Brits might be stuck at home this week, but at least union chief Mick Lynch is giving them top popcorn moments.
The general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union — whose members have brought U.K. rail services to a standstill in a wave of strikes over pay and working conditions — has been running rings around Britain’s TV interviewers and politicians, and even managed the unthinkable: making Piers Morgan look foolish.
The 60-year-old’s calm, plain-speaking style is a far cry from the 1970s caricature of an angry union baron, and it’s got Westminster’s seasoned politicos paying attention in an era when many frontline politicians are seen to lack that special something.
“Mick Lynch has done more for workers in two days than [Labour leader Keir] Starmer has in two years,” cheered the Independent. The right-leaning Spectator magazine was also full of praise for the “rare straight talker.”
A recent Savanta/ComRes poll suggests Lynch’s strategy is paying off, with more Brits saying it’s the government who has not done enough to prevent the unrest rather than the RMT.
POLITICO runs through Lynch’s spiciest interview moments — and tries to pin down what makes him such a good communicator.
Piers Morgan’s Thunderbirds furore
Controversial talk show host Piers Morgan isn’t known for turning in dull interviews, but he might be wishing he’d stuck a bit more closely to the industrial dispute itself after a bizarre clash with Lynch over TV puppets went viral.
The exchange centered on Lynch’s choice of a Facebook profile picture: a snap of villain The Hood from beloved 1960s children’s show Thunderbirds.
Pointing out that The Hood was known for wreaking “havoc on the world” and “an evil, criminal, terrorist mastermind,” Morgan asked the RMT chief if the two have a lot in common.
But Lynch shrugged off the comparison, asking Morgan: “Can you see the likeness?”
Morgan had another go, but Lynch was ready with a comeback. “He’s the most evil puppet made out of vinyl in the world. Is that the level journalism is at these days?”
Matt Zarb-Cousin, who ran comms for Labour’s left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn during his tumultuous time in office, has been glued to the Lynch interviews this week, describing the RMT boss as a “breath of fresh air.”
He argues that one of Lynch’s biggest strengths has been in showing up the essential artifice of talk shows — and trying to go over the heads of their hosts.
“When there’s a line of questioning that he knows is going to go down a dead-end or not going to yield any kind of productive outcome, he can effectively just ridicule it,” Zarb-Cousin said. “And he has the confidence to ridicule — because it comes from conviction.”
Zarb-Cousin said televised grillings can “become a circus at times,” a point Lynch seems keen to highlight in his interviews. “You just have to have the confidence to be able to say that and to trust that the people at home are going to have that perspective as well,” Zarb-Cousin said.
Social media seemed to agree. The clash has currently racked up more than three million Twitter views — although, in his usual modest style, Morgan claimed victory.
Richard Madeley talks ‘twaddle’
Daytime TV favorite Richard Madeley also felt the full force of Lynch this week, pressing the RMT boss on claims pushed by a Conservative MP that he’s a Marxist and asking if he’s into “revolution and bringing down capitalism.”
Lynch shrugged the question off with a laugh before shooting back: “Richard, you do come up with the most remarkable twaddle sometimes, I’ve got to say. Opening an interview with that is nonsense.”
In a theme he’s returned to time and again this week, Lynch stressed that he’s simply “an elected official of the RMT and a working-class bloke leading a train union dispute about jobs, pay, conditions and service.”
That authenticity has not gone unnoticed in Westminster. “Every comms pro’s dream is a spokesperson who’s utterly authentic — not because they’ve been trained to be, but because they’re absolutely clear about who they are and what they stand for,” said Gabe Winn, who ran external affairs for the campaign to keep Britain in the EU and now runs his own comms consultancy Blakeney. “That’s Mick Lynch.”
Francis Ingham, who heads up the U.K.’s Public Relations and Communications Association, agrees. While the journalists interviewing Lynch have all been in “gotcha” mode, he argued, Lynch is “replying to every facetious question with a direct answer.”
“It’s a genius example of the power of having key, simple messages, and most importantly of being authentic,” something Ingham described as “the most underrated value in politics and in media relations.”
Kay Burley’s picket problems
Sky News host Kay Burley has a knack for getting media-savvy political types to trip themselves up, and her no-nonsense style has made fools of scores of Cabinet ministers over the years.
But even she couldn’t get under Lynch’s skin this week, as she pressed him on what will happen to temporary agency workers — who the government is promising to bring in to undermine the strike — crossing RMT picket lines.
Lynch’s answer was disarmingly frank. “We will picket them. What do you think we’ll do? We run a picket line and we’ll ask them not to go to work,” he said, adding: “Do you not know how a picket line works?”
Zarb-Cousin, the former Labour spinner, said some news anchors appear to have gotten themselves in quite a tangle this week because industrial action itself is portrayed as suspect — a point Lynch has been calm and steadfast in challenging.
“In order to interrogate his position, I think they do need to give him space,” he advised reporters. “They need to be able to say, well, what do you want? What are you arguing for? Would you accept this? Would you accept that? Accept the premise of the industrial action.”
It’s not just hosts who’ve been getting Micked — unfavorable comparisons are already being drawn with both the flamboyant-but-posh Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his more somber, even boring, Labour rival, Keir Starmer.
Minister Chris Philp was repeatedly branded a liar in a fiery Newsnight exchange with Lynch. Fellow Tory Jonathan Gullis got hot under the collar on LBC, branding Lynch a “waste of space.” And even Labour frontbencher Jenny Chapman — whose party has been in its own big muddle this week over its position on the strikes — got the brush-off, with Lynch telling her: “I don’t even know who you are.”
Lynch’s colorful style has already gotten strategists in Westminster wondering how they can bottle some of the magic.
But Zarb-Cousin warns politicians — and Starmer’s team in particular — that they can’t just media train their way to emulating Lynch’s success. While he thinks Labour’s media performers could pick up tips from the RMT leader’s “diction, tone of his voice, and the pace at which he speaks,” his real appeal runs deeper.
“I think there’s a reason that people have really latched on to him — it’s because of the vacuum at the moment, the lack of agenda-setting and being able to take positions and argue cases from a place of conviction,” he said. “I think that what’s been missing in our politics generally.”
Other PR pros might want to hold fire too before shaving their heads and adopting a cockney accent to hammer their point home.
Winn, the former No.10 press secretary, is not convinced Lynch’s approach has much read-across for other industries, pointing out that the RMT boss would be “rubbish representing a bank or an energy company,” industries in which every word can potentially tank the share price.
But he heaped praise on Lynch’s “unique blend of genuine care for the people he represents” and knowledge of his brief “inside out.”
“The RMT’s biggest risk going into these strikes was being portrayed as unreasonable, and blamed for the enormous disruption and economic damage the industrial action is causing,” Winn said.
“Previous union bosses have come across as aggressive and unwilling to negotiate — but Lynch’s approach has enabled him to bat away politicians, pundits, and Piers, winning over voters and re-writing the laws of public relations in the meantime.”