Socialism Today - Spontaneous combustion
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Issue 51

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Issue 51, October 2000

Spontaneous combustion

    A French spark
    Britain ignites
    The character of the movement
    How consciousness develops
    A new fluidity in British politics

THE CAPITALIST POWERS have been hit by another oil shock, 27 years after OPEC's 1973 price coup which abruptly terminated the post-war economic upswing. Once again, the blow has a double impact: political and economic.

European governments have been hit by a massive wave of spontaneous protests, aimed primarily at the heavy fuel duty which became intolerable when crude oil prices rose above $30 a barrel. Every European state, seemingly without exception, has been hit by blockades of oil depots, motorways, and ports, with the solid support of the overwhelming majority of the public, despite the disruption. In a remarkable development, the initial French protests rapidly spread to Britain, profoundly shaking the Blair government.

Economically, higher world oil prices may take a little longer to have an effect. So far, the price has risen about 50% (in inflation-adjusted terms) above the 1990-98 average, compared with a three- or four-fold increase in 1973. Nevertheless, it is already clear that the rise will have a significant negative effect on the world economy, especially as the US nears the end of its elongated growth cycle. Clinton has announced that he will release 30 million gallons from the US's 570-million-barrel strategic petroleum reserve. This may have a limited cushioning effect on the shortage, provided that no oil-producing states reduce their output in retaliation. In contrast to Blair's intransigence, Clinton has announced $400 million additional federal subsidies for home heating fuel this winter.


Already, there is talk of dearer oil cutting between 0.5 and 1.0% from world growth. In reality, the effect will probably be even more severe. Moreover, the oil price rise coincides with a sharp decline in the euro (whether intervention by the central banks will succeed in reversing this remains to be seen). There has also been another spasm of volatility on world stock exchanges.

Although not as sudden as the 1973 Arab oil states' embargo, this price-hike has jolted the bourgeois strategists. One feature of the triumphalist syndrome was the delusion that the silicon chip had released them from oil-dependency. Suddenly, they have discovered that oil is still a vital, strategic raw material. The interruption of supplies or a big price increase can paralyse the advanced capitalist economies.

The strategists of imperialism also imagined that, after the Gulf war of 1990-91, they had tamed the oil-producing regimes once and for all. But even the Saudi regime, grappling with its own economic crisis, has been pushing for higher prices. Most ironically, Saddam Hussein's regime, the main target of US imperialism's intervention, is now able to goad the Western powers through his on/off manipulation of Iraq's oil exports.

top     A French spark

THE PROTESTS FIRST erupted in early September in France, which has Europe's second-highest level of fuel tax (46.24p a litre, compared to 55.47p or 72% of the pump price in Britain).*France was quickly paralysed as hauliers and farmers blockaded ports and motorways, with the overwhelming sympathy of the public.


Faced with this, the Jospin government quickly retreated, breaking ranks with the other European Union governments and conceding (6 September) a 15 centimes a litre rebate on diesel fuel. While this was accepted by the leaders of the hauliers' federation, it did not satisfy most of the drivers, whose protest action continued. Jospin's concession, however, was the starting gun for a Europe-wide movement. If direct action could win results in France, why not everywhere else?

This time, the direct-action protests spread to Britain, as well as to most European countries, from Spain to Norway. As we go to press, action is continuing in Belgium and Germany, and has also spread to Israel.

The protests have a common feature: massive public support, reflecting a host of grievances, beginning with resentment at the high level of indirect taxes, to which governments have increasingly turned as they have cut direct taxes on big business and the wealthy.

top     Britain ignites

BLAIR AND THE New Labour leaders were furious that Jospin caved in, but confident that protests would not spread to Britain: 'It's not the British way'. The failure of the 'Dump the Pump' consumer-boycott call earlier this year and some government concessions to the road hauliers in March (scrapping the escalator for diesel and cutting vehicle excise duty for lorries) convinced Blair and company that nothing would happen. A great miscalculation. There was fury at New Labour's assertion that there would be no cut in fuel tax, but prices would go down when OPEC agreed to cut crude prices.


Blair, Brown, Prescott and the rest all failed to see that the latest OPEC price rises had made fuel prices intolerable, not just to lorry drivers and taxis, but to huge numbers of middle and working class families who are forced to rely on their cars because of inadequate or, in rural areas, non-existent public transport.

New Labour actually increased the 'escalator' imposed on fuel by the Conservative government in 1993, raising it from 5% to 6% for the 1997, '98 and '99 budgets. Between 1993-98 the escalator's impact on pump prices was limited by the 40% fall in the price of crude oil (in inflation-adjusted terms). But the rise of world oil prices from the end of last year led to sharp increases for consumers, with diesel fuel rising by 14% over the last year.

Protest action in Britain began (8 September) with a picket of drivers, farmers, and supporters at the Shell Stanlow refinery in the North-West, rapidly spreading to depots in Wales and then throughout the country.

