Union boss Mick Lynch isn’t quite the pantomime villain ministers expected

Lynch is riding the kind of wave Corbyn enjoyed at the height of his unexpected ascent to the Labour leadership in 2015

Cathy Newman
Friday 24 June 2022 17:06
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RMT Union boss Mick Lynch's best TV moments

Mick Lynch is possibly the most surprising pin-up since Jeremy Corbyn was branded a “sexy sea dog” by Mumsnet users.

After his quips and put-downs across the broadcast media, the rail union boss has gained a fan base far beyond his traditional following.

Actor Hugh Laurie tweeted: “RMT’s Mick Lynch cleaned up every single media picador who tried their luck today.”

One Twitter wag suggested Lynch should sashay into Love Island once the strikes are over; another said he’d almost been persuaded to join the union – despite being a farmer. Even that sultan of spin Alastair Campbell was impressed.

I’ve never considered myself a picador (I had to look it up) but I did interview Lynch on Channel 4 News on Tuesday night on the first day of the strike. I’d watched him joust with one presenter after another so I’ll admit I was intrigued as to how it would pan out. He’d taken Sky’s Kay Burley to task over how a picket line works, and he’d accused GMB’s Richard Madeley of talking “twaddle”.

But he was straightforward, appeared to speak from the heart, and answered the questions directly and with the kind of humour that has got him trending on Twitter.

I thought I’d deal with the accusation from ministers that his union is stuck in the past (a valid criticism given what Network Rail says about antiquated working practices) by asking him if he was fond of the 1980s. Without skipping a beat, he responded:

“No I started working in the 1970s, Cathy – strangely enough – I know I don’t look it. But I’m not fond of the Eighties or the Seventies. I’m in the here and now and I want to do an agreement for our members.”

I couldn’t help but smile.

Lynch is riding the kind of wave Corbyn enjoyed at the height of his unexpected ascent to the Labour leadership in 2015 – when Mumsnet users deemed him “attractive in a world-weary old sea dog sort of way”. Nick Clegg briefly basked in a similar public adoration when Cleggmania fleetingly transformed the 2010 election campaign. That didn’t end so well.

But what Corbyn, Clegg and now Lynch share is the sense of an underdog taking on the political establishment, standing up for the downtrodden and the dispossessed.

And while Corbyn went to a private prep and grew up in a 17th-century manor house, and Clegg went to the exclusive Westminster School, Lynch is the genuine working-class article. Raised in poverty in Paddington in “rented rooms that would now be called slums, the old tin bath and shared toilet with other families”, as he’s since recalled, he left school at 16 and qualified as an electrician.

I take issue (as you’d expect) with the notion that the “MSM” – as Corbynistas and the Lynch-lovers call a supposedly compliant media – is biased in favour of the Tories. Immediately before my Lynch interview, I’d tackled minister Michelle Donelan equally robustly.

It’s surprising perhaps that despite the disruption caused by day one of the strikes, Lynch appears to be winning the PR offensive against the government so far. But for how long?

Outside the social media echo chambers, it’s hard to judge where true public sympathy lies.

A Savanta ComRes poll found that 58 per cent of British adults believed the rail strikes to be “justified”. But YouGov declared that only 37 per cent of Britons support the stoppages. People might back higher pay for workers in theory, but once it starts to affect them in practice, it’s a different matter.

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This might suggest that an “attritional” war – as Lynch described it in my interview – could see public sympathy for the RMT rapidly drain away. However, there are big risks for the government too from a long period of industrial strife.

In the 1970s, Ted Heath, faced with widespread strikes and uncollected rubbish in the streets, called an election to answer the question “who governs Britain – the unions or the government?” A hung parliament ensued, followed by a Labour government later the same year. Boris Johnson will be hoping he’s less Ted and more Maggie, whose protracted dispute with the miners in 1984-85 has passed into Tory legend.

Ministers are fairly confident Lynch will turn out to be another Arthur Scargill, the miners’ union leader who became something of a public bogeyman in the 1980s and incidentally turned up on the RMT picket line in Wakefield this week.

But they must be nervous that instead of being booed by the public as a pantomime villain, in some quarters at least, his performance is seeing him cheered to the rafters.

Cathy Newman is presenter and investigations editor for Channel 4 News

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