Enemies Within

The Press vs. the Workers

Not everyone can handle TV appearances, least of all on live TV shows. No one expected RMT leader Mick Lynch to do so well in televised clashes with broadcast journalists.

Johnson's Scargill. Mick Lynch, June 2022.

By running rings around journalists and Tory MPs, Lynch has become the face of trade unionism in Britain. He defended the national rail strike in clear language and reached a broad audience in the country.

Although the British media class has plenty of attack lines against trade unions, no one saw Lynch coming. Yet the National Union of Railway, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) is a target because it’s one of the few strong unions left.

A vilification campaign has yet to start to pick up momentum, but it’s in the works. Few people like Lynch survive unscathed by the media. Even a man with a relatively clean record like Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t safe in the end.

No serious trade unionist can skip by in the UK without being slimed by the press. Fortunately, Lynch is a straight-talking, working-class Londoner with a clear head under pressure.

Presentation is important in broadcast media. Lynch has the right accent for many working people to identify with. He keeps calm and makes his case regardless of the games people like Piers Morgan and Kay Burley try to play.

The journalist class is a professional class and most journalists come from middle-to-upper class backgrounds. Furthermore, the editorial structure of most papers is fundamentally tied to business interests.

Most British newspapers have a middle-class bias and prefer aspirations of home ownership over work and pay conditions. This is true even of the progressive papers. So most papers have a financial section and a lifestyle section, but no labour section.

Labour reporting is dead in the UK. It’s now a specialist pursuit at small left-wing newspapers like The Morning Star. Yet, in the past, even the most wretched right-wing British newspapers would have a labour reporter or industrial correspondent.

The rot is so severe that the right-wing press can see the problem. Even The Spectator has published an article bemoaning the loss of labour reporting and praising Lynch for his panache.

As the media itself has deindustrialised, the newspaper industry has narrowed and shed correspondents and coverage in favour of opinion, celebrity gossip, lifestyle coverage and advertorials.

By the time Mick Lynch was given airtime, few journalists had experience in dealing with trade union leaders regularly. The result was very entertaining for anyone who dislikes a smug hack.

Trade Union Power

Lynch was on TV to defend the RMT position. This was the first national rail strike in thirty years. Naturally, Tories fear that the strike will force serious concessions which will embolden other unions to take action.

There are already more strikes being called. The spectre of trade union power is back. However, it is a far cry from the victories of yesteryear. Striking workers helped bring down two governments in the 1970s.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) helped bring down the Heath government and the Callaghan government. It’s a shame they got Margaret Thatcher as a result.

The Thatcher government began preparing for its stand-off with the NUM almost as soon as it entered office. Its leader, Arthur Scargill, had played a role in two historic victories for miners, including Saltley in 1972 and the defeat of Ted Heath in 1974.

It was Thatcher who deemed the National Union of Mineworkers “the enemy within”. It was personal for the Tories. It was about power. It was about the structure of British society and who really governs it. It was about class.

Thatcher had the government stockpile coal for two years. The Conservative government worked closely with the police and carefully coordinated the response to the strike at every stage.

The scars of the 1984-85 miners’ strike are still very fresh. The pain haunts the pit towns from Kent (too often forgotten) to the English Midlands and the North, all the way to Scotland.

Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, gave a speech in Parliament on the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike.

“We fought as well as we could, but we were battling against not only the police. All the higher echelons of state were raised against us,” Skinner said. “It’s never happened before, except in the 1926 strike.”

“Men at sixty, who were prepared to salvage the roof over their own head for a 16-year-old lad at a coalfield that they didn’t even know existed. That was honour! And I’m proud to have fought every single day and I’d love to do it again!”

The media went after Scargill. The Sun used a photo of him waving to suggest he was giving a Nazi salute. Even the traditional Labour press joined in.

The Daily Mirror, owned by Bob Maxwell at the time, ran false coverage suggesting that the Gaddafi regime paid off Scargill’s mortgage. The allegations weren’t discredited until years later by which time the damage was done.

In the end, the NUM was defeated as the workers reached breaking point after a year on strike. The UDM broke ranks and split the united front against Thatcher. This betrayal still haunts the pit towns today.

Waiting for the Workers

By the mid-1990s, the enemy within was thoroughly defeated. Mining towns were left as monuments to a dead industry, while the Thatcherites were triumphant. As the NUM sunk further into the abyss, Scargill was becoming a marginal figure.

But Scargill wasn’t done yet.

With the rise of New Labour, Scargill abandoned the traditional party of trade unions to found his own party: Socialist Labour. This was 1996. The Blairite project was in full swing and New Labour was on the verge of taking power.

Nevertheless, Scargill was busy building a new party of the broad left. He tried to bring together a coalition of former Labour activists, trade unionists and far-left sects such as the Association of Communist Workers.

However, Scargill imposed an undemocratic constitution on the party from the start and, almost inevitably, the old divisions prevailed against the background of a triumphant centre-ground.

By contrast, the RMT split with Labour in 2004 over the Iraq war. Bob Crow decided enough was enough. He was not going to stand by and continue to fund the Labour Party when the Blair government had proven it had no time for the unions.

Many of the architects of New Labour – most notably Peter Mandelson – wanted to break with the trade unions and transform the party into a new liberal formation. It would be based on the US Democratic Party.

Later, the RMT helped found the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). TUSC would bring together different trade unionists and far-left activists, including many former Militant members.

Some people viewed this project with cynicism. As a trade unionist once told me, Bob Crow gave the Trots in RMT a new toy to play with so they wouldn’t cause him any problems.

Crow had a knack for finding strange allies. The Millwall supporter who had a staffie called Castro would go for pints with Nigel Farage, a former City boy who had an expensive education.

The two of them had a pact to never discuss the big issues they disagreed on. Crow and Farage were both Eurosceptics, but there was little else that united them. Yet Crow represented the working class Euroscepticism that played a key role in 2016.

Although the Leave coalition was predominantly middle class, the working class played a significant role as part of the swing towards Brexit. All classes were divided, but the balance of forces granted Leave a slim victory.

Every attempt to establish a left alternative to Labour has failed. Social democracy may be a rotten corpse, but most working people find it difficult to tear themselves away from supporting it.

Most working-class voters prefer to stay home than waste a vote for a socialist party. Meanwhile, the revolutionary left spends most of its time talking to itself. This is why so many socialists didn’t think it was possible for a figure like Corbyn to become Labour leader.

In some ways, the UK is back to square one. Except austerity has been discredited. Mick Lynch shows it’s still possible to fight back in a country wracked by Tory nationalism. The future isn’t necessarily as bleak as the present.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Eason. Published under a Creative Commons license.