As Professor Gregor Gall publishes a biography of firebrand union leader Mick Lynch, he talks to our Writer at Large about the left’s existential crisis

IT makes sense that Gregor Gall chose to write a biography of Mick Lynch. After all, the trade union leader has become a symbol of hope for the Left. Listen to Gall, you see, and it’s clear hope is about all the Left has at the moment.

Gall is among Scotland’s leading left-wing academics, an expert on trade unions and socialist politics. A lifelong socialist himself, he is visiting professor of industrial relations at Leeds University, and affiliated research associate in social and economic history at Glasgow University. His first professorship was at Stirling.

He was editor of the Scottish Left Review, and director of the left-wing Jimmy Reid Foundation think tank, between 2014/22.

Gall knows the Left intimately. So his analysis will make tough reading for left-wingers. In a wide-ranging interview about his new book, Mick Lynch: The Making Of A Working-Class Hero, Gall subjected the Scottish and British Left to a thorough health check. The results weren’t good.

Put bluntly, Gall says: “The Left is in dire need of resuscitation. It’s getting ever closer to the point of being an irrelevance.”



Professor Gregor Gall



That might sound counter-intuitive given the Labour Party looks set for a landslide Westminster victory but to Gall and many other socialists the party of Starmer isn’t authentically Left.

Labour doesn’t embrace “social democracy”, meaning it won’t “use the state to intervene in the processes of the market to ameliorate its outcomes”. Nor will it use “redistribution of wealth via the tax system” to address free market inequities.

“In simple terms,” says Gall, Starmer is “New Labour, not Old Labour.”

First, though, let’s get the good news for the Left: the rise of Mick Lynch, subject of Gall’s latest book.

Lynch, says Gall, “has been the standout figure for the Left. He’s got an X Factor star quality. He’s very self-confident and articulate. He’s a formidable opponent”. Lynch demolishing “hostile” journalists like Piers Morgan on TV certainly cheered the Left.

However, Lynch’s successes can be seen as hollow. The strikes he led weren’t concluded on “the best of terms”. The RMT rail union did manage to “move the employer from their initial offers. Most offers were 2%, and they ended up getting between 4-5%”.

That seems good, Gall explains, but factor in inflation and loss of pay through strike days, and it’s actually “a cut in real terms”.

There was “hostility” to Gall writing this book. RMT officials were told not to co-operate. Gall characterises Lynch as a charismatic “cosmopolitan intellectual”, educated at the London School of Economics. However, hostility to the biography exhibits a “mixture of paranoia and arrogance”.

Lynch is a master of “sharp power”, meaning the art of “being manipulative … He can be rather high-handed, patronising, condescending. He’s capable of using his position to marginalise others and bludgeon them by the force of his personality”.

Loyalists silence critics of Lynch within the RMT with accusations of “doing the Tories’ dirty work”.


About 8,000 striking in George Square amid a lack of progress on equal pay claims from thousands of female workers.

Council workers in Glasgow are pictured at George Square in 2019 staging one of the UK's biggest ever strikes over equal pay



REGARDLESS of Lynch’s faults, he put trade unions back in the spotlight. Yet that didn’t translate into a rise in membership. Indeed, the reverse happened. Gall says the figures are “startling”.

“Union membership in 1979 was 13.5 million. It’s been down to half that – around 6.5 million – for the last six years. The irony of ironies, though, is that after 2022, the year of the re-arrival of unions on the public stage – when they’re striking and even if not winning or getting everything they want, they’re standing up for members – union membership actually went down.”

Numbers fell by 200,000, Gall says. “That’s a salutary lesson. Just because unions are being spoken about and people are more enamoured with them, that doesn’t necessarily lead to people joining unions … If we’re looking, as we might hope, for the reflowering of unions since 2022, then unfortunately that hasn’t happened.”

While Unite has been successful in unionising the hospitality industry, there are many examples, says Gall, of unions which haven’t been organising. Union membership among younger workers runs between 5-10%. Membership is “tilted” towards older workers, meaning when they die or retire figures fall.

“Union poll ratings have almost never been higher, yet membership isn’t increasing,” he adds. The principle issue is: “Unions must do more.” That doesn’t just mean recruiting but “winning more disputes in a handsome manner. The only union that’s been able to do that to any extent is Unite. Of all the disputes since the summer of 2022, very few settlements have either met or exceeded the level of inflation”.

Unite – unlike the RMT – is strong on strike pay, Gall says. So while striking workers take a financial hit, there is recompense from their union easing the blow.

“If unions are to recruit more members they must be seen to be worth joining which means they must be seen to be strong and advancing their members terms and conditions.”

Historically, “the most effective recruiting sergeant is for unions to be seen to be winning”.


THERE is no fundamental difference between unions in Scotland and the rest of Britain. “They’re not more or less militant or left-wing.”

What is notable is how Scottish society and government treat unions. “The STUC has a much bigger voice within public life in Scotland than the TUC in England.”

