state that have failed them so badly so far.







How long will the Lib Dem grass roots allow Nick Clegg to stay in a coalition where right wing Tory backbenchers call all the shots? David Cameron has had to placate them this week and his Lib Dem partners just look on in dismay.


I don’t think enough has been said about the sacking of Ken Clarke, for that is what it is. I know he can still attend Cabinet as Minister Without Portfolio. Without power or influence more like. I’m surprised he didn’t resign outright. For a man who has been Chancellor and Home Secretary to hang on in this way is undignified. It gives a cloak of respectability to what has really happened.


The last Tory with a sane view on our relations with the European Union (and prison policy) has been removed. So now the decks are clear for the vicious circle to accelerate. The anti EU press will continue to mislead the public about Europe, the politicians will respond and before we know it we will be having an in-out referendum. The nation will vote to come out of the EU, then stand by for an economic slump that will make this one look like prosperity.


But back to the reshuffle and further evidence of a swing to the right. The new Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has been brought in to smooth the way for a third runway at Heathrow which will ignore the strong case to develop our regional airports. Promises of this being the greenest government yet were already withering, and that’s set to continue with Owen Paterson in charge at Environment. By the way hard luck to Liverpool’s Peter Cranie on not getting the leadership of the Green Party this week.


Sayeeda Warsi is another Cabinet Minister who should have made a clean break. The former Tory Chairman has taken a minor job at the Foreign Office. It’s a blow for ethnic minority representation in the government. I liked her down to earth approach and she impressed a gathering of Tory grass roots members meeting in Liverpool recently. It’s a shame.


Tory talent in the North West has been almost totally overlooked by the Prime Minister with the exception of the spiky and talented Esther McVey. The Wirral West MP is a rare asset for the Conservative Party. A media savvy business woman from Merseyside she’s got an interesting first job in government. She’s a Minister at Work and Pensions. The Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith refused to move and will fight to implement his universal credit benefit system. The Treasury is worried about the new system’s dependence on a vast computer network. We know from past experience that central government and big computer systems mean a big price tag and almost certain failure.


McVey is the only North West promotion. What about Pendle’s Andrew Stephenson, Preston North’s Ben Wallace and Lancaster’s Eric Ollerenshaw. He’s an older politician with good local government experience. Instead Eric Pickles is rewarded for his abolition of the North West Development Agency and more seriously the Audit Commission with an extension of his term. I suppose his value is as a bit of northern rough among the southern posh boys.






How many times have you heard that forecast as the football season gets underway? We all know that the financing of football is crazy. We all know that the forthcoming season will produce stories of clubs tottering on the brink of oblivion. But it never happens does it?

I say never. Maidstone United seems to be dead and buried but Accrington Stanley and Aldershot have risen from the grave and Portsmouth stagger on. Fan loyalty comes to the rescue when all the red financial lights are on.

But could Portsmouth or even Blackburn Rovers go out of business for ever? A recent Downtown seminar on football heard the forecast repeated that this season one or more of our clubs will bite the dust.

That wasn’t the only startling forecast by Alan Switzer; Director in Deloitte’s Manchester based Sports Business Group as he presented the company’s annual review of football finances.

He also believes UEFA are serious about enforcing their financial fair play rules. The burning question here is would UEFA devalue the Champions League by telling Manchester City, for instance, that they can’t play in the 2014/15 competition if they are not breaking even?

Alan believes there might be some leniency if the direction of travel is right and developments around youth academies will be exempt. However he is in no doubt that UEFA are determined to bring an end to the precarious arms race that is afflicting so many clubs.

Deloitte’s figures are staggering. Premier League average salaries are over a million a year whilst in Division Two it is£47,000. Soon the Championship play off match will be for £150m; even Sky won’t need to hype that! The Premier League wages to turnover ratio is 70%. Most significantly profit levels are flat.

Why the alarm with the new Sky/BT deal coming along worth £3 billion? It may be an opportunity for clubs to put their finances in order, but that would be a triumph of hope over experience. It seems more likely that the poor old fans will see their viewing subscriptions soar up in order to put even more money in players’ wallets.

Alan Switzer produced a graph showing that success was linked to the money clubs spent. There are exceptions like Blackpool’s glorious adventure but generally you get what you pay for.

Is there a tipping point where Sky won’t be able to milk the fans anymore? The seminar heard that increasingly pubs are struggling to pay to show the matches.

The big kick off will soon be with us, but first it’s wall to wall Olympic Games.
North West companies have benefited from Olympic orders. Watson Steel of Bolton, Ainscough cranes from Wigan and Glasdon recycling based in Blackpool being among them. But let’s not kid ourselves it’s London and the South East, the region that least needs it that is benefiting most.

However let’s hope it all goes well and reflect on the fact that without the success of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester ten years ago, none of this would be happening.