[Home] [News] [The Socialist] [

Socialist Party Statement,The Socialist, 22nd September.

A Turning Point in Britain

THE DRAMATIC ‘seven days in September’ of the fuel crisis and its aftermath represents the most serious challenge to the Blair government since it came to power in 1997. A handful of demonstrators (one estimate put it at no more than 2,500 nation-wide), but with the mass of the British population behind them, brought the Blair government to its knees within a matter of days.

Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party General Secretary

Lest there be any doubt that this was the case, listen to Andrew Rawnsley, political correspondent of The Observer: “The prime minister looked dazed and sounded confused. Like a man who has come within a centimetre of losing his life in a car wreck, it will take time for it all to sink in…

“The bleakest moment inside Number Ten, so I hear, from within the bunker, was on Wednesday morning [13 September]. Tony Blair’s premiership was 48 hours from meltdown. His jut-jawed pledge of the previous afternoon that the tankers would roll was not being fulfilled. One of the non-leaders of the protests gloated: ‘The government is hanging by a thread.’ This is what the government thought too”.

The panicky response of New Labour during the crisis has been matched by the reaction since. The impression is given that the dispute was merely a ‘middle-class tax-payers’ revolt’. New Labour’s spokespeople have gone further.

David Blunkett and Margaret Beckett have both suggested that it was all a ‘plot’ which had been organised by ‘people who hate the Labour government’. Beckett declared that these people had ‘latched onto the fuel issue’ and were the ‘industrial wing of the Countryside Alliance’.

Those capitalist journalists who have soberly examined the issue, such as in The Observer, bluntly commented: “In fact, the attacks [of New Labour] seem to be plain wrong.

“An Observer investigation into who was behind the last remarkable seven days reveals a ragbag of people, some Labour, some Tories, many apolitical, many who could trace their days of protest right back to the miners’ strike. And the public, as the polls show, seems to be on their side”. (17 September)

The overwhelming majority of the press and media, despite their initial sympathy with the aims of the protesters, speak with one voice against the danger of ‘mob rule’.

New legislation

The very fact that this kind of language can be used, linked to bellicose threats from Jack Straw and New Labour to introduce draconian anti-picket/blockade measures in new legislation, should give pause for thought for all workers – and those on the left in particular – who were tempted to follow the disgraceful example of the TUC in condemning the protesters.

Indeed, at the TUC conference in Glasgow, John Monks (TUC general secretary), backed up by the whole of the General Council, savaged the fuel protesters. In this dispute, the trade union leaders acted in a quite decisive fashion as a wing of the capitalist state in Britain.

The only delegates at the TUC conference who voted against the General Council statement were those from the Socialist Party and a few others.

There is a real danger that this dispute will go down in folklore as a largely middle-class protest and the lessons for the working-class and labour movement as a whole will be lost.

It is therefore necessary to examine the significance of these events and what it means for the struggle of working people in Britain in the next period.

The tumultuous ‘seven days in September’ underline a number of vital points which the Socialist Party has consistently made.

First of all, so explosive is the underlying situation in Britain that events can quite speedily and dramatically pose a serious challenge to the government and this can come from the most unexpected quarters.

The movements in Britain were triggered by the example of the successes of the French fisherman, farmers and lorry drivers. But few expected the British to follow the French example.

The leader of the French fishermen scornfully commented, in relation to the hostility of British tourists in Calais: ‘The British are cowards, they’ve forgotten how to strike.’

We commented at the time that while most people would wryly smile, and nod in agreement, it was an inaccurate statement of the mood which was developing below the surface in Britain. The wave of small but important industrial battles which The Socialist has reported in the last month was an indication of this.

The Blair government and the capitalists as a whole did not see what was coming.

This was partly because of the continuation of the boom in Britain – ‘everything is for the best’ – and the overweening arrogance of the government, particularly of Blair and Brown. ‘We know best’ is the impression they give. Any opposition to them was minimal and would be just swept aside.

There were pointers to what developed in September in the ‘Dump the Pump’ campaign, which was largely middle-class led. Passive protest was their method in the months leading up to September’s events.

The largely upper-middle class figureheads who led this were at pains to establish that they did not wish to ‘transgress the law’.

