Last night I dreamed that I was sitting across from Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT, at the negotiating table. “What are Are you talking about?” he laughed at me. I woke up in a cold sweat.
Outspoken and withering, Lynch has mastered the art of condescending mockery, which he has now unleashed on countless TV interviewers and politicians. As actor Hugh Laurie tweeted, “I don’t know enough about the rail dispute. I only observe that RMT’s Mick Lynch has cleaned up all the media picadors who tried their luck today.
Without joking entirely, Hello Brittany‘s Richard Madeley opened his interview with Lynch last month with a question absurd enough to make everyone choke on his cornflakes: “Are you or aren’t you a Marxist?” Lynch, with mild contempt, replied, “Richard, you come up with the most remarkable nonsense sometimes.”
Lynch is never wordy. He refuses to engage in political grandstanding and his defense of the strike is articulated in no uncertain terms. When Sky News presenter Sophy Ridge asked Lynch if he was “worried about the impact [higher wages] could have on inflation” and quoting Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey’s call for wage moderation, Lynch replied without wasting time: “Wage moderation? He earns £600,000 a year, as does the head of Network Rail. There are railway bosses who bring in millions of pounds every year. The railways made £500million in profits last year when fares and passengers were at rock bottom… If workers’ wages don’t rise it means a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich .
[See also: Why the 2022 summer of strikes is about to get worse]
It’s an argument most people can relate to, even though opponents of the June strikes cited missed hospital appointments, school exams and a culture war classic: the inability to celebrate. Armed Forces Day. “Mick Lynch is proving to be quite a remarkable media performer – with an uncanny knack for pissing off his interlocutors – others should study his techniques,” tweeted former Tory cabinet minister Rory Stewart.
Savanta ComRes has released a poll suggesting the majority of UK adults (58%) think the strikes are justified, with just a third saying they are not. As the cost of living crisis intensifies, it’s entirely possible that the public is, in fact, sympathetic to workers who complain of being overworked, undervalued and underpaid.
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Lynch has managed to achieve a level of authenticity that politicians spend countless hours pursuing. When he called himself a “working class guy” in response to Madeley’s accusations, it sounded genuine because it was true. Lynch denies that the strikes are presented as politically motivated, repeating as many times as necessary that he is simply overseeing a dispute over layoffs, wages and unfair working hours. He did not raise his voice or appear disheveled, offering a dismissive smirk when presenters try to elicit an expression of outrage or an admission that he is, in fact, a communist sleeper agent.
Sky News presenter Kay Burley has accused Lynch of making fun of her after she sniffed at her reference to the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Turning calmly away from the camera, to the picket line behind him, Lynch asked Burley, “Does this sound like the miners’ strike?” What are Are you talking about?”
Lynch was so effective because he drew attention to the cynicism and knee-jerk hostility of politicians and television reporters. Facing Tory MP Jonathan Gullis, Lynch cut the mock outrage short and said Gullis’s words “are just stuff that gets written to the Tory Central Office for backbench MPs to spout.”
Lynch calmly and patiently calls whatever his opposition tries to bait him. “What do you suggest we do?” he asked Burley, laying out his coded suggestion that strikers might try (presumably by force) to stop agency workers from crossing picket lines. Moving the RMT file forward in a calm, non-inflammatory manner resonated with a public disillusioned with the tally of ambitious MPs.
His estrangement from parliamentary politics, while a victory for working people, is in some ways a disgrace. With someone like Lynch in the House of Commons, we might all sleep better at night.
[See also: Why your flights keep getting cancelled]