Last night I dreamt that I was sat across the negotiating table from Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary. “What are you talking about?” he sneered at me. I awoke in a cold sweat.
Plain-speaking and withering, Lynch has mastered the art of the patronising scoff, which he has now unleashed on countless TV interviewers and politicians. As the actor Hugh Laurie tweeted, “I don‘t know enough about the rail dispute. I only observe that RMT’s Mick Lynch cleaned up every single media picador who tried their luck today.”
Dispensing entirely with pleasantries, Good Morning Britain’s Richard Madeley opened his interview with Lynch yesterday on a question absurd enough to make everyone choke on their cornflakes: “Are you or are you not a Marxist?” Lynch, with gentle contempt, replied: “Richard, you do come up with the most remarkable twaddle sometimes.”
Lynch is never verbose. He refuses to engage with political grandstanding and his defence of strike action is articulated in plain terms. When Sky News’s presenter Sophy Ridge asked Lynch whether he was “worried about the impact that [higher wages] could have on inflation” and cited the call by Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, for pay restraint, Lynch replied without missing a beat: “Pay restraint? He’s on £600,000 a year, as is the chief of Network Rail. There are railway bosses taking home millions of pounds every year. The railways made £500m of profit last year, when fares and passengers were at an all-time low… If workers’ wages don’t go up, it means a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.”
It’s an argument that most people can empathise with, even as opponents of the strikes invoke missed hospital appointments, school exams and a culture-war classic: an inability to celebrate Armed Forces Day. “Mick Lynch is proving a pretty remarkable media performer – with an uncanny knack of flustering his questioners – others should study his techniques,” tweeted the former Conservative cabinet minister Rory Stewart.
Yesterday Savanta ComRes published a poll suggesting that the majority of UK adults (58 per cent) believe the strikes are justified, with only a third saying they are not. As the cost-of-living crisis intensifies, it is entirely possible that the public is, actually, sympathetic to workers who complain that they are overworked, undervalued and underpaid.
Lynch has managed to achieve a level of authenticity that politicians spend countless hours striving for. When he declared himself a “working-class bloke” in response to Madeley’s accusations, it felt genuine because it’s true. Lynch refuses to allow the strikes to be painted as politically driven, repeating as many times as he has to that he is simply overseeing a dispute about redundancies, pay and unfair working hours. He hasn’t raised his voice or appeared ruffled, offering a dismissive smirk when presenters try to elicit a soundbite of outrage, or an admission that he is, in fact, a communist sleeper agent.
The Sky News presenter Kay Burley accused Lynch of ridiculing her after he snorted at her reference to the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Turning calmly away from the camera, towards the picket line behind him, Lynch asked Burley: “Does it look like the miners’ strike? What are you talking about?”
Lynch has been so effective because he has drawn attention to the cynicism and knee-jerk hostility of politicians and TV journalists. Faced with the Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis, Lynch cut through the mock outrage and declared Gullis’s words “just stuff that is written in Conservative central office for back-bench MPs to spout”.
Lynch calmly and patiently calls out whatever his opposition is trying to bait him into. “What is it you’re suggesting we will do?” he asked Burley, exposing her coded suggestion that strikers may try (presumably by force) to stop agency workers from crossing picket lines. Advancing the RMT’s case in a calm and non-inflammatory manner has resonated with a public disillusioned with the point-scoring of ambitious MPs.
His distance from parliamentary politics, though a victory for workers, is a shame in some respects. With someone like Lynch in the House of Commons perhaps we’d all sleep easier at night.