The cost of fuel in Britain, which is the highest in western Europe largely because of the tax element, has had a serious effect on the position of the hauliers, particularly of the one-person, small business lorry owners.

It has also had an effect on the average motorist and particularly those who are heavily dependent on cars for their jobs and in the rural areas where public transport is virtually non-existent.

The sense of indignation has been added to by the fact that the recent rise in the price of oil has meant between 1bn and 4bn extra income to the government which Brown indicated would be used in pre-election bribes rather than in reducing the price of petrol at the pump.

The high price of petrol has been trumpeted by the government and by the ecological spokespeople, like Friends of the Earth, as a necessary measure to prevent air pollution.

The obvious point that the Socialist Party has made is that such actions should not be taken in isolation. Big sections of the population depend upon the car, where there is no cheap available public transport.

It is a blunt instrument which cannot by itself have the desired effect of saving the environment and preventing car use, without providing cheap alternatives.

Living standards

The immediate effect of the rise in the price of petrol is to worsen the living standards of those who depend on driving for a living, but also indirectly on the living standards of the majority of the population where increased transport prices feed through to increased prices for food and other necessary goods.

The government, allied to the TUC leaders, and most commentators, have derided the fuel protesters as a ragbag bunch of largely middle class right-wingers. Something similar happened in France where the leaders of the main trade union confederations, the CGT and CFDT, condemned some of the lorry drivers and small farmers as ‘Poujadists’.

It is false to consider the present movement in France or Britain as ‘Poujadist’. The Poujadists of the 1950s and 1960s had little connection with the struggles of the working class, particularly of industrial workers. It represented a protest – a futile cry of despair – against the rapid industrialisation which was affecting France and which led to the disintegration of the small farmers and antiquated small businesses.

The recent movements in France and Britain, on the other hand, enjoyed mass support from the working class.

It is true that the movement initially had a large element of middle-class protesters – farmers, hauliers, etc – in its ranks. But this was by no means the whole picture because the protesters were from different layers with a very mixed consciousness.

There was a strong ‘plebeian’ element; small businesspeople, linked up to owner-drivers as well as lorry drivers, employed by the oil companies, some with a trade union consciousness. Ironically, the process of deregulation, of outsourcing the delivery of oil supplies to owner-drivers and small firms, gave the oil companies and the government less leverage over the drivers than in the past.

If the leadership of the labour movement had intervened to give support to the protests but channelled it in a positive working-class socialist direction, many of these protesters could have been won to the labour movement.

The US labour movement, with the Trotskyists playing a key role, did  fuse different groups of drivers together, including independent owner-drivers, into the powerful Teamsters Union.

Unbelievably, John Monks compared the lorry drivers to the right-wing truckers who helped to prepare the downfall of the Allende government in Chile in the early 1970s.

Such an analogy is entirely false. The New Labour government does not pose a potential threat to capitalism as the Allende government of 1970-73 did. The Blair government is a capitalist government. The truckers in Chile were financed by Chilean big business and US imperialism.

In Britain we saw a largely spontaneous revolt from below. This movement has, it is true, involved different groups with differing political outlooks.

Members of the Socialist Party who were on the protests in Essex, Wales and Scotland all reported that there was a variety of opinions amongst the protesters. There was a strong nationalist element with hostility to the French drivers in particular, who are seen as ‘taking our jobs’. (French truckers, it seems, can operate in Britain, because of differences in the cost of fuel, at about 5% below the cost to the British drivers).

This could easily be countered, given the European-wide movements of the lorry drivers which have seriously affected Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, and even Eastern Europe. The need for co-ordinated European action is obvious, with a common price for fuel throughout Europe.

Such a policy is impossible, however, on a capitalist basis. The achievement of this policy poses the need to nationalise the oil companies throughout Europe.

Lorry drivers

There were traditional Tory voters or small businesspeople, many leaning towards the Tories. At the same time, participating in the protests were traditional ‘Labour supporters’ who said they will never vote for Blair again. Present also were lorry drivers who were sympathetic to the protesters and were quite clearly members of the Transport and General Workers Union.

Moreover, as the media reported, tanker drivers were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the protests. The Guardian reported that drivers had been under no compulsion to break through the picket lines from the oil companies.