He points to Roz Foyer, STUC general secretary, writing a column for The Herald. Prominent trade unionists wouldn’t be columnists in leading English broadsheets.

The Scottish Government, Gall adds, “for all the criticisms that can be made of it, and there’s many, is more susceptible to pressure from trade unions than Westminster”.

The Scottish Government and STUC have a memorandum of understanding, so “clearly the government don’t see trade unionists as reprobates”.

However, the SNP’s commitment to ‘fair work, he says, “is great in rhetorical terms but when you look at the application it’s a wish list without really meaning anything … The SNP is good at massaging an image of itself which quite often is a disjunction between that and what’s really happening”. In turn, the STUC has said that independence “wouldn’t be the end of the world”, even though it’s also “been quite clear that it’s not going to make any difference in the here and now as independence can’t be delivered tomorrow, and even if it could the kind of independence the SNP is offering isn’t particularly progressive”.

For the STUC, maintaining this decent relationship with the Scottish Government is tricky. “It’s a difficult balancing position to remain on speaking terms and at the same time try to push them,” says Gall. “Do you piss into the tent or out of it?”

After 2014, many trade unionists voted SNP. Due to the SNP positioning itself as “progressive”, it was “much more sensitive to criticism from those it sees as natural allies”.

Gall adds: “I don’t think the STUC sees the Scottish Government as natural allies – it’s the other way around. That means when you go back to 2022, when bin workers were striking and rubbish was piling up, and Unison said ‘we’re going to have school assistants out on strike’, the Scottish Government did a deal.

“It was susceptible to pressure as it didn’t want to see its reputation tarnished among those it considers a natural constituency who might vote SNP.”



Scottish strikers



INDEPENDENCE has caused headaches for trade unions. Unison was “attacked” by some nationalists for striking, with claims the dispute was motivated by supporting Labour.

“That was a sign of desperation,” Gall adds, referencing “cybernats”.

Among the “nationalist section of the independence movement, there’s not much understanding of what trade unions are about”. Gall says the SNP’s trade union group “is incredibly inactive”.

Unions also had to react to the constitutional question. Unite – “a dyed-in-the-wool Labour-supporting union”

– polled its members, Gall says, and broadly half backed independence. “That gave them a jolt. They realised that to be effective and legitimate within Scotland, they couldn’t carry on doing what they’d done before which was being very supportive of Labour. That was a real game-changer.”

Unite’s position, Gall explains, is now that members “will determine the attitude towards independence”. The RMT is similar. The PCS union doesn’t “take a line”. It’s a tactic of “avoidance”. Other unions haven’t changed. The GMB remains “staunchly unionist”.

There’s no reason “to move to Scottish-only unions”. It’s pointless unless independence happens, Gall says, “or Scotland became a land of milk and honey” where members felt remaining tied to UK unions “was dragging us down. But that’s not going to happen”. Many employers operate cross-border so unions see “strength in unity”.

New Left

AN incoming Labour government will “sorely test” unions. “There will be pressure not to rock the boat, to wait for the government to settle in … It’s going to be a difficult period, messy. I wouldn’t expect unions to come out by any means with all they want. They will have to make compromises that will cause internal problems.”

Gall would like to see a new left-wing party established by trade unions. That would mirror the establishment of the Labour Party by trade unions in the early 20th century.

“There’s little evidence that unions affiliated to Labour are getting value for money in terms of representation of their interests since Keir Starmer became leader – the same is true with Anas Sarwar,” he says.

He adds that “there’s no reason to think things will be any different under Starmer” than Tony Blair. “Starmer is a consummate politician. He isn’t left-wing.”


Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to Warwick University in Coventry. Picture date: Friday January 19, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story POLITICS Labour. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.

Gall says Keir Starmer ‘is a consummate politician. He isn’t left-wing’ Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wir


Gall was a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, which at its high point had six MSPs, 3,000 members and 100,000 votes. He says the SSP is “the best example in the post-war period” of a newly-created left-wing party – though later it “went tits up”, he says, amid scandal around its leader Tommy Sheridan.

Just because there’s a case for a new party “that doesn’t mean it’s possible or even probable … It’s all very well saying ‘we need it’, but how will it happen? Want doesn’t get. It’s not going to come out of thin air, and many people will say ‘it’s the timidity of the union leaders’, they’re the ones with the stature and resource to create a new party”.

Still, when it comes to any new left-wing party, Gall adds, “as a socialist you must live in hope. Otherwise – excuse my language – you’re f****d, aren’t you?”

The Left’s key problem is factionalism. When attempts are made to set up new parties “the left can’t work together”.

George Galloway – prominent in alternative left-wing parties like Respect

– is a “spent figure”.


“Where are the new parties that are doing well? Unfortunately, they’re all from the right. First Ukip, now Reform.

“The left must learn lessons from the Right about how issues can become popularised … Go into communities, find out what their grievances are, and talk the same language they do. Without that, a political party of the Left won’t come about.”

