Mick Lynch first entered the public consciousness during the rail strikes of 2022-23, rapidly assuming prominence not only through articulating the concerns of those more routinely barred from the daytime news consensus, but by doing so with a calmness and humour that was difficult to demonise or dismiss.

Even in the face of Piers Morgan’s self-regarding provocation, Lynch maintained an admirable equanimity while declining to be deflected from putting across his points. In doing so, he not only spoke for the decency at the heart of left-leaning values, a concern for fairness largely conspicuous in its absence from television discourse since the vilification of Jeremy Corbyn, but acted as a figurehead, one who could galvanise the hope inherent in representation.

The son of Irish immigrants, Lynch grew up on a Paddington estate. He was also – unlike Corbyn – an incontrovertibly working-class ‘hero’. General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) since May 2021, Lynch had more than paid his dues. Rising through the ranks, he developed skills in organisation after being illegally blacklisted for joining a union while still working in the construction industry.

Launching an unauthorised biography (with which its subject declined to cooperate) at an event at the Alliance Manchester Business School, Gregor Gall, a visiting professor in industrial relations at the University of Leeds, sets out his arguments for Lynch’s importance while picking apart what he perceives as Lynch’s shortcomings.

In Gall’s analysis, winning the debate is not enough – one must also secure one’s objectives. While acknowledging Lynch‘s success in swaying public opinion in his favour, Gall draws attention to the comparatively limited concessions ultimately attained; pay increases which, for the lowest-paid members only, reached up to 14.4 per cent, and an undertaking that there would be no redundancies.

Nonetheless, Gall’s assertion that Lynch might have achieved greater success with more attention to his strategy is difficult to wholly discount. Since the rail operators were effectively indemnified against losses accruing from strike action through government subsidies, a series of short stoppages were of limited value so far as economic leverage was concerned. But, since the RMT was unable to compensate members with strike pay, longer action was unlikely to be financially viable on the union’s behalf. Gall’s contention is that Lynch would have been better advised anticipating the likely form a ‘modernisation’ programme might take, to establish, in line with other unions, a national dispute fund in anticipation of any possible action.

Although Gall finds merit in Lynch’s ability to link his members’ grievances with the wider conditions of neoliberalism, such as its disregard for job security and an insistence on ‘the bottom line’ in terms of wages, he expresses disappointment that he chose not to pursue this further. Tactically, however, the potential snare seems clear; not only might this have distracted from the core message of the union’s strike action, it could equally have provided evidence for the frame that elements of the media were already trying to fit him into, that of an ‘enemy within’, consciously summoning the spectre of Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers at the time of the Miners’ Strike. It shouldn’t be overlooked, for instance, that Richard Madeley had already found occasion to ask Lynch whether he was a Marxist.

One objective that Lynch did take a role in securing was in the successful campaign against the closure of railway ticket offices. Crucially, perhaps, it was a cause likely to win support across the political spectrum, one to which his undoubted rhetorical skills were well suited. That Lynch ultimately declined to be interviewed by Gall, then, remains the question about him that’s perhaps the most difficult to answer. Adept at navigating hostility masquerading as objectivity, the curiosity of a more sympathetic author can have given him few qualms. Perhaps he intends to speak his own mind, in his own book. Until then, Gall’s thoughtful analysis is likely to remain the definitive introduction.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image courtesy of Manchester University Press


Mick Lynch: The making of a working-class hero by Gregor Gall is published by Manchester University Press. For more information, click here