This led many commentators, and the government, to denounce the oil companies for being in league with the protesters. Undoubtedly, there was an element of collusion by the oil companies, despite their denials to the contrary, in the sense that a decrease in the price of oil would undoubtedly boost sales and thereby their profits.

Yet in reality it was not so much collusion as the interests of the oil companies and the protesters intersecting at a certain point. They both wanted a reduction of fuel prices. The oil companies’ profits have increased massively in the last year through the increase in the world price of oil.

Most of the oil companies’ profits come from the sale of crude oil, not refined fuel. They claim they break even when oil is $13 a barrel. When it is at over $30 a barrel, as in September, they have made “a killing”. (The Observer)

Oil profits

Motorists pay big increases in prices while the oil companies’ profits have soared and the salaries of the oil executives have gone into the stratosphere. In the first six months of this year, BP, for instance, chalked up profits of 5.6bn - 215 million per week, 30 million a day, or 3,800 per second! The five oil companies which dominate world trade will make an estimated 35bn profit this year.

Not content with this huge bonus, the oil companies wish to squeeze every last penny out of consumers through fuel prices on the forecourts. The oil companies deny this, claiming they only receive 1p in income from every litre.

William Keegan of The Observer answered this: “Many observers also seemed to miss the real point of what the oil companies were up to. The oil giants have spent years campaigning against higher taxes and duties on fuel. For them a peasants’ revolt was just what the company doctor ordered. In the middle of the dispute, the government issued statistics showing that the main reason for a benign inflation outcome in August was a fall in petrol prices – repeat, fall.

“What has been happening in the UK is intense price competition at the forecourt. Now the first law of business economics is that, however much they praise the virtues of competition, industrialists and businessmen don’t like it. This competition at the retail end was squeezing the profit margins of the oil refineries. They wanted prices back up – as they indicated perhaps a little too hastily within minutes of the protesters’ action being called off. The first law of all economics is that a sudden shortage doesn’t half send prices up”. (17 September)

Their claim that they only make 1p a litre profit on petrol at the pumps in Britain and that increased sales through price reductions would not benefit them was answered by the oil companies themselves, some of whom increased prices even before all the protests had been called off.

They increased prices just before the dispute began. If there is collusion, as New Labour has argued, why doesn’t the government propose nationalisation of the oil companies as a solution? The furthest they are prepared to go is to hint that they will introduce a windfall tax against the oil companies’ profits.

But it would be entirely wrong to think that collusion from the oil companies was the main element in the refusal of drivers to cross picket lines. It was because of sympathy with the protesters.

Blair tried to argue in his press conference, on Wednesday 13 September, that it was because of ‘widespread intimidation’ that drivers were refusing to take the oil out of the refineries.

And what was the evidence for this? He stated: “Intimidation of drivers with Royal Dutch/Shell reporting that one of its tankers had a brick thrown through its windscreen at the giant Stanlow oil complex in Cheshire”. (Our emphasis) Blair’s statement cut no ice and, in fact, enraged the demonstrators and millions who observed these comments on their TV screens.

The attempt of Alan Milburn, the health secretary, to lay responsibility for the crisis situation in the health service at the feet of the protesters was completely contradicted on Channel Four news.

A reporter, soon after Milburn made his claims, stated that hospital staff at St Thomas’ Hospital in London had not experienced a serious deterioration but had been instructed to play up the degree of ‘crisis’ arising from the fuel shortages. Undoubtedly, shortages there were, but on nowhere near the scale the government attempted to depict.

The key to the hysterical reaction of government spokespersons lay in the statement of Blair on Tuesday (12th September) when he fumed that it was an ‘affront’ that a handful of protesters could determine how much fuel could be released from the refineries.

Thereby was revealed the impotence and rage of the government, ‘the executive committee of the ruling class’, and the capitalist state that a section of ‘the people’ had assumed its God-given powers to determine what moved and what didn’t.

Moreover, once the capitalists, their appendages in the media and, unfortunately, the summits of the TUC, realised the widespread implications of the strike and what it meant for their rule, they acted with one voice to demand that it be called off. The Mirror within 24 hours went from a front page headline describing Blair, Prescott and Brown as ‘empty’ to the very next day shrieking hysterically, ‘Enough is Enough’.

