Why Unison is wrong to seek the sacking and arrest of Jeremy Clarkson

The public sector trade union scores a spectacular PR own goal.

The trade union Unison is seeking "urgent legal advice" about what to do regarding Jeremy Clarkson's comments about strikers being "executed in front of their families. The press release -- the words are put to the mouth of Dave Prentis, Unison General Secretary -- is worth reading carefully.

Clarkson's comments on the One Show were totally outrageous, and they cannot be tolerated. We are seeking urgent legal advice about what further action we can take against him and the BBC, and whether or not his comments should be referred to the police.

In fact, the comments were the sort of thing one expects from Jeremy Clarkson. In their way, they are neither more nor less outrageous than, say, the Scottish comedian Limmy wishing Margaret Thatcher dead. In neither case were the comments particularly funny.

And complaints to the BBC or Ofcom are one thing, but the possible referring to the police is quite another. Should someone -- even Clarkson -- face arrest, charging, prosecution, and even conviction, in these circumstances? Is it not clear that Clarkson's comments were at least intended to be a joke?

Anyway, the press release continues.

Public sector workers and their families are utterly shocked by Jeremy Clarkson's revolting comments. We know that many other licence fee payers share our concerns about his outrageous views. The One Show is broadcast at a time when children are watching -- they could have been scared and upset by his aggressive statements. An apology is not enough -- we are calling on the BBC to sack Jeremy Clarkson immediately. Such disgusting statements have no place on our TV screens.

So, won't somebody, please, think of the children?

More seriously, here we have a trade union calling for someone to be summarily sacked. No disciplinary procedure, no due process, no contract rights: the man should be fired immediately.

And there's more.

Jeremy Clarkson clearly needs a reminder of just who he is talking about when he calls for public sector workers to be shot in front of their families. Whilst he is driving round in fast cars for a living, public sector workers are busy holding our society together -- they save others' lives on a daily basis, they care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly. They wipe bottoms, noses, they help children to learn, and empty bins -- they deserve all our thanks -- certainly not the unbelievable level of abuse he threw at them.

There is no doubt that this sentiment is correct.

But it avoids the question of whether public sector workers are well served by their trade union using scarce resources to pay lawyers for advice on getting Clarkson arrested or sacked on the spot. It is also odd that Unison is risking its credibility - which is vitally important for all its members - in deploying such a misconceived and illiberal PR move. And it is sad that all this has achieved is to make Clarkson the story, and not Unison's members and their demands.

So I put many of these concerns to Unison:

1. How much money is Unison proposing to spend on this "urgent legal advice"?
2. Is this a good use of Unison 's scarce resources?
3. Which law firm is supplying the advice?
4. Is it illiberal to call for police involvement? Should someone really face arrest, prosecution, and conviction in these circumstances?
5. Has Unison scored an own goal with this press release?

Their reply to these detailed queries?

All we can say at the moment is that "We are standing up for our members, it is an outrageous comment to make on early evening programme.

And then they just referred me back to their press release.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.