One key reason the Right has gained ground – in Britain and across Europe – is that traditional centre-left parties like Labour, France’s Socialist Party, Germany’s SPD, and the Spanish Socialist Party “ceded ground year on year to the Right” on issues like immigration and “arguments about shirkers and strivers. That made the right more legitimate”.

It also “disillusioned” voters who wanted to hear “genuine left-wing, robust arguments put forward”.

The “absence of strong left-wing” voices leaves voters “susceptible” to campaigns like Brexit. The infamous “£350 million for the NHS” claim, advertised on a bus, “was never going to happen but it seemed attractive”.

Currently, although some hope Starmer may be more radical in office, he’s failing to make a “counter-argument” against the right. “That strategy works for Labour, but it doesn’t mean it’s good for the left,” says Gall.

Starmer’s position makes political sense. Historically, Britain’s media is hostile to the Left.

“You’d struggle to count on two hands the number of Labour MPs in the Socialist Campaign Group, which could claim to be the genuine Left within Labour.”

Even they tend to stay quiet for fear of de-selection. Labour’s Left “has had its wings clipped”.

That’s “replicated” in Scotland. There is only a “tiny handful” of left-wing Labour MSPs. Gall name-checks Mercedes Villalba and former leader Richard Leonard.

Gall adds: “And I don’t think there’s a genuine Left in the SNP.” Apart from Chris Stephens MP, “you wouldn’t find many more” at Westminster. “In Holyrood, I’d struggle to find anyone consistently left-wing.”

Gall adds: “So, in official political terms, it’s very difficult to find a genuine Left. Go outside the political system

and I struggle to find any community leaders or someone of importance [on the Left].

“When you have a situation where Labour is still susceptible to arguments about high taxation leading to flights of capital and disinvestment, it makes it difficult for other people to make [left-wing arguments] or get a hearing.”

Other European nations have seen left-wing parties created with some degree of political success, such as Spain’s Podemos, Germany’s Die Linke, France’s Insoumise, and Syriza in Greece.

The key was “different bits of the Left coming together to form a party and working to get elected, even if it all went pear-shaped afterwards”.

Galls says: “The Left in Scotland and Britain must pay attention to how those relative success stories happened.”

There are many small left-wing parties across Britain, Gall explains, like the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party of Britain, as well as “the remnants” of left-wing groups like RISE and the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland. If they could work together, the Left’s chances might improve.

Those European left-wing parties formed as members realised “the profound crisis in capitalism that societies were undergoing required working together with others and making compromises”.

The Scottish Left in the 1990s was prepared to compromise, which led to the creation of the SSP, prior to its implosion, he explains.

Currently the small left-wing groups and parties across Scotland and the rest of Britain “are just big enough to keep existing. They’ve got newspapers, they can still recruit students”.

Gall adds: “They’re just ticking along, nicely enough on their own terms. That’s one of the factors that’s an obstacle to the reflowering of the left. All these groups have 1,000 or 2,000 members – just enough to keep going.”

However, on their own, “they’re minnows. The non-arrival of compromise is what’s maintaining the sectarianism on the left and maintaining their marginalisation”. Today, most on the Left are simply “habituated to ploughing their own furrow”.


AREN’T the Scottish Greens left? Opponents call them Marxist, after all. “It would be hard to describe the Scottish Greens as Left. There’s a Left within it, but it’s not dominant.”

The Green left-wing, he says, is “based around” MSP Maggie Chapman. Robin Harper, the former co-convener who quit the party, is to the Right and Patrick Harvie, the current co-leader, “somewhere in the middle”.

Greens, Gall says, don’t do much in terms of “local activity. It’s got a big head, but not much of a body”. The same was true of the SNP after its huge surge in membership. “There was f*** all for them to do other than cheerlead Sturgeon.”

Gall thinks the Greens will “find it hard to convince [voters] that they’ve delivered by being in government”.

They “made too many compromises”. Environmental policies collapsed.

“I don’t think they’ll necessarily badly lose, but I don’t see them advancing to the next stage either.” They’re unlikely to increase their MSP tally. The English Greens are “more radical”, he adds.

The Greens’ biggest threat is being seen as anti-working class through environmental policies which financially penalise low-income households.

“They’re in danger if they can be tarred as saying to the working class ‘you’re the problem because of the way you shop or heat your home’. It’s an open goal. There’s a danger they can be tainted as middle-class, idealistic, and not very effectual.”


HIS analysis of the Left has been withering. Is the Left dying? “I wouldn’t go quite that far. It’s in dire need of resuscitation.”

Gall continues the metaphor: “It definitely needs a blood transfusion, maybe bionic arms or legs, some AI in the brain. Steroids. Perhaps ‘nil by mouth’ at the end of the bed.

“The Left is very much down on its luck,” he says. “An awful lot has been done to the Left that accounts for this situation, but the Left has also done much to itself. The Left will always exist … but it’s getting ever closer to the point of being an irrelevance.

“It’s getting closer to the point of no return where it just can’t break out of its marginalisation because of how it acts and behaves, because of its attitudes.”