Mick Lynch meets the media
We cannot rely on the ‘balance, fairness and objectivity’ of the enemy’s press and television - we need our own full-spectrum alternative, argues Paul Demarty
Whatever else last week’s strikes by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union achieved, they made a minor media celebrity out of the union’s general secretary, Mick Lynch.
He was always available for comment, as a union boss should be when his members are taking action. We have gotten very used to such people, even leftwing examples of the species, talking rather a lot like politicians - you have your pre-baked talking points, and a good interview is one where the dastardly wiles of the bourgeois media do not succeed in budging you off them for even a moment. It is hardly the most stupid thing to do when talking to enemy propagandists, of course. But it is very, very boring.
Comrade Lynch had his talking points, all right: the attacks on pay, pensions and staffing levels, amidst runaway inflation, that occasioned the walkouts. It was his attitude to the provocations, diversions and hot air of his interlocutors that represented change. I am not sure where he gets it, but Lynch combines an almost completely impassive demeanour - voice never raised, face immobile, but for a wry smile and tweak of the eyebrows - with a talent for total and withering contempt. Faced with Piers Morgan and Richard Madeley, the Tweedles Dee and Dum of extravagantly diversionary bully-boy interviews, it seemed almost as if he was a parent trying to get up the energy to scold a child for a misdemeanour too incompetently executed really to be worth the correction. Watching Morgan rabbit on increasingly desperately about Lynch’s Facebook profile picture, it was almost possible, for the first time in that chinless gasbag’s long career, to feel sorry for him. “This is the level of journalism nowadays, is it?” Lynch remarked, with the tone of mild disappointment of a man who has found a fresh pigeon dropping on his car bonnet. If the Tories succeed in smashing the RMT, perhaps he has a future in the crueller end of reality television.
Just occasionally, the demands of the moment rose above the level of surviving dream-logic attacks by people who have not had to conduct a serious political argument in decades. Pressed on the risk of alienating the public by Tory MP Robert Jenrick on Robert Peston’s ITV show, Lynch asked why his members should take a real-terms pay cut when fares went up in lockstep with the retail price index, and indeed why passengers should find that so outrageous. The real problem was the Tory policy of robbing the public purse to subsidise private companies, which made rail firms attractive targets for private equity rent-extractors.
Can it last?
All of which - along with the shout-outs to James Connolly and other more overtly political gestures - was very enjoyable for, we expect, most readers of this paper. It does not necessarily follow from that, to put it mildly, that the RMT’s cause has gone over well with Joe Public; but gratifyingly the union seems to be backed by a population with no cause to think fondly of the parasites governing its rail system. On the last day of the strike, the RMT puffed an opinion poll conducted in mid-June that found strong support for its policies, including crucially 59% in favour of the proposition that the union was justified in striking if negotiations failed, as indeed they did. The first round of what will likely be a long and bruising encounter has to be awarded to the RMT, whose members maintained good enough discipline to create enormous disruption and whose leadership - for now - has the upper hand in the battle for public opinion.
Can it last? That is the question. For all we have enjoyed the show, it is as much a reminder of what we do not have, and have not had for a long time: for one thing, a trade union movement that is at all militant outside a few heroic hold-outs like the RMT. There is much talk of a ‘summer of discontent’, and let’s bring it on, but we do so from something like a standing start.
The trade unions’ recent period of weakness is, of course, part of a wider period of defeat affecting the whole workers’ movement. For four decades now the legal environment has become more hostile; deindustrialisation smashed some of the movement’s strongest contingents; and the Labour Party swung strongly towards its bourgeois pole. After the brief Jeremy Corbyn interregnum, we are back to a Labour leadership that instructs its MPs not to be seen on picket lines and sends the likes of David Lammy on TV to denounce upcoming strikes in the airline industry.
But, since we are talking about our newly-minted media star, one particular axis of weakness jumps out: our dependence on media organs not at all under our control. The BBC, the bourgeois press, ranters like Morgan and Madeley, are all happy to speak the government’s and employers’ language of ‘modernisation’ when they mean asset-stripping, and ‘fairness’ when they mean punishing all layers of the working class roughly equally, while enriching themselves. The methods used, typically, are quantity- rather than quality-based. There is simply an endless fire-hose blast of such coverage that misrepresents the struggle in this way; the few squeaks of demurral from ‘the usual suspects’ can therefore be dismissed as the ravings of cranks. In such circumstances, a small crack in the manufactured consensus can be acutely embarrassing.
The trouble is that, unlike on the left, lessons are usually learned. In future strikes, Lynch will be handled with more care, and other tactics will be used to smear him and other RMT militants. Bridgeheads into the bourgeois media are worth having, but tend not to last; we must, in the end, always fall back on our own strength - such as it is.
In certain respects, the left media is not in quite such a bad state as it once was. When I first started writing on the issue, there was precious little beyond the advertising sheets of the union bureaucracy; the ‘generals without armies’ bluster of far-left sect papers; a seemingly moribund Morning Star, which sat halfway between those two options; and an endless hellscape of blogs, mostly authored by individuals who considered themselves above the sect-warfare fray, but in reality were ‘sects of one’, as we used to say around here. Today, the Star is a readable and competently administered daily paper, for all its limitations. In a phenomenon more obvious in the United States, the left blogosphere has given birth to an ecosystem of news sites, online and print magazines, and podcasts. The quality is admittedly variable, but ‘variable’ is an advance on ‘uniformly terrible’; and it matters what is published in, say, Jacobin, in a way that it just did not matter what had exercised the late Louis Proyect this week. (The union newsletters and Trot-rags, alas, remain more or less as unreadable as they ever were.)
These newer outlets have a different problem, in some ways the opposite problem to the run-of-the-mill Trot paper. A reader of Socialist Worker could not for a moment confuse it with anything other than a totally mechanical outlet for all the things the Socialist Workers Party wants you to believe. Such a vulgar instrumentalisation of left media is, if nothing else, utterly counterproductive and to be avoided. The new and shiny online mags and podcasts, however, are overwhelmingly just the initiatives of random individuals. They have accidental connections to the movement through the ‘extra-journalistic’ commitments of the people who happen to write for them. Instead of being under the thumb of some tedious and conservative ‘party’ leadership, they are simply unmoored.
This is in the end a problem with the organised left, which cannot find room for the energy of creative individuals, rather than with the individuals. (The Star has almost gotten it right, but somehow also gotten it exactly wrong: instead of the paper serving the party’s project, the Communist Party of Britain more or less exists to keep something like a broad paper of the labour movement viable.) Yet what results cannot do the job of a truly and authentically partisan media apparatus, which is - at root - to turn conquests in the ideological territory of society into permanent acquisitions. The phoniness of bourgeois manufactured consent can be punctured, from time to time, with the repartee of a Mick Lynch; but an alternative consensus in favour of militant working class struggle needs common party organisation. The result would be an editorial line answerable to the party line, and a party line answerable to the membership at large. The former is missing from the new left media, and the latter from the sterile sect papers.
Such a common party organisation is, on a certain view, as far away as ever. The fact that there are worthwhile ‘non-party’ media, indeed ‘partyist’ variants like our friends at Cosmonaut, and that there is a ‘hot summer’ of labour militancy expected on both sides of the Atlantic, reminds us that the elements of such a fusion have gone nowhere.