It then carried scare stories about the implications of the lack of fuel for the hospitals, schools, food, etc. One journalist for The Mirror, Brian Read, dipped his pen in mad-dog saliva to compare what was happening with the marvellous struggle of Liverpool city council against the Tories in the 1980s: “Not since Militant ran Liverpool in the Eighties and turned a grassroots hatred of Thatcherism into a mandate for bringing the city to its knees, has so much political wool been pulled over people’s eyes”. The hired liars of the capitalists just cannot resist looking for ‘plotters’ to explain why ordinary working people take to the streets in mass protests.

Neutered Labour

But Read was answered in the same issue of The Mirror by Tony Parsons, who has not been overly critical of Blair in the past: “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 have a God-given right to power”.

The diatribes of the tabloids were imitated by the unanimous condemnation of the so-called ‘quality press’ and even the ‘serious’ allegedly ‘in-depth’ programmes on the TV. Trotsky once remarked that The Times (when it was a serious journal of capitalism and not the Murdoch-ised rag of today) could tell the truth nine times out of ten the better to lie on that one occasion when it mattered for the ruling class.

Something similar has been seen in this dispute. The protesters were presented as an unruly violent mob, which completely contradicts the scenes we have seen on television, the evidence of Socialist Party members on the picket lines, and the statements of the protesters themselves.

The protest vividly demonstrated the vulnerability of capitalism through the very new technology which we were told would allegedly cushion this system from such violent eruptions from below.

The ‘just-in-time’ methods of production and distribution of essentials such as food and fuel have enhanced the vulnerability of capitalism in the modern era to serious disruptions through strikes by a handful of workers.

At the same time, this ‘new technology’ has been deployed by the protesters to further their actions. In the process it has also completely shattered the arguments put forward by those who believed that these technological developments in the ‘new post-Fordist’ world have cancelled out the need for collective action.

New technology, the internet, e-mails, the mobile phone, etc, have been used very effectively to co-ordinate protests throughout the country.

Massive support

New Labour luminaries, infatuated by the magical qualities of new technological devices, and stunned by the speed and effectiveness of the protests, have naturally gone too far in emphasising its importance in this dispute. One minister confided to Andrew Marr, the BBC News political editor, that he believed the “miners would have won if they had had mobile phones”.

The miners lost not because of the absence of new technology but because they were let down by the right-wing trade union leaders who refused to mobilise effective strike action in their support.

One of the ironies of this dispute is that in order to break the miners, Thatcher switched from reliance on coal for fuel and turned to oil and gas, etc. Thatcher’s heir, Blair, has seen this blow up in his face as the protesters and lorry drivers, some of whom probably drove through miners’ picket lines, adopt some of the miners’ methods of almost two decades ago!

It would be wrong to say, as the government and the press have assumed, that this protest was in any way ‘organised’ by predominantly right-wing individuals.

There was, undoubtedly, involvement of some Tory middle-class figures, such as large or middle-sized farmers in the South-West of England, but in the main they were one-person firms and their families who, in turn, attracted ordinary workers to the picket lines in support.

Moreover, every TV broadcast, every article dealing with the real opinions of ordinary people, and the opinion polls, indicated widespread support for this direct action, the largest support for such protests since the anti-poll tax movement. This movement was the biggest and most important since the protest of the miners in 1992.

Support in the polls reached the levels of the 90% backing enjoyed by the protesters in France. Moreover, the most striking thing about the interviews conducted with even those queuing for fuel was that they did not blame the protesters but attacked the government itself.

The dispute was undoubtedly a catalyst, not just for opposition to the price of fuel but for all the grievances which have built up under the Blair government.

Blair panics

SO PANIC-STRICKEN was the government that they were poised to use the army, as the pleading and threats of Blair did not cut any ice with the protesters. He promised first of all that the dispute would be over in 24 hours and that oil would be back on stream.

But when this did not work it was time to bring in the top trade union leaders, such as Monks and particularly Bill Morris, the leader of the TGWU. They acted directly as an arm of the capitalist state in persuading the lorry drivers employed by the oil companies to cross the picket lines.

