Review of 'Mick Lynch: The Making of a Working-Class Hero'
Monday, 27 May 2024 17:13

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’.