Pin It
Screenshot 2022-06-23 at 13.56.43
Via Twitter (@reece_hrs)

Why RMT leader Mick Lynch is the hero we need right now

We speak to trade unionists and labour movement experts to make sense of the ‘Mick Mania’ sweeping social media

This week, RMT secretary-general Mick Lynch has emerged as a new folk hero within British public life. As the rail strike progresses, the internet is ablaze with viral clips of his media performances, with wall-to-wall viral tweets and the TikTok hashtag #MickLynch garnering three million views. He has earned widespread acclaim for the unflappable way he has handled a series of hostile interviews, some of which have veered into the absurd: take Piers Morgan demanding to know why Lynch’s Facebook profile picture is the villain from 1960s puppet show The Thunderbirds. When Morgan described the character as “the most dangerous, evil person in the world,” a bemused Lynch responded “he’s the most evil puppet made out of vinyl in the world – is that the level journalism is at these days?” His media blitz also saw him eviscerate Kay Burley (“we have gone off into the world of the surreal”), Baroness Chapman (“I don't even know who you are”), and Richard Madeley (“Richard, you do come up with the most remarkable twaddle sometimes.”)

A trade unionist is never going to be universally popular,  but for the most part Lynch is going down well. It’s not just the left who are singing his praises: across the political spectrum, the overwhelming consensus is that he’s killing it. Wishy-washy liberals like Hugh Laurie and Ian Dunt are joining in the fun, while even some Tories and right-wing magazine The Spectator have been forced to admit that the man is extremely good at his job. What exactly is it about Lynch that has inspired such intense admiration? And what does it mean for the representative of a collective movement to become an internet celebrity? 

Lynch has struck a chord with so many people partly because he’s charismatic and funny, and it’s satisfying to see bad faith lines of questioning met with the contempt they deserve. But it’s about more than just delivery: he has a clear moral purpose, he focuses on the tangible experiences of the members he represents, and he articulates the underlying causes behind the UK’s rampant economic injustice plainly and convincingly. Over the past week, it has seemed like his interviewers don’t know how to react to someone who isn’t scared of them, and who clearly has no personal stake in whether they like him. With Lynch, there isn’t the slightest hint of ingratiation: instead, he seems motivated by a single-minded focus on advancing the interests of the RMT’s members. 

“It’s obvious that when he goes on TV, he’s not concerned about being asked back,” says Rupert Pickering, chair of RMT Young Members. “He’s not there to make a career for himself as a media pundit, so he doesn’t have to be nice and can just tell it like it is.” As Pickering sees it, the key to Lynch’s popularity is that he’s fighting back against issues which everyone, not just RMT members, is facing. “People are suffering from higher electricity bills, higher food bills, and the poorest people in our society are suffering the most,” he says. “What’s inspiring is how Lynch provides a material explanation and shows there is an answer to these problems, even if doesn’t apply to them right now. That answer is collective bargaining, and I think there’s a latent sense across the population that if this comes off, then maybe they can do it too.” 

For Marcus Barnett, a trade unionist at CWU and editor at Tribune magazine, Lynch’s appeal lies in the fact that he’s sticking up for people who don’t often see their interests championed in the mainstream. “Beyond coming across like a normal, pleasant guy – which he is – he is willing to talk unpretentiously in favour of people whose lives and anxieties are essentially considered illegitimate points of discussion in ‘moderate’ political life,” Barnett tells Dazed. “You see it in the raw condescension he has received from practically every journalist so far – sheer bile he can easily bat off because unlike them, he knows a thing or two about the topic at hand.”

“When you go on the news, you take up or are assigned a particular script or role which all produce a cosy media consensus,” adds Amelia Horgan, author of Lost in Work. “What was unusual about Mick Lynch is that he refused to play by these rules. Instead of doing the kind of by-the-numbers communications that professional politicians are taught, he knocked over the board.”

The enthusiasm for Lynch expresses a longing for a better class of public figure, and across the internet you’ll see hundreds of people asking why politicians can’t be more like him. But, according to Horgan, his style isn’t easily imitable. It doesn’t detract from Lynch’s skill as a communicator to say that there are factors at play which allow him to be so unflappable – namely the fact he’s speaking from a place of genuine collective power. “For me, what’s interesting is how this breaking of the rules can come to pass,” says Horgan. “It requires a particular training – more likely to come from decades spent organising workers and negotiating on their behalf than the standard comms training given to aspiring politicians – and the fact that Lynch is speaking on behalf of tens of thousands of members who he is accountable to. Obviously, this is in sharp contrast to the Labour Party as it currently stands.”

What people are really responding to is a kind of integrity which can’t be faked, which means that there are precisely zero lessons here for politicians in terms of media strategy, unless they’re willing to have principles and act in accordance with them – something which is clearly beyond the Labour leadership. Hiring a PR consultant to teach them how to do a Mick Lynch impression isn’t going to convince anyone. People want politicians who truly and meaningfully stand against injustice, not just viral clips of Piers Morgan getting dragged.

In response to Lynch’s popularity, some are already starting to grumble about this being ‘politics as fandom’; in other words, silly and lacking in substance. It’s true that social media has an innate tendency towards cults of personality and there’s reason to feel ambivalent about this: turning the representative of a collective movement into an internet celebrity risks trivialising the issues at stake. But people aren’t just sharing sassy clips of Lynch “owning” broadcast journalists and their inane questions, they’re also posting footage where he talks about wealth transfer and the power of collective bargaining in a way that makes sense to ordinary people – the further these ideas are spread the better. The fervour around him also contains an expression of hope, possibility and defiance, which is particularly welcome when you consider how many L’s we’ve all been taking since 2019. 

“I do believe these sorts of moments can sometimes reflect the balances of forces in society,” says Barnett. “Certainly, there are no memes from the anti-strike side where there once were. When I was a teenager, there was a song written by two complete wankers about shooting London Underground workers that got millions of downloads. Now, teenagers are making wild thirst trap videos of Mick Lynch with Billie Eilish songs as the soundtrack – there’s some really wild stuff is out there!” While it’s finding expression through new technologies, this kind of adulation is nothing new. If TikTok had been around in the miner’s strike, it goes without saying that people would have been making fan-cams about Arthur Scargill. As Barnett says, there is a long history of venerating heroes from the labour movement, from Bob Crow to Ned Ludd to jailed American socialist Eugene V. Debs (trade unionists would write funny chants about being part of the ‘Gene Debs Gang’). When you think about it like that, photo-shopping Mick Lynch’s face onto a Drake meme is simply continuing a proud tradition of solidarity. 

We should be wary of individualising the RMT strike too much, but at the end of the day, Lynch is a spokesperson for a democratic movement and he’s doing it extremely well. For young people, this might be their first encounter with the idea that trade unions are a force for good – and who knows where that might lead? The RMT has conclusively won the battle of social media and, even though the real fight lies elsewhere, that surely counts for something.