Blair proclaimed (Monday, 11 September): 'We cannot and we will not alter government petrol through blockades and pickets'. This intransigent statement enormously reinforced the protest movement. More depots and motorways were blocked. Tanker drivers, in solidarity with the protesters, refused to cross the picket lines. Panic buying from petrol stations quickly reduced stocks and by Tuesday it seemed likely that the whole country would soon grind to a halt.

Taken completely by surprise, the government desperately tried to put emergency measures into place. They unleashed a barrage of propaganda against the protesters, which was repeated even more vehemently by the trade union leaders. Labour ministers and trade union leaders made false allegations about tanker drivers being intimidated by the protesters. The government put the National Health Service on 'red alert', making completely exaggerated claims that essential services were under threat.


The media, clearly under pressure from the government and big business, completely changed its tune. To start with the tabloid press was fervently supporting the tax protest and tearing into Blair's government. 'EMPTY', proclaimed The Mirror (13 September) over the heads of Blair, Brown and Prescott. Not only Blair's ministers, however, but the strategists of the ruling class were now becoming deeply alarmed at the paralysing effectiveness of the pickets. They were astounded and dismayed by the strength of support for the 2-3,000 active protesters. 'ENOUGH IS ENOUGH', proclaimed The Mirror (14 September): "You've made your point", now call off the protest.

While refusing to explicitly promise any fuel tax cuts, Labour ministers began to incessantly refer to the November public spending review and next March's budget. The clear implication was that there would be a re-think on fuel tax.

Faced with all these pressures, the protesters called off the action, mostly very reluctantly. Perhaps only two or three thousand active protesters were involved in picketing oil depots and they had no regional or national structures. Without developing a more organised movement, it would have been difficult to sustain the action much longer. The Road Haulage Association, representing the big-business element in the industry, clearly exerted pressure on the owner-drivers and self-employed drivers to end the action. Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), and other union leaders exerted tremendous pressure on the tanker drivers to resume deliveries. The oil companies began to threaten disciplinary action, while the police took a tougher line. Yet the protesters gave the government 60 days to come up with substantial concessions, threatening renewed action if they fail to do so. This was a retreat not a defeat. The protest action made its point very effectively.


top     The character of the movement

LEADERS OF NEW Labour and their media attorneys vehemently denounced the protests as a mobilisation of 'forces of conservatism', a 'Tory conspiracy'. One commentator (echoing the leaders of the French union federation, the CFDT) referred to the protesters as 'Poujadist', the right-wing petty-bourgeois movement that emerged in France in the 1950s.

These attacks were repeated by the trade union leaders, who effectively became an auxiliary of the government and the state machine during these events. In bar room conversations at the Trade Union Congress in Glasgow, some union leaders were even referring to the protesters as 'fascists'. At the same time, many trade union activists who are opposed to the union leadership were extremely suspicious of the protest movement, in some cases completely hostile. Understandably, they recall the fact that lorry drivers broke through miners' pickets during the 1984-85 strike. They fail to see, however, the real significance of the present movement, which reflects the political conditions of the 1990s.

How should we characterise the fuel protest movement? First, it was clearly spontaneous, not organised by the big hauliers, though they and a section of the tabloid press initially gave it strong support. It was not a Tory conspiracy, nor were the big oil companies actively promoting the action. The social composition of the protest movement was very mixed, as was the consciousness of different strata involved.


No doubt some of the farmers and owner-drivers involved are Tories eager to seize any opportunity to inflict damage on the Labour government. Many of the self-employed drivers, taxi drivers, etc, however, while extremely angry with Blair's government, are not looking towards the Tories for solutions. Some of the haulage drivers said they had changed their attitudes since the miners' strike. Now they understood what was going on. Now they had experienced conflict with the police and misinformation from the government and the media.

The tanker drivers were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the protests. Some are employees organised in unions, others are now self-employed working as subcontractors. Their attitude was entirely different from that of the union leaders. They refused to take their tankers out not because they were intimidated, as Blair and the union leaders claimed, but because they shared the feelings of the protesters.

There is no doubt that the protesters had the overwhelming support of the public. At many depots, ordinary workers from the locality went to visit the protesters to show support and in many cases to take food and drinks.

It is quite absurd to compare, as some labour leaders have done, the petrol protest movement to the Chilean lorry drivers' strike in 1973. In that case, owner-drivers were mobilised and financed by big business in an effort to undermine the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende and prepare the ground for a military coup. New Labour is not a left government, but a completely bourgeois administration, currently more reliable for big business than the Tories. The petrol protest movement was more a plebeian movement, involving different class strata, reflecting popular grievances. Some of the elements involved, under certain conditions, could well move to the right, even to the extreme right. At the moment, however, they are swaying to the left, reflecting the feelings and grievances of wide sections of working people.


