Mark Solomons

In praise of Mick Lynch

The RMT boss is a rare straight talker

In praise of Mick Lynch
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The RMT union boss Mick Lynch is currently dominating TV screens and social media, making mincemeat out of politicians and broadcast interviewers alike. Hapless Tory MPs that attempted to recite pre-rehearsed cliches and dodgy statistics have been gunned down by the mature, considered and, yes, gruffly charming manner of Lynch.

In a previous life, I had the unenviable job of being the Sun’s industrial correspondent, when such jobs existed. It was the late 1980s and early 1990s when unions were important red-top fodder for the very simple reason that, no matter how militant the organisation, their members read the tabloids even if they disagreed with the politics. As a result, union leaders (with a couple of notable exceptions) would talk to me realising that even if the paper was against them, their message stood a chance of getting through. Later, after leaving the paper, I freelanced and spent a few years doing media training. In both lines of work, I dearly wished I had dealt with more like Mick Lynch.

There were always those who, like Lynch, had come up through the ranks having ‘worked on the tools’, doing the jobs of the people they would go on to represent. But they often lacked the calm composure needed to deal with awkward questions and would bluster or say the wrong thing. In contrast, those who were career union leaders were often too smooth, too polished and cleverly evasive in a way that made you think you had got a good interview only to look at your notes later and realised they had not said anything of interest.

Mick Lynch is not a normal union leader in that he is, well, normal. It’s as if he has taken the best bits of previous examples of the job and moulded them into a finished article – the working-classness of a Ron Todd, the temperament of Bill Jordan, the passion of Rodney Bickerstaffe and the wit and wisdom of another rail union leader, Jimmy Knapp, one of the nicest I ever dealt with.

When Sky News' Kay Burley tried to conjure up images of Grunwick or NUM-style flying pickets violently preventing workers and commuters from entering stations, he simply stood to one side to show her a handful of RMT workers allowing passengers to go by. Though she continued to goad him and later accused him of being 'flustered', by the time the interview ended you felt that if this was a boxing match her trainer would have thrown the towel into the ring after the first few seconds, it was that one-sided.

When Piers Morgan used Lynch's Facebook profile picture of Thunderbirds' villain The Hood to suggest it meant he aligned himself to an evil megalomaniac wanting to take over the world, he simply pointed out it was a vinyl puppet from a 1960s children's show to whom he bore a resemblance.

When Richard Madeley continued to ask him if he was a Marxist, Lynch laughed and simply pointed out he was talking twaddle. No change there, his tone seemed to suggest. To be fair to Piers (not a comment made lightly) it was a 15-minute interview, an unusual long-form in this age of snapshot social media clips, in which the RMT boss was able to make an extended and well-presented case for the strike.

On other occasions, he has merely sat back and let the other side ramble on before volleying back a short and pointed retort to completely demolish their argument. It is a masterclass in how to handle the media. Time and time again he is being goaded, provoked and insulted in the hope he will explode like Arthur Scargill on ecstasy.

He has stuck to his guns, confounded his opponents, and used simple, plain-talking language. He comes across as a working-class man who has made it to the top of his profession without selling out his principles, someone who makes it quite clear why the union is doing what it is doing irrespective of whether or not we agree with him.

It strikes me he is bringing to the screen the same persona he uses in negotiations, which I imagine his opponents from rail management would find infuriating. One imagines his style of delivery serves him well in the world of negotiating dirty tricks, something inherent in almost all industrial disputes. 

The ones I remember are only the most obvious. Management would sometimes get the unions to travel down to central London, drawing the meeting out till it was too late to get the train home. Sometimes one side might supply the other with lots of refreshments but not enough breaks, hoping that the desperate need to use the toilet would lead to a quicker compromise. Sometimes the little things matter – I can remember a famous carmaker agreeing to supply the shopfloor with free copies of the Morning Star as a carrot in negotiations with a hard-left shop steward. One former union leader told me:

The postal union would employ 'good cop bad cop' tactics. As they entered the negotiating room, one of the union team would rage at management calling them every name under the sun before another would apologise for his colleague's outburst explaining 'feelings are running high'. It left management not sure which way to turn.

In an age of stock answers and interview clichés, it would be easy to dismiss Mick Lynch as a throwback, a dinosaur from the bad old days. But for the sake of us viewers, let's hope politicians follow his lead and actually start answering a few more questions.