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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.