The TGWU was responsible for persuading drivers in Grangemouth to begin work again. But even this may not have worked if the protesters had had clear aims and understood the full implications of their actions.

This movement had some of the features of a general strike, or near general strike, in the way that it quickly paralysed society, seizing up the ‘arteries of the nation’, as the press put it, while at the same time placing a mighty boot on the windpipe of the Blair government.

To have continued with the struggle, it is now clear, would have brought practically the whole of Britain to a juddering halt. An abyss therefore opened up before the ‘organisers’ of this protest. They decided to call it off because of the fear that a continuation could lead to the possible loss of support in the teeth of a massively hostile media campaign, with huge emphasis being placed on the ‘responsibility’ of the protesters for the shortages, problems in the NHS, closure of schools and so on.

Nevertheless, the enduring image which remains is the colossal potential power of the working class, even of small but decisive sections of the working class. It was not so much the pickets of the oil refineries, but the preparedness of the tanker drivers not to cross them, that displayed the huge potential power which workers in the fuel supply industries have.

Some have compared this dispute to what happened with the so-called ‘Ulster workers’ strike’ in 1974. Then, a group of workers in the power stations brought Northern Ireland to a standstill. We pointed out then that while the strike was reactionary, aiming to bring down the ‘power-sharing’ government at Stormont, it nevertheless demonstrated the potential power of the working class.

In no way, however, could this present dispute be considered to be ‘reactionary’. It had the support of the majority of the population, despite the hardship which it meant.

It also brought to the surface all the latent discontent which has been festering under the Blair government: the crisis in the NHS, in education, the holding down of living standards of public-sector workers, and many other issues.

Terrified by the newly revealed power of decisive groups of workers, the New Labour government has set up a task force, headed by Jack Straw, to consider legislation that in future will give powers to the government to make a refusal to deliver fuel a ‘criminal offence’.

The hysteria in government circles is shown by the ravings of Paul Routledge of The Mirror, who has suggested “making the blockade of oil refineries and distribution depots a criminal offence punishable by fines and imprisonment”. Shades of the Daily Mail, rather than The Mirror of the past!

Draconian plans

According to The Observer: “An essential services act would also apply to water, gas and other key public services in private hands, which would cause huge problems if they were blockaded”. This underlines the completely false, indeed reactionary, position of the General Council of the TUC and of Bill Morris of the TGWU.

It means that the government has now been provided with ‘national’ support, without a national government, to rush through emergency legislation which will be used not just against pickets of fuel stations but workers in the water, gas, electricity and other industries.

Such measures are more draconian than were introduced even by the Tories. Indeed, John Edmonds of the GMB has warned that even Thatcher backed off from banning industrial action in ‘essential services’.

Edmonds and other union leaders have laid the ground for such proposals to be considered by their stand in this dispute. It is bound to provoke massive opposition from the ranks of the unions, if not from the summits who have collaborated with the New Labour government in this conflict. But one thing is absolutely clear: Tony Blair’s calculation in the earlier part of this dispute, that he could reap a rich electoral harvest from his tough stance, is likely to prove counter-productive.

At the same time, it is quite clear that Blair, Brown and Prescott hinted during the dispute that concessions would be made.

As the dispute was trailing off, The Independent declared: “Mr Blair and John Prescott have tried to send a signal that, while there could be no surrender to the fuel protesters, the government will do something about fuel duty in the next budget.

Yesterday Mr Prescott admitted that there was ‘some substance’ in the claims that the government could afford a cut in fuel duties. Mr Brown adopted a more conciliatory tone yesterday, promising to ‘look and listen’ before drawing up his next budget next March”. (14 September)

Of course, Brown had to add that: “He would not make decisions based on barricades and blockades or the short-term volatility of the oil price”.

He has repeated this theme in the aftermath of the dispute. But this is merely a fig leaf to cover what will be in the coming months a probable retreat by the government on this issue.

The government may try to avoid decreasing the tax on fuel and merely give concessions to the hauliers on the amount of vehicle licence they pay, or some other indirect concession. If so, it is not certain that this will satisfy them.

It would not, however, be acceptable to the mass of motorists who supported the protesters. Unless an adequate cheap transport system is put in place, then huge swathes of the population will continue to rely on the car.

