Review of 'Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero'
Friday, 19 July 2024 21:53

Review of 'Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero'

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jon Baldwin reviews the new book by Gregor Gall, Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero (Manchester University Press, 2024)

Mick Lynch is a 60-year-old London School of Economics alumnus who earns a six figure salary, owns a Victorian terrace house worth £1million and supports Brexit. Yet in the summer of 2022 the status of ‘working-class hero’ was suddenly thrust upon him by the lumpen online left-wing following a series of severe yet quite sane ideological skirmishes with the UK’s corporate media.

As the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) – who oversaw extensive industrial action at the time – he is perceived as one of the most active, high-profile militants in the country. Indeed, apart from Arthur Scargill in the 1980s, it is difficult to recall the last time when a union leader has become such a household name.

Gregor Gall’s new political biography, Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero (Manchester University Press, 2024), traces and analyses Lynch’s journey to this vaunted status by following ‘The Four Ps’: persona, politics, period and power. That is, he is calm, collected and calculating; his politics are progressive and social democrat in ambit; the period of the 2022-23 strike action choreographed him on to centre stage; and the RMT have the resources of associational, structural and institutional power. And so he took the opportunity to be the astute voice of the union, rejuvenating its organisation so it could publicly punch above its weight.

Mick Lynch and Richard Madeley

As Gall recalls, when Piers Morgan linked him to the Thunderbirds’ arch enemy, ‘The Hood’, during an interview, Lynch retorted, ‘Is that the level of your journalism these days?’ On Good Morning Britain he reminded Richard Madeley, the programme’s host, that ‘you do come up with the most remarkable twaddle sometimes.’ And, as Sky News’ Kay Burley attempted to conjure up visions of picket line violence from the 1980s, he exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe this line of questioning …What are you talking about? You’ve gone off into the world of the surreal.’

Lynch’s self-assurance, use of plain language, factual correctness, indignation and sarcasm felt authentic and refreshing to media-literate viewers who were emerging from lockdown and, even worse, from a monotonous party-political hum of prepared statements which proclaimed, like an Oxbridge choir, national consent on COVID. Gall suggests that, as a new voice with ‘soft power’, adept at out-manoeuvring mediated mantraps and reframing socio-political issues to represent his members’ concerns, fellow union leaders can learn a lot from his survival in the bear pit of broadcasting.

In the phenomenal wake of 46 million online views of Mick Lynch video clips, as well as the popularity of Mick Lynch mugs and Mick Lynch tote bags, Gall notes that there is no application process, no adjudication committee, and no references required for appointing a working-class hero. Indeed, as Brecht states in Life of Galileo (1943), ‘unhappy is the land that needs a hero’, and Lynch arrived in such an unhappy land at exactly the right time. The working class is disenfranchised, beaten down by years of austerity, low in confidence, low in class consciousness and low in workers’ collective struggles. Following the Establishment’s political execution of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the void in the mainstream was there to be filled.

Even the comedian Stewart Lee would name Lynch as the ‘best spokesman for workers’ rights and leftwing values this century.’ Yet he would also call Lynch a ‘Brexit arse made good’ due to the RMT’s support for Brexit – or its Lexit variant – due to the belief that rail nationalisation could only occur again under such insular conditions. This ignores the fact that many European countries have nationalised railways however and, surprisingly, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has recently pledged that, should they reach government, much of the rail network will be renationalised.

Mick Lynch Tote bag

Gall’s biography probes the inner workings of the RMT and can be seen as neither a hagiography nor hatchet-job, but both a celebration and critique of Lynch. For instance, the author suggests two major contributions that this leader has made. Firstly, to reinvigorate social democracy as a counter-narrative and alternative ideology to neo-liberalism; and, secondly, to rekindle the heat of trade unionism and galvanise the working-class with collective self-confidence.

He continues that there are six essential functions of leadership which are relevant to unions and the position of general secretary. These are: 1) clear agenda setting and framing of arguments; 2) confident public speaking and communication; 3) effective negotiation skills; 4) insightful strategic planning; 5) productive caucusing and alliance building; and 6) active management of people and organisational resources.

Gregor further argues that Mick Lynch’s predecessor Bob Crow surpassed him in all these functions. For example, in terms of strategic planning, the RMT has a very limited strike fund, whereas Unite has the ability to pay £70 a day strike pay in an effort to secure victory, under both Len McCluskey and Sharon Graham’s leadership. As a critical friend of the unions, Gall also advances more innovative tactics, coordination and organisation.

He writes that Lynch is best characterised as a social democrat, because he advocates reforming capitalism rather than abolishing it. His thinking on politics is about pragmatism, compromise and he is known as a ‘dealmaker’. This may well serve RMT members, but what of the wider working-class community to whom he is supposedly a hero? From the perspective of Marx and Gramsci on the unions, this can be regarded as a lost opportunity.

Marx suggested in Der Vorbote (1866) that trade unions ‘originally sprang up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen’ to check competition amongst themselves and to raise them at ‘least above the condition of mere slaves.’ Unions, ‘unconsciously to themselves,’ formed ‘centres of organisation of the working class.’ But they did not expand or exploit this organisational potential, becoming instead too ‘exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital’ and did not fully appreciate the possibility of ‘their power of acting against the system of wages slavery itself.’ The potential of trade unions is anticipated by Marx: ‘Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation.’

In turn, Gramsci also indicates in L'Ordine Nuovo (1919) that a moment is now lost in unionisation. Instead of uniting in revolutionary and internationalist terms, the unions tended on the other hand ‘to embody the theory and the tactic of reformist opportunism and to become merely national organisms.’ To be sure, well-thought out and brave movements and strikes saw the condition of life of the workers improve with the eight-hour day, pay rise, social legislation and so forth. But all these victories of union action are set on the old basis and ‘the principle of private property remains intact and strong, the order of capitalist production and the exploitation of man by man remain intact.’

