Why the left is wrong on Jeremy Clarkson

Clarkson's call for strikers to be "shot" was an unfunny joke that required no comment from anyone.

Jeremy Clarkson's call for strikers to be "executed in front of their families" was an unfunny joke that required no comment from anyone. If you don't like Clarkson's brand of populist right-wing humour (I don't), switch over. But few chose that option. The Twittersphere erupted in outrage and Labour rushed out a late night press release calling on David Cameron to "condemn" Clarkson's remarks (Cameron has since said it was "a silly thing to say"). Now, remarkably, Unison, one of the country's biggest trade unions, is taking "urgent legal advice" over whether the Top Gear presenter could be prosecuted for his "I'd have them all shot" comment.

I've embedded the clip from The One Show above, so you can judge for yourself, but it was entirely clear to me that Clarkson's comments were made in jest. Indeed, immediately before the remarks, he joked that he supported the strike (the roads were clear for once) but needed to give the other side since he was on the BBC. The literal minded response of most liberals only panders to Clarkson's depiction of the left as sour, humourless and boring.

Those on the left "outraged" by Clarkson's comments are the mirror image of those on the right who cry foul when Ken Livingstone jokes about hanging Osborne or compares Boris to Hitler. The divide, in this instance, is not between the left and the right but between the ironic mind and the literal mind. We can either live in a censorious society where individuals are free to use only the blandest language possible, or one in which we tolerate bad jokes and make them in return. I know which I prefer.

The irony is that Clarkson's joke about strikers distracted attention from a remark that was genuinely offensive. "I do sometimes use the train to come to London but it always stops in Reading," he said. "It's always because somebody has jumped in front of it and somebody has burst."

"You just think, why have we stopped because we've hit somebody? What's the point of stopping? It won't make them better."

Where, I have been meaning to ask, was the outrage over that?

P.S. For my own take on the strike, see my blog from yesterday "The myth of "unaffordable" public sector pensions"

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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