Undoing the damage of the Tories’ mad transport problems could take years, particularly on the basis of an unplanned, capitalist system. The mass of the population want action now to lessen their burdens.

Blair undoubtedly calculated, at one stage, that he could act like Thatcher in the miners’ strike by playing the ‘tough cop’ which would redound to his benefit in Middle England in the run-up to the election.

Not included in his calculations was the fact that it was precisely sections of the middle class who were in the vanguard of this movement which, in turn, aroused the latent support of the mass of the population, including the overwhelming majority of the working class. ‘Middle England’, the so-called ‘Sierra man’ or ‘Mondeo man’, was behind the protesters and still is.

This is not the situation of 1984-85 when Thatcher succeeded in defeating the miners. It is more akin to 1981 when Thatcher was compelled to retreat and give concessions to the miners.

Only after she had built up coal stocks over three years was the government prepared for a confrontation. Even then she would not have succeeded if the rest of the working-class movement had directly come to the aid of the miners.

Seismic effect

In this crisis, Blair was completely unprepared. Even the use of the army – a very risky enterprise – with just 80 tankers, would have been completely ineffective. Three thousand tankers are used to distribute oil through Britain.

The army is ‘helping out’ in the aftermath of the dispute, but supplies will not be back to normal for weeks. Because of this, the government, despite the bluster of Brown, will be compelled to make concessions. Otherwise the protesters will be back and this time ‘more organised’, while the government, short of draconian, dictatorial powers, will not be.

Indeed, this movement has had a seismic effect on the general situation in Britain and on the development of British politics as well. On the eve of the dispute, the government was well ahead in the opinion polls and set fair for a big majority in the next election, to be held some time next year.

The latest polls, however, show a massive drop in support for the government. The NOP survey, taken shortly after the protest was called off, showed that Labour and Tories are now neck-and-neck, while another poll for Mori showed the Tories ahead of Labour for the first time since 1992.

The NOP survey shows that 37% now believe that the Conservatives would improve their standard of living, compared with 34% putting their faith in the government.

This is not at all a certain prediction of how people will vote in an election. However, the political situation is extremely volatile. It is now virtually certain that the election will be held in the autumn of next year in order to give Blair time to try and make up the ground which has been lost.

Paradoxically, the seeming electoral return of the Tories could help Blair. When the dust has settled, he will use this to frighten the working class with the spectre of a return of the Tories with Hague in charge!

Volatile situation

But France is a warning of the extreme volatility which now exists and the potential loss which has been suffered by the government in this dispute. Jospin, who attempted a similarly tough line in France, but capitulated to the combined movement of lorry drivers, farmers and fishermen, has lost 20 points in opinion polls with speculation now rife as to whether he personally or even his government will remain in power.

This dispute has underlined the point that we have made consistently in the past that Blair could end up as hated and despised as Thatcher herself. The overwhelming comment made by workers generally, never mind the protesters, is about the ‘arrogance’ of the government and particularly of Blair himself.

The protests have also served to underline that this government, which prided itself, through ‘focus groups’ and selective opinion polls, that it was the most ‘in touch’ government in history, has shown just how removed it is from the mood of discontent that has developed in Britain in the past period.

It is not possible to say immediately what effect this will have on short-term perspectives in the run-up to the general election. On the one side, the government has suffered a significant weakening in its support. But, on the other hand, the strength of the Blair government remains in the weakness of the opposition, particularly of Hague’s Tories.

They are not credible in opposing the government when they were the ones who introduced the fuel escalator when they were in power.

If the Tories had maintained a ‘moderate’ middle-of-the-road position, it is possible that they would now hugely benefit from the mood of dissatisfaction which exists against the Blair government. But Hague, under the pressure of the right, has moved the Tory Party to a right-wing ‘extremist’ position.

We see this in relation to asylum seekers. We also witnessed the statements of Liam Fox, Tory spokesman on health, who has condemned ‘foreign doctors’ for having inadequate ‘English’, which is a veiled pitch for the racist vote.

On the other hand, Portillo has had to retreat from the Tory policy of ‘tax cuts and no cuts in public expenditure’. He has proposed, in effect, without spelling it out, even greater slashing attacks on public expenditure than we have seen under Labour.