In such reformist union managerialism ‘[t]he choice of the union leaders was never made on criteria of industrial competence, but of merely legal, bureaucratic or demagogic competence.’ This notion of ‘demagogic competence’ might also be said of Mick Lynch.

Gall’s book and general work on trade unions is exemplary and is precisely the helpful commentary that is needed. Lynch has often had low aspirations: ‘We hope for a little bit more than nothing.’ Surely, we should expect more from our heroes, even just for one day. Lynch has agreed to be interviewed by countless journalists and broadcasters, appeared on panel-shows and so forth, yet did not engage with Gall in the writing of his book, despite many appeals. This, of course, is his right, but it would be interesting to know if his possible trajectory is from ‘soft power’ to ‘hard power’.

Apocalypticism Now
Friday, 19 July 2024 21:53

Apocalypticism Now

Published in Religion

James Crossley reflects on the dangers and possibilities of the Covid-19 crisis. Image: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Albrecht Durer, 1497-8

Towards the end of March, it was reported that an English hiker returned from a five-day trek in the New Zealand wilds and was surprised to see “three hooded figures, wearing masks and hi-vis jackets.”

His journey coincided with the coronavirus lockdown and his response was that the three figures were like a “post-apocalyptic survivor squad.” Despite his atypical situation, he was not alone in framing these unusual times in such language.

With the rapid public awareness of coronavirus came the ubiquitous language of apocalypticism and End Times, even in an increasingly irreligious Britain. Such language is used ironically, as few really believe that the End Times are upon us or that an era of Walking Dead survivalism is at hand—this is not the US, after all. But hopes of a transformation in the way we live after the crisis are taken more seriously. It seems people overwhelmingly do not want to go back to the way things were before the lockdown. It seems they do prefer cleaner air, a feeling of community and keeping in touch with family members.

There is good reason why people have framed the pandemic in terms of apocalypticism because such language and concepts run deep in our culture. In the US, such ideas are associated with the Christian right. In this country, however, they are much more closely aligned with the left and have a long history. John Ball, the great priest of the 1381 English uprising, employed end-times language from the Bible to understand the predicament of peasants in particular and how a dramatic, violent transformation would be needed before all things would be held in common.

Apocalypticism was an important way for people like Ball to express their discontents in a pre-capitalist society. Socialist and communist movements later provided a different type of opposition to capitalism and absorbed and transformed such language and ideas.

Like other socialists of his time, William Morris worked with the idea of a “religion of socialism.” God may be out of the equation but socialism needed to retain what was important in religion and this included ideas about changing the current social order while being prepared to face defeats and sacrifices. Morris’s reading of Marx also meant he could take seriously the idea that John Ball was a prophet before his time. In A Dream of John Ball, Morris showed that there will always be failures but the message of past struggles must not be lost in new situations. Ball’s vision of a transformed world, Morris argued, was more likely with the rise of socialism but it now needed the example of determined people like Ball to help bring it about.

The darker side of apocalypticism became prominent in the 20th century, with two world wars and the threat of nuclear and then environmental annihilation. But the left did not lose sight of the possibilities for a better world. After VE Day and the rubble of World War II, socialists looked to build a New Jerusalem as the Labour Party created the NHS and developed a welfare state as part of their “new war on hunger, ignorance and want,” as the 1945 manifesto put it.

These ideas have persisted. After decades of leftist defeatism, Rojava showed the possibilities for transformation again. Volunteers could talk about inheriting the earth and bringing about a new world after the ruins. From socialists and communists in the region, as well as the brutal realities of war, volunteers knew the cost of fighting for revolutionary change and the importance of memorialising martyrs. The death of volunteers like Anna Campbell brought this home to a country not used to thinking much beyond the romance of revolution.

It is for good reason that liberals get queasy about the language of dramatic change. Maintaining, or gently tweaking, the status quo is in their interests. But their interests are not workers’ interests. The Financial Times last month gave the game away with an analogy from the 14th century. Its editorial noted that the Black Death has been credited with “transforming labour relations in Europe” as peasants “could bargain for better terms and conditions.” However, it added, “a thankfully much lower mortality rate means such a transformation is unlikely to follow coronavirus.”

Unfortunate wording? Perhaps. The main concern in the FT editorial may have been about high unemployment but clearly the transformation of labour relations after the lockdown is not what the bosses want. Our interests are the opposite and popular. Workers once taken for granted are now widely appreciated during this pandemic, as they clear away our rubbish, make sure we have food and treat patients in testing circumstances—even to the point of putting their lives on the line.

Their importance and the contrasting uselessness of the likes of Richard Branson have been exposed for us all to see. To paraphrase the popular piece of graffiti, the next battleground will involve making the rich pay for Covid-19. If the aftermath of 2008 and the Corbyn project taught us anything, this is not going to be easy. The government has made noises about paying back what’s owed and we know who will and who won’t bear the brunt of this and who will and won’t be made redundant.

The odds aren’t favourable, with a long-weakened union movement and a Starmer-led Labour Party. But this is not the time for technocratic politics or a gentle tweaking of the system which will only further line the pockets of corporations at the expense of workers. The demands for a new world are getting ever more urgent in the face of climate change. Serious, sustained change will only come through the power of mass collective action with workers’ interests at heart and a vision of what kind of world we want.

Are we up for it? Bob Crow famously said: “If you fight you won't always win. But if you don't fight you will always lose.” That saying turned up in Rojava and it is just as relevant in northern Syria as it will be once this so-called apocalypse ends and the next one hits us hard.