In an attempt to summon the spirit of the late 70s and early 80s — era of the “winter of discontent” and “crisis, what crisis” — political commentators in Britain are making strenuous attempts to enlist the ghosts of the past.
The most popular TV programme at the moment is a thriller called Sherwood whose plotline is based in the community divisions between the National Union of Mineworkers and the Union of Democratic Mineworkers in the pit strike of 1984/85. Right on cue the newspapers have recalled the bogeyman of that long ago age.
“Arthur Scargill emerged from a reclusive retirement yesterday, rather like an old war horse that has heard a bugle”, said one.
But there is an essential difference between those industrial disputes of 40 and more years ago and the 2022 rail strike.
The man leading the rail strikers has a full mandate for his actions following a majority of votes by his members, something never possessed by the NUM’s Yorkshire president.
And public sympathy, for now anyway, is against a government that it sees as malfunctioning, duplicitous, inefficient, and unfair.
Hence the reason why Mick Lynch, the Paddington-born son of Irish immigrants, has won the public relations battle hands down in the first week of a highly disruptive dispute, earning approbation from even those who might be considered implacable political opponents.
People like his calm, no punches pulled, style of response to media and ministerial interrogation.
One one occasion this week he told a government talking head, Chris Philip, on 16 occasions that he was lying, sending him back to the pavilion with his bat smashed and his stumps broken and ensuring that he won’t be getting another first team call any time soon.
Piers Morgan and Kay Burley, old China hands in the dark arts of hostile questioning, were easily brushed aside.
Richard Madeley was laughed out of his interview style by being told that his opening question about Marxism was “remarkable twaddle”.
Lynch — “I’m a working-class bloke leading a trade union dispute about jobs, pay and conditions of service” — is one of five children of Irish parents who moved to London during the Second Word War. He grew up on a council estate and left school at 16 to become an electrician before moving into construction. He’s a lifelong Chelsea supporter, which will come as a blow to Liverpool fans who like to believe they have monopoly rights on working-class heroes.
Lynch’s construction career was blocked when he was illegally blacklisted because of his union activism, a common phenomenon during the time of “lump labour”, a system of casual, cash-only, work on a daily basis which carried no employment rights.
And in this experience lies a strength, and the secret of his current appeal to many people, and particularly those who have suffered from nearly a decade of flatlined earnings, or been a part of the “gig economy”. His truth resonates with theirs, while the claims of managers and politicians register barely at all.
When assertions were made about the need to increase efficiencies on the rail network, they largely consisted of cliches which would be more at home in the world of Fred Kite in the Peter Sellers film satire “I’m All Right Jack”. Ten people required to install a light fitting; statutory rest breaks. And so on, adding to the list of industrial urban legends.
Yet when the first news of “efficiencies” leaks from negotiations the public learns that they involve closing all ticket offices within 18 months with the objective of making customers buy every ticket online or use a machine.
Those who have travelled on railways in Britain may be aware of the gorgon’s head of conditions, restrictions, costs, and incentives which can bite even tech-savvy commuters.
And may be aware, also, that the public hate, not too strong a word, the relentless drive towards automation which was ushered in by the pandemic and is gathering pace everywhere. You can see it with all those who struggle with car parking apps under threat of stringent fines from greedy operators. You can witness it in any chain store where an inadequate number of staff struggle daily to train shoppers in the efficient use of self-service checkouts.
Mick Lynch understands that there is a mounting level of rage, and that people know it can’t be blamed on relatively low-paid workers, of which there are many, on the railways. That is why his inversion of the customary economists’ description, the “wage-price” spiral, into the “price-wage” spiral, is an inspired piece of rephrasing.
Where wage increases have been nugatory for a decade they cannot take the blame for rampant inflation, although they can add to it in the future.
Lynch has been plain in his determination to protect the interests of his RMT members and has struck a chord, even with those whose lives he is impeding. Like other leading unionists of Irish lineage — Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, whose father was a shop steward at the Leyland car plant in Cowley and whose grandfather and great-grandfather were founder members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, and Sharon Graham head of Unite — he has a sense of history.
When he was challenged on his Marxist credentials, he told ITV that his hero was, in fact, James Connolly.
He was an Irish republican socialist and he educated himself and he started non-sectarian trade unionism in Ireland and he was a hero of the Irish revolution. He was a hero.
It is not often that a prime time British news audience gets an education in Irish social history. Mick Lynch may find that his popularity does not last forever but, for now, he is overwhelmingly winning the fairness argument, and that is appreciated by a society where it is in short supply at present.
Nigel Stanley, former head of communications at the TUC, says Lynch has shown “authenticity”. He added: “Everyone can see prices are going up and inflation is hitting them and that’s one of the reasons rail workers are getting more support than the ministers expected. Everyone is facing this and the rail workers are doing something about it.”
A survey this week found that 61% of British adults aged 18 to 75 thought workers had too little power. The ghost of Margaret Thatcher will be thinking that this is not what she won three elections for.