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Mick Lynch, Eddie Dempsey

Mick Lynch, Eddie Dempsey. Photos: Channel 4 News, Jeremy Vine Show Channel 5

RMT leaders Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey have taken the media by storm and showed the country what real working-class opposition can look like, writes Mike Wayne

As never before, Kier Starmer’s Blairite tribute act – gloriously out of date after the 2008 crash from which the British economy and British politics has yet to recover – has been made to look utterly irrelevant by the return of the trade unions to industrial action in recent weeks.

At the start of the RMT’s dispute with Network Rail (and behind them the government), Mick Lynch did more in two days to introduce an alternative way of looking at things, than Starmer has managed in two years, or could ever manage no matter how long he stays in post.

The actor Hugh Laurie, not someone usually associated with political interventions, observed on the first day of the dispute that the ‘RMT’s Mick Lynch cleaned up every single media picador who tried their luck today.’ He got 102 thousand likes.

Unlike Labour Party MPs, Lynch does not accept the rules of the media game, rules which include never mentioning the class war being fought by the corporate rich against ordinary people.

Lynch is being ably helped by his assistant General Secretary, Eddie Dempsey. On the Jeremy Vine show, Dempsey was asked a typical media talking point by Claudia-Liza Vanderpuije. Was the RMT being ‘greedy’ she wondered aloud. Dempsey replied that the top 350 FTSE companies had seen profits rise by 73% since 2019.

Refuting the media and political establishment attempt to link wage rises to inflation, we have instead heard a discourse that has pinpointed runaway energy costs on profit-mongering companies. Over on the BBC, Mick Lynch wondered ‘why don’t you [the media] mention profit and dividends…Profit is causing inflation.’

Row upon row of media commentators, journalists and experts are being shown by their starting assumptions, the questions they ask and the answers they give, to live in a bubble of privilege and comfort that is far too close to the political class than is healthy.

When Mick Lynch argued that the two contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party and therefore Prime Minister were ‘extremists’ Chris Mason, the BBC’s political editor, balked at the suggestion. Both candidates seemed to regard tax as ‘abhorent’ (something widely assumed by the media class) where as Lynch argued that ‘tax is a good thing in a progressive society.’

The working-class nature of the movement, the people and the representatives of this strike wave has been constantly foregrounded. Over on LBC’s Full Disclosure, Mick Lynch pointed out that ‘in our union we don’t appoint people from university or sociologists. It’s railway and transport workers who get elected by their peers.’ 

It’s been a pleasure many have commented on to watch working class leaders, organically connected to their class, go into verbal combat with establishment stooges, demonstrate their intelligence, articulate their oppositional way of looking at things and come out on top.

It has also given us a glimpse of what an organised working-class opposition looks like and sounds like. It is quite different from the self-declared and media anointed ‘voices of the left’ who hold no elected position and do not represent anyone but themselves, but who have for years filled the vacuum created by the absence of working-class organisations from political debate.

After Corbyn was replaced by Starmer as leader of the Labour Party, the new General Secretary of Unite, Sharon Graham declared that she would be prioritising the industrial front and pay and conditions rather than investing too much time and effort in trying to influence the Labour Party. Not only the cost-of-living crisis but the hard years of Covid where ‘key workers’ were thanked but are now told by government that claps is all they are going to get, has revivified a thoroughly indispensable sense of class antagonism.

But what is also noticeable is that the discourse of the RMT officials is not narrowly economistic, but is instead defiantly asking the broader political questions. Hence Eddie Dempsey says:

‘This is about our children. This is about what type of country we have. I think everyone in this country wants some very basic things. You want a wage you can live on, a house you can live in…you want a health service that is gonna look after you when you’re sick, you want education for your kids and you want to be able to retire in dignity.’

No wonder clips of Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey launching these salvos of discontent garner millions of views on social media. And no wonder the Mick and Eddie show leads people to ask why someone cast in this mould is not the leader of the Labour party instead of the useless boring robot who is.

In politics, timing is everything. And it is only a shame that this trade union response to years of austerity was not flowering a few years earlier when Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party. Instead, everything was so internal to the Labour Party at that time, a party dominated by a right wing PLP and permanent staff that acted essentially, as the Forde report shows, as the factional wing of the Tory party. Beyond them, the membership of the party is unhealthily middle class and increasingly distant from working class people in terms of understanding, experience, dialogue and political values.

Asked about Starmer, Lynch has said that : ‘I have not heard him articulate values apart from bland tropes’ and he has rejected the idea that the answer to the crisis are windfall taxes (Labour’s policy). Instead, the answer is through pay packets and public ownership. Starmer’s sacking of Labour MP Sam Tarry as shadow transport minister for giving interviews from a picket line, has sparked widespread anger, beyond the small contingent of left MPs in the Party.

Mick Wheelan, General Secretary of Aslef, now also taking strike action, helped persuade the union to stay affiliated to the Labour Party only a few months ago. But now he is wondering what the point of Labour is if it cannot do even the basic symbolic gestures in representing working people.

Meanwhile, away from the media spotlight, other groups of workers are winning concessions, such as Unite and GMB who have won an 8% pay rise plus bonuses and shift pay for their members from British Airways.

Over on the front page of The Daily Mirror we find neither Rebekah Vardy or Coleen Rooney staring out at us, but Mick Lynch’s face glowering over the words ‘It’s a Tory war on workers we must win.’ Amen.

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