This week, the RMT union leader, Mick Lynch, has done something that no political figure has achieved since Brexit tore the nation apart in 2016. He has united progressive opinion, from the revolutionary left to the liberal centre, in praise of his deft and devastating media interviews – almost all of them in the face of hostile questioning.
In part this is simply because Lynch is a brilliant communicator and strategic thinker, as would be expected of the leader of a union whose cadres have long been noted for their acuity, intelligence and determination. But it is also because millions in Britain find it refreshing to hear a socialist perspective on current events articulated with clarity and conviction. Lynch puts the case for collective action with a precision and a lack of moralism that is both appealing and vanishingly rare. He also points out the harm done to workers and consumers by excess corporate profits: a blindingly obvious point that almost no mainstream commentator makes.
As a media phenomenon, the most immediately striking thing about Lynch is that he seems to subvert some of the more tedious expectations of contemporary political culture. Balding white men of around 60 are no longer expected to espouse radical politics; and if they do, they are absolutely not supposed to do it in an accent that marks them as coming from the southern English working class. But these expectations have always been based on cliches and stereotypes, deliberately cultivated by a political and media class that has marginalised the political left for decades. Many of us, when we hear Lynch talk, don’t hear the voice of a unique new celebrity, but of people that we’ve been talking to and learning from all our lives. We should question why we hear their voices on British TV so rarely.
It’s important to approach an issue like this carefully. On the one hand, historians such as Selina Todd have pointed to the decline in the general presence of “working class” people from various areas of public life – the arts, politics, the media – since the high point of the 1970s. This is partly a direct consequence of defeat of organised labour by Thatcherism. Conservative commentators at that time hated the fact that trade union leaders had become household names, and no aspect of our current culture would have pleased them more than the fact that this is no longer the case.
On the other hand, the nature of social class itself is complex and constantly changing. The expansion of universities and graduate employment has meant that far more people are effectively recruited into the professional classes from non-professional backgrounds than was once the case.
And so, since the 1980s we have seen the consolidation of a professional class of senior managers, politicians and media operatives, who tend to share a culture and an outlook, whichever political parties or institutions they may be attached to. Its members tend to be socially liberal, but also utterly committed to the assumption that socialism, and even traditional social democracy, are political philosophies that died with the 20th century. This social group draws members from among the privately educated and from the most successful products of state education, and it occupies the positions of power in many institutions today: from the BBC to the parliamentary Labour party.
What it doesn’t tend to include is many committed trade unionists, many people whose vowel-sounds haven’t been honed at elite universities, or many who are willing to put corporate profits into question when giving interviews about the nature of price inflation. While at one time it was the Labour party itself that was supposed to be the vehicle for bringing such people into public life, for much of the Blair period and beyond it has prevented these people from reaching positions of power, with the exception of the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Recent controversies such as that in Wakefield, where the constituency Labour party complained that local leftwing candidates were sidelined in favour of party-approved outsiders, suggests Keir Starmer won’t break the long-term trend. This is partly why we so rarely hear from the likes of Lynch today.
There is no question that Lynch is a singularly astute figure, or that his union has much to teach the rest of the labour movement and the organised left about how to educate and motivate its members, and how to cultivate a strong and articulate leadership. But in my experience, there are many such seasoned trade unionists all over the country, who rarely if ever find a public platform. These old union hands have a degree of insight, acuity, patience and analytic expertise that would frankly embarrass most professional academics, and every single professional political commentator that I can think of. If the press continues to shut them out, the unions should put some money into giving them a platform: would a YouTube channel devoted to their voices be too expensive to run? The public audience is clearly there, and nobody would ever be pleasantly shocked by a Mick Lynch interview again.