Mick Lynch keeps his cool

Conrad Landin

Picketing railway workers are used to being confronted by irate commuters. Outside London’s St Pancras Station six years ago, when Eurostar workers were striking for a ‘better work-life balance’, an agitated man told the RMT pickets they were ‘going about it the wrong way’. ‘You’re holding the country to ransom,’ he said. ‘You’re standing in the way of progress.’ Without a blink, the unrattled union official overseeing the dispute responded: ‘I’ve worked on the railways all my life, and I know what progress is.’

That official was Mick Lynch, who had recently been elected RMT’s assistant general secretary. Now in the union’s top job, Lynch has shot to cult hero status this week for his unblemished record of calmly facing down Conservative MPs and ill-informed news anchors. On Monday night, the eve of the UK’s first national railway strike since 1989, he called the junior minister Chris Philp a liar no less than 16 times. The next day, he told Kay Burley she had ‘gone off into the world of the surreal’ and said Richard Madeley was talking ‘twaddle’. When a Labour member of the House of Lords, defending Keir Starmer’s equivocation over the dispute, told Lynch not to ‘tell me who I am or whether I’m working class’ (he hadn’t), Lynch replied: ‘I didn’t tell you you weren’t working class, I don’t even know your name.’

It’s only right that Lynch is getting credit for his exemplary communication skills and interview manner, but that isn’t the whole story. His union, Britain’s most militant and – by most politicians and the popular press – most loathed, has developed a particular style of media engagement that long pre-dates its current general secretary. Bob Crow, who led RMT until his death in 2014, took every opportunity to speak to the public directly through broadcast interviews. He was as quick-witted as Lynch. Shortly before he died, Crow was accused by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight of being a ‘dinosaur’. Without a second thought, Crow retorted: ‘Well, at the end of the day, they was around for a long while.’ On Question Time last night, Lynch paid tribute to Crow by using the same line when an audience member said to him: ‘Look what happened to the dinosaurs.’

Lynch’s calmness and clarity is also a result of RMT’s consistent record of putting the principles of decent pay and job security ahead of public perception or establishment boundaries of acceptability. Accused by the Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis of resisting modernisation and reform, Lynch this week reeled off multiple examples of RMT agreeing the use of new technology with railway management. ‘I want a settlement to this dispute,’ he added. ‘I can’t do that with a backbench MP who’s just learned it off a script.’

RMT has the most democratic structure of any TUC-affiliated union, with all officials elected by the membership, and policies decided by delegates at its annual general meeting. Unlike politicians, Lynch doesn’t need to triangulate in interviews because he is speaking on behalf of his members – and is accountable only to them. Even as he was being hailed by much of liberal Britain as an alternative prime minister, Lynch was totally unapologetic when pressed by Robert Peston on RMT’s pro-Brexit stance. The Conservative Party has clearly tried to weaponise the dispute as a ‘wedge issue’ to turn around its dire polling and anger its base ahead of this week’s by-elections; its losses in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton last night suggest the tactic hasn’t worked.

Lynch took every opportunity to be interviewed in front of picket lines. When Burley suggested pickets might turn nasty if agency staff were brought in, Lynch turned round to gesture to the striking workers: he didn’t need to explain what picketing involved; Burley could see for herself.

The three pillars of the current rail dispute are the fundamentals of industrial relations: jobs, pay and conditions. Having subsidised the railways to the tune of £16.9 billion in 2020-21 – up from £6.5 billion in 2019-20 – while instructing the public to take the train only if their journeys were absolutely essential, the government is now looking to claw money back. At the end of 2020, the Treasury decided to cut Network Rail’s ‘enhancement’ budget – the money it spends on new infrastructure projects like electrification – from £10.4 billion to £9.4 billion over the five year period from 2019 to 2024, and subsequently to £8.9 billion.

Ministers have repeatedly claimed that rail passenger numbers are still at 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. The reality is more complicated: leisure travel has largely recovered – on some routes even exceeding pre-pandemic levels – while peak ticket sales are still significantly down. Rail finances depend on commuter traffic, and revenue has been hit hard. The government has demanded that Network Rail and train operating companies reduce their operating costs: as well as curbing pay rises at levels well below inflation, this is likely to mean redundancies.

Employers will also be looking for ‘efficiency savings’. On Question Time last night, Lynch said one proposal was to force Network Rail staff to ‘work 39 weeks of nights, 39 weeks of weekends at night, for no increase in wages and in fact in some cases the railway is saying to us you must have less wages going forward – not just against inflation but against the existing salaries, and … five additional hours per week.’

Because it balloted and announced strike dates before the employers made formal proposals, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has accused RMT of ‘jumping the gun’. But the union realises it needs to exercise leverage not over the employers, but over the government. In negotiations over the past week, Lynch says, rail managers have left the room to ask for leeway from ministers, only to come back with a mandate for an even more hardline approach.