The strength of popular support shows that the petrol protests acted as a funnel, channelling and amplifying a whole range of grievances: Anger at the arrogance of the Blair government, subservient to big business, indifferent to popular demands. Anger at the growing burden of fuel tax, VAT and other indirect taxes, while health and education are in a state of crisis. Among workers there is strong support for the idea of 'having a go', of taking direct action - at a time when the trade union leaders are in cahoots with New Labour and resist any organised struggle against the government's anti-working class policies.

top     How consciousness develops

THE CHARACTER OF the protests in Britain and throughout Europe inevitably reflects the political character of the period since the collapse of the Stalinist regimes after 1989. Things were different at the time of the first oil shock in 1974. The general escalation of prices triggered renewed waves of strikes by the organised workers. They were a continuation of the militancy which developed during the late 1960s, when the working class was at the height of its post-war organisational strength and combativity. Socialist ideas, moreover, were at that time generally accepted, in one form or another, as the alternative to capitalism.

The collapse of the Stalinist regimes resulted in a disorientation and weakening of the organised workers' movement. Although there have been big workers' struggles, acceptance of neo-liberal policies by the social democratic and trade union leaders has resulted in setbacks for the working class. Above all, there has been a setback to the consciousness of the proletariat, which is a key component of its strength.


There have been massive struggles by workers against social cuts and privatisation, and also, as in Italy, to defeat ultra-right governments like Berlusconi's. But there have also been broader, populist movements with a mixed class composition, not linked to the organised working class, not with a socialist complexion. Such movements are the counterpart of the bourgeoisification of the social democratic and labour parties, and of the failure of the trade unions to mobilise action on a range of social, economic and political issues. Above all, they reflect the fact that the traditional workers' organisations no longer offer an alternative to capitalism.

The working class remains the decisive class, the only force capable of changing society. In this period, however, it would be a mistake to believe that every phase of struggle will evoke a combative response from the organised working class. It will be through a process of struggle in the next period, perhaps with many unusual detours, that the working class will reassert its role as a powerful, politically conscious force. Many of the existing trade union organisations will be transformed into vehicles of struggles, but there will also be new formations and broad movements, many of them involving sections of the middle class, small businesspeople, self-employed, students, young people, minorities, etc. They will be radicalised by the crisis in capitalism, and many can be won to the side of the working class and socialist aims. This requires a positive orientation by the advanced sections of the workers' movement. To reject in advance non-proletarian, popular movements as right-wing, reactionary, is a sure recipe for pushing some of them into the arms of the extreme right.


top     A new fluidity in British politics

IN LITTLE OVER a week, the Blair government suffered a devastating loss of authority, in spite of riding-out the protest, at least for the time being. There was an almost universal recoil against the government's arrogance, particularly Blair's, for refusing to listen on the fuel tax. After all, not only hauliers and taxis need fuel - 60% of the population rely on motor vehicles.

The government's arguments about protecting the environment didn't wash. Many accept the need to reduce vehicle emissions, but have only totally inadequate, expensive, public transport. In many areas, a car is a necessity. Reducing reliance on vehicles requires, not punitive taxation, but positive measures to develop free, or at least easily affordable, public transport and rail freight services. In reality, the government uses fuel tax to augment its overall tax income, not to protect the environment. There is only minimal expenditure, for instance, on developing alternative forms of energy, such as wind, wave and solar power.

The fuel tax issue, moreover, has focused attention on New Labour's tax policies in general. There is growing anger that, on the basis of increased tax revenue from economic growth, the government has accumulated an estimated surplus of £15 billion which it is holding in reserve for pre-election bribes. Meanwhile, more and more pensioners have fallen into poverty, health and education services are slipping deeper into crisis.


The fuel protests acted as a catalyst, crystallising a whole cauldron of grievances. The government's stance has incensed the very sections of 'Middle England' (the so-called 'Mondeo Man/Woman', named after the popular family car) so assiduously wooed by New Labour before the last election.

The government's inept handling of the crisis destroyed the last vestiges of its image of 'managerial efficiency'. A columnist (Tony Parsons) in The Mirror, far from critical of Blair in the past, summed it up: "Blair's boys didn't see this event coming and now we see them in their true light. They look so horribly out of depth in the current crisis. Not so much New Labour as Neutered Labour... They had it coming to them. For too long, just like the Tories before them, Labour have acted as though they had a God-given right to power". (14 September)

For the first time since New Labour's landslide victory in 1997 some opinion polls are showing the Tories ahead of Labour. This marks a definite turning point in British politics. The Tories' opinion-poll lead, of course, mainly reflects a reaction against Labour, and is unlikely to be consistently sustained. The Tories have still not been forgiven by huge sections of the middle class and workers for the eighteen Thatcher/Major years. The Hague leadership does not provide an attractive alternative to Labour.

Nevertheless, the polls accurately reflect a massive erosion of support for Labour. There is a new fluidity in British politics. There is now a big question mark over the timing and the outcome of the next general election. Blair and Brown were planning a calm, confident approach to an early election next spring, drawing on their 'war-chest' of surplus tax revenues in order to sweeten the electorate with increased public spending and promises of further grand projects. Instead, there will be a winter of discontent and unrest, with the strong possibility of further protest movements and possibly industrial battles. Upheavals in the world economy, presaged by the oil price rise and the fall of the euro, could further cloud New Labour's prospects. The political tempo is quickening.


* One litre equals 0.22 UK gallons, or 0.264 US gallons; £1 currently equals $1.46.

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