The Socialist 3 June 2008
Don't just get angry - get active
Target 'ecological' taxes at the biggest polluters
Across Europe, farmers, fishermen, lorry drivers and others have been protesting against increased fuel costs. In Britain, hauliers and their supporters slowly drove down motorways. Motorcyclists in Manchester are planning a similar protest.
In Portugal, Spain and France, fishermen have blockaded ports and refused to take their boats out in a wave of strikes that have hit the industry. In France and Spain oil depots as well were blockaded by farmers protesting at the increased cost of fuel. In Bulgaria bus drivers and lorry drivers took strike action for the same reason.
These protests have caused some panic in capitalist governments across Europe, and are applying pressure on them. Behind the anger is the rapid rise in the price of oil. Crude oil prices have shot up, now standing at over $135 a barrel. The effect on prices at the pump has been dramatic. The International Herald Tribune pointed out that the cost of diesel has gone up in Britain by 40%, before tax, in the last 12 months.
The protests are also against the level of government taxes on petrol and diesel. When the government's 58% tax is added, British diesel is the most expensive in Europe. A 2p a litre increase in fuel tax has been postponed but the government still intends to implement it in October.
Added to this, there is outrage about the government's decision to increase vehicle road tax further than at present, for the most polluting cars. 42 MPs have called on the government to halt this, although some of them do not oppose increased charges, but rather the retrospective element, ie that people who have already bought more polluting cars (that were registered after 2001) did not know when they bought them that they would face a higher road tax.
These road tax increases will not just hit the luxury end of the car market; many ordinary families will be hit too. The government's taxes on vehicles and vehicle fuel are not progressive in the sense of being based on ability to pay. Every vehicle owner, irrespective of circumstances, is forced to pay. Many working-class car, van and lorry owners depend on their vehicles and yet pay a much higher proportion of their income on road tax and fuel than the rich do. So when the government now declares that high fuel and road taxes are needed to combat global warming, they are trying to force working and middle class people to bear the greatest burden of it.
The environment is of great concern to working-class people. But fossil fuels cannot simply be taxed out of existence without alternative energy sources being developed. And it is the super wealthy and the major corporations that are by far the greatest polluters of the planet and contributors to global warming. Rather than forcing working-class people to pay more taxes in the name of the environment, any 'ecological' taxes should be targeted at the biggest polluters, or based on ability to pay, or at least aimed at genuine luxury items rather than necessities.
Trade union leader Derek Simpson and others are right to call for a windfall tax on the energy companies. New Labour raised £5 billion from such a measure in 1997, but are even more in thrall to big business now than they were then, making similar action less likely.
It is urgent for the environment that people are given a real choice between using private vehicles and using public transport, as public transport is much less polluting per traveller. A real choice for many people would only be presented through massive government investment into a fully integrated and publicly owned transport system, making it highly accessible for all, at all times and with low fares. This must be accompanied by an extensive programme of research and development into alternative energy sources to the use of fossil fuels.
Unfortunately too many in the ecological movement accept the argument that we only need to change our personal lifestyles to make things better. In other words they blame the individual and do not look at the underlying cause of global warming and damage to the environment, which is that we live under a system that is based on the accumulation of profits by a small minority of people.
When 'ecological' taxes such as higher fuel and road tax are introduced, the rich can still easily afford to travel as they like and to continue to buy and consume all manner of luxurious products. It is only the poor who are forced to cut their travel or consumption of products which add to their 'carbon footprint', including some basic necessities. This is at a time when the pay of working-class people is under attack.
So The Socialist opposes penalising ordinary people with higher taxes in the name of saving the environment. The other large issue raised by the fuel protests, and which was the trigger for them, is the present worldwide price of oil. There are a number of reasons behind this price escalation, which will be analysed in next week's issue of The Socialist. But the solution can only lie in the promotion of a socialist alternative to the greed and unplanned nature of the capitalist market. The top energy companies globally - that are making record profits - must be taken into public ownership, and all energy production, whether presently state owned or private, be placed under democratic workers' control and management.
In this issue
Environment and socialism
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party review
Socialist Party youth and students
Environment: Nuclear power
International socialist news and analysis