‘It’s a dispute that’s not of our making, it’s a dispute that’s been brought our way by a UK government and a management on the railway that are too weak to stand up to them,’ RMT’s Scotland organiser, Gordon Martin, told me on the convivial picket line outside Glasgow Central yesterday. ‘It’s time the government either unleash the bosses to negotiate freely under the collective bargaining arrangements, or if they’re not prepared to do that, Grant Shapps and co get into the room and meet with our negotiators.’


  • 24 June 2022 at 2:42pm
    Rory Allen says:
    This is really nothing to do with the dispute, but can I make the point that the dinosaurs were not all wiped out in at the end of the Cretaceous. All birds are technically part of the larger clade of the Dinosauria. According to Wikipedia, the birds are classified as avian dinosaurs. Only the non-avian dinosaurs were made extinct 65 million years ago.

    The 'birds are dinosaurs' conclusion has been disputed, but it seems generally agreed now that this is true. There are many transitional forms that show the relationship; North-East China has been rich in these fossils.

    So Bob Crow's point was even more apt than he knew. And calling Crow a dinosaur might have had the extra justification of his name.

    • 24 June 2022 at 3:02pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ Rory Allen

    • 24 June 2022 at 9:07pm
      steve kay says: @ Rory Allen
      Don’t be silly. God made the dinosaurs and installed them in geology during his busy week creating everything. Well that’s what Sammy Wilson says, so it must be true.

  • 25 June 2022 at 7:44am
    MattG says:
    as far as I can see Mick and the RMT are delusional Brexiteers. First they enabled the Tories and now they are surprised that the Tories are getting Brexit done.
    P&O was only a first taste of the shape of things to come.

    The author does not seem to have a clue about Tory anti union policies since for ever.

    • 25 June 2022 at 9:22am
      Conrad Landin says: @ MattG
      It’s you that’s delusional if you think EU membership would have prevented any of this from happening. As well as the EU’s shipping policies, the RMT supported Brexit because of the EU’s pro-privatisation rail policies, which are forcing countries like France and Germany to follow the British model and split up track and train and allow private sector competitors onto the tracks. Of course it was Britain that did this first, but with EU membership there was little potential of ever overturning this.

      I wrote about the P&O dispute and the RMT’s support for Brexit here:

      As for the history of Tory anti-union policies, there’s probably nothing I’ve written about more, going back to the 1919 railway strike (though that was Lloyd-George’s Liberals in coalition with the Tories) and Heath’s anti-union laws in the 1970s:

      The Tories’ a consistent record of attacking unions shouldn’t mean workers have to settle for the EU’s second worst. The only advances workers have ever made have not been gifted to them by the EU or any government, but forced through organisation and industrial muscle.

    • 25 June 2022 at 9:42am
      MattG says: @ Conrad Landin
      What you are writing is a) wrong and b) beside the point.

      In 2016 and 2019 there was only one thing on the ballot. Either Tory Brexit or staying in the EU. The sunny upland unicorns you are talking about just do not exit. Fact remains - and you make no reference to that in your reply - the RMT recommended a vote for Boris Johnson.

    • 25 June 2022 at 2:29pm
      Nicolas Burbidge says: @ MattG
      Why is a) the author's reply wrong? You don't address his point about EU regs. Neither does he mention sunny upland unicorns. Both of you are cariaturing the other.

      However, I agree with you that the RMT's decision to support Brexit was a serious mistake. This mistake is encapulsated in Conrad Landin's sentence: "The Tories’ consistent record of attacking unions shouldn’t mean workers have to settle for the EU’s second worst."

      Remaining in the EU was never about settling for second worst. It was about deciding the battlelfield. Perhaps the RMT believed that a sympathetic Brexit government, possibly led by Jeremy Corbyn, would have removed the EU regs over privatisation and labour laws. But the omens weren't good even in 2016, and certainly not in 2019.

      Using Landin's logic, where do we want to start from: the worst or second worst? The choice seems obvious to me.
      If the RMT continue to believe that the worst is better, then the nicest thing I can say is that I applaud their capacity for imagination and fantasy.

      Watching Lynch on television calming handing ministers and presenters their arses has been delightful - and refreshing given how either ill-informed or straight-up supportive of the government the media, including the BBC, have been for years.

      But I'd like to use the BBC as an analogy for leaving the EU. Just because the BBC is all too frequently complaisant in the face of daily government spite and nonsense, and that some of its major news figures such as Laura Kuennsberg or Chris Mason are evidently Tory to the bone, doesn't mean that we should dump the BBC. Again, it would take a stupendous leap of imagination to think that Britain's media landscape would be better - that is, more sympathetic to workers - without it.