Indeed, one estimate puts the amount that would be required to be cut from public expenditure to meet the tax promises of the Tories at 15bn!

On the other hand, the Liberals have been at one with the government in denouncing (although sotto voce) the protesters. Yet this will probably not have been noticed by the mass of the population in the maelstrom of events. It is possible that the Liberals could be the recipients of the growing hostility to New Labour.

In the immediate aftermath, they have reached 21% in one poll. There is clearly an unwillingness to permanently turn back towards the Tories. They have not yet rehabilitated themselves for the damage inflicted under the 18 years of Thatcher and Major. They are the guilty men and women who are viewed almost as war criminals. It is possible, therefore, that the Liberals could grow, could benefit from tactical voting without necessarily increasing their percentage share of the vote, but increasing the number of seats that they win.

In the volatile situation which has resulted from these events it is not clear how the electoral pattern is likely to develop. However, one thing is certain. The outcome of this dispute is not similar to Thatcher’s victory over the miners.

The calling-off of the dispute, possibly temporarily, was on the basis of promised or perceived promises to reconsider the price of fuel in November and the March budget. It will not be seen by the mass of the population as a ‘defeat’ which could be used to bolster the macho image of Blair and his government.

On the contrary, what the demonstrations have shown is that only through action is it possible to move the government and, standing behind them, the employers. The trade union leaders are equally unprepared for the mood which has developed in Britain.

Period of struggle

Again, it is ironic that the trade union leaders were excoriated and attacked by the Blairites in the past. Now they have ridden to their rescue in this dispute, as well as in the struggles over the London mayor and the Welsh Labour Party leadership contest.

Rather than ‘breaking the link’, speculate the right-wing union leaders, the Blair government will be compelled to lean on them. However, they have not taken account of the ranks of the union, which this dispute demonstrates are on a collision course not just with the government but with the very right-wing leaders who are propping it up.

The role of the union leadership was summed up by the Financial Times. Commenting on the TUC conference and the performance of the leading right-wing figures, it stated: “John Monks, the TUC general secretary, delivered a key-note address that (with a slight change of emphasis) could have been applauded on many points by an audience of businessmen.

“He warned against inter-union rivalry; described the need for economic growth, investment, training and productivity improvements; and praised the development of partnership agreements between unions and companies. By contrast, the class war battle cries of Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader, were brushed aside”. (14 September)

They are reinforced in this position by the knowledge that last year British workers were 30 times less likely to go on strike than they were on average during the 1980s. What they and the capitalists have not recognised is that in this period, the last stages of a growth cycle, there is a tendency for workers, particularly in light of the huge boost in income to the employers, to demand ‘their share’.

The impossible living conditions of many workers – for instance, those in London and the South-East with a massive increase in house prices, transport costs, etc – inevitably mean a demand for increases in wages. Seeing the unpopularity of the government and the difficulties it found itself in this dispute, other groups will be looking for action to improve their situation.

Teachers in London, for instance, could move into action to improve their shamefully low pay. (Teachers who teach A-levels have been met by pupils who had just left school and who, in some instances, were getting 2,000 to 3,000 a year more than them.)

Other groups of workers could be encouraged by the outcome of these protests and move into action in the next period. Therefore, rather than the tranquil, peaceful scenario envisaged by Blair and Brown in the run-up to the election, a period of upheaval and industrial movements could unfold in Britain in a winter, if not of discontent, then certainly of ‘unrest’.

Further convulsions are being prepared, particularly in the event of a serious economic recession or slump. Hamish McRae, economic correspondent of The Independent, ruefully comments in the light of the fuel protests that, “the good times have in general helped the government’s popularity ratings”.

But he then goes on to add: “If people can suddenly get grumpy after years of boom, how might they react in a recession, or even in a period of slower growth?” Precisely!

These tumultuous seven days in September are a harbinger of the coming upheavals in Britain and internationally on the basis of events.

The main conclusion which workers should draw is that the situation in Britain today is so fragile, so explosive, that any number of events could trigger an upheaval which could take a ‘spontaneous’ character to begin with but which would quickly raise the possibility of organisation, of programme, and of ideology, thereby laying the basis for a rapid growth of socialist ideas.

[Top of Page]    [Home] [News] [The Socialist]