‘I saw fans die in front of me’

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ANDY Burnham comes to Camden this week looking to emulate the Jeremy Corbyn’s queues-around-the-block gig a few weeks ago. He will be meeting supporters at an event at St Pancras Church, which is where his biggest local backer, Keir Starmer, was selected to stand for Parliament at the end of last year. Unfortunately for Burnham, despite the link with Holborn and St Pancras’s new MP, he has not made the same impact among the local membership.

When it came to branch nominations, he bombed in the first round in the south of Camden as Corbyn went on to with ease. In Hampstead and Kilburn, Yvette Cooper emerged as the choice to brake the Corbyn surge. What’s more, despite its large membership numbers, nobody from the Holborn and St Pancras branch was there to speak up for Burnham on his behalf at the nomination meeting. Instead, it was the Islington Council leader Richard Watts who nipped across the borough boundary to make the case for Burnham.

Richard WattsAt first glance, this in itself might suggest to outsiders that Watts is not in tune with his local branch’s feeling: for in both halves of Islington members also nominated Corbyn for the leadership too. The Islington Council leader has sensibly not responded by being among those warning of an apocalypse if Corbyn wins. He has political reasons to support for Burnham, but maybe he has a more personal reason to support him too. For it was the shadow health secretary who can at least claim to have got things moving in getting the Hillsborough files, and the horrid secrets inside, a public view. And as a 14-year-old lad, Watts witnessed the football tragedy himself. As fan at the other end of the ground for the FA Cup semi-final and saw that day of death unfold in person.

“I saw fans die in front of me who were never seen by a paramedic and only received treatment from fellow supporters,” he later wrote in the Islington Tribune. “Ed Miliband is right to apologise for the time it took for Labour to open the files. Andy Burnham deserves immense credit for taking this step, but we should have done it in 1997 not in 2009. But, as well as now unstoppable calls for justice against those who took part in the conspiracy to blame fans for their own preventable deaths, perhaps we now have an opportunity to learn the real lessons for the future about how we can stop this kind of tragedy being repeated.”

Even as a leading Labour figure in the thick of Corbyn country, having the pain of 1989 etched on his mind he surely can be forgiven among his Corbynite Islington colleagues for being ready to tick the box for someone else, for the candidate who tried to shed new light on the scandal that had always lurked behind the trauma he witnessed as a teenager.  

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