      Looking at the wider picture, I've found that good people I know on the left who supported Brexit seem to think of their position as positively 'disruptive', a sort of softer version of Silicon Valley 'disruptors', unfortunately with much of the tech bro narcissism that implies: Enough of the 'nice' neo-liberal Blairite-Clintonite status quo, give us the real enemy we can look in the face!

      Was this the reason why some of Mélenchon's supporters refused to give their vote to Macron? And was it the reason why some Sanders supporters stayed at home in 2016 because Hillary was an annoying Wall St shill (which she certainly was)?
      And what is the net result in America today? A sharp upswing in activism, certainly. And the end of Roe v Wade.

    • 26 June 2022 at 4:01pm
      Charbb says: @ Conrad Landin
      This Mick Lych is the sort of fellow who will be extremely helpful to the Tories. The kind of stupid, flippant stuff he spouts will alienate the public.

    • 27 June 2022 at 12:08pm
      David Lobina says: @ Conrad Landin
      Let's not conflate the EU as a whole with privatisation; and it is not that the UK did it first, the problem is that these measures are much more ingrained in the UK than in the EU, where many countries have in fact resisted the liberalisation that you are referring to.

      Moreover, it was always one of the main aims of the Brexiteers in charge of the campaign to do away with what they see as the EU's over-regulatory impulse - due to the "ordoliberalism" dominant in Germany rather than the more appropriately neoliberalism dominant in the UK, and which we in the UK are going to suffer more and more in the future - and for this alone the RMT should have considered its stand much more carefully.

      In an ideal world, socialism can't come soon enough; in the real world, I much prefer to live in the EU, and preferably in a southern country (the EU is not a monolith, of course).

    • 27 June 2022 at 2:38pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Charbb
      His name is "Lynch".
      As for alienating the public, polls differ on support for the strike, beween 37% and 56% in support depending on what you read. Of course the wording of the question can strongly influence the outcome. But even something closer to the lower figure is correct, this is remarkably positive given that most people are going to be put to trouble and inconvenience as a result. Lynch is doing a remarkably good job at dealing with inane questions from the likes of Piers Morgan and other right wing shock jocks and bullies.

    • 27 June 2022 at 6:47pm
      MattG says: @ Rory Allen
      "Lynch is doing a remarkably good job at dealing with inane questions from the likes of Piers Morgan and other right wing shock jocks and bullies."

      isn't that the essence of quixotic.: first the RMT asks its members to vote for Tory Brexit then it fields a great champion who demolishes "Piers Morgan and other right wing shock jocks and bullies".
      Boris Johnson was the poster boy in 2016 and 2019 GE. Farange and Ann Widdecombe were the public face for the European elections 2019.
      It was delusional of the RMT and the Morning Star to claim these people would deliver anything except a full on assault on unions.

    • 28 June 2022 at 2:00pm
      Rory Allen says: @ MattG
      You are absolutely right, it is quixotic. But not necessarily therefore completely wasted effort. As for supporting Brexit - and Lynch recently confirmed that support in an interview - everyone has their blind spots. Perhaps what Lynch is achieving is a return to proper debate in the media, something I thought had been lost with the departure of Robin Day (yes, I am that old).

  • 25 June 2022 at 7:51pm
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    I agree that it's a pleasure to see a public figure who doesn't copy and paste his opinions from Twitter, and who treats the smug little interchangeables of the media with the contempt they deserve.

    It does seem, though, that Lynch's lionization is becoming divorced from the question of whether the strikes are going to have the desired effect. So far, he has played a weak hand very well, but there's no denying that, thanks to a mixture of economic and legal changes, strikes aren't as disruptive as they used to be. In a society where most people do jobs that serve no purpose beyond maintaining the circulation of money, and those that do have necessary jobs mostly have more sense than to rely on the railways, does it even matter if the trains aren't running? It just makes leisure travel slightly more of a nuisance.

    For some, no doubt, it's enough that the strikes add incrementally to the impression of decay around the government, and maybe hasten the day when the last worm-eaten remnants of New Labour can slither their way back into what we laughingly call power. But I can't see Lynch being satisfied with that.

  • 26 June 2022 at 11:19am
    belasco says:
    Kay Burley knows about picket lines. She crossed them frequently during the TV-am lockout.

  • 27 June 2022 at 7:57am
    Michael Taylor says:
    Would the EU have prevented the UK renationalising the railways? It's an article of faith for the far-left, but I think it's a constructive interpretation. The EU pushes 'liberalisation'. Yes. But that hasn't stopped French and German rail companies (which are still in state hands) from operating in this environment. The EU wants competition but that seems to include state rail giants competing with each other in an EU-wide market.

  • 27 June 2022 at 6:24pm
    jamesmann says:
    Did the EU force Germany to give its citizens a month of unlimited train travel for 9 euros?

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