26. Tanker revolt: seven days that shook Blair


September 2000

More and more open hostility was being shown by Blair’s government towards workers involved in strike action. Imitating Thatcher, Blair mobilised the forces of the state to break a fuel protest by truck drivers and farmers that broke out in September 2000. The Queen, through the Privy Council, even approved the use of emergency powers. Police were ordered to engineer a ‘breakout’ of tankers. Blair boasted that he solved the crisis within 24 hours. We wrote: “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 nationwide), but with the mass of the British population behind them, brought the Blair government to its knees within a matter of days.”1

Andrew Rawnsley wrote in 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.”2

Predictably, David Blunkett and Margaret Beckett suggested that it was all a ‘plot’ 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”. But an Observer investigation into who was behind these events came up with the conclusion that it was “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.” Equally predictably, at the TUC conference in Glasgow which was taking place at the same time, John Monks, backed up by the whole of the General Council, savaged the fuel protesters. We commented: “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… The tumultuous ‘seven days in September’ underline a number of vital points which the Socialist Party has consistently made.”

It indicated that with the explosive social situation building up in Britain a challenge to the government could come from the most unexpected quarters. The fuel protests had been triggered by the successes of the French fishermen, farmers and lorry drivers. But few expected the British to follow that example. Even the French fishermen scornfully commented on the hostility of British tourists in Calais: “The British are cowards, they have forgotten how to strike.”3 We remarked that, while most people really smile and nod in agreement, it was an inaccurate statement of the mood developing below the surface in Britain. The wave of small but important industrial battles on which we had reported in the previous month was an indication of what was developing. The obvious point we made was that a big section of the population was now dependent on a car where there is no cheap available public transport. The immediate effect of a rise in the price of petrol was to worsen the living standards of those who depended on driving for a living, but it also indirectly impacted on the living standards of the majority of the population.

Something similar happened in France when the leaders of the main trade union confederations, the CGT and CFDT, condemned  some of the lorry drivers and small farmers as ‘Poujadists’ (a largely small business, middle class movement of protest). We considered this was a false comparison. The Poujadists of the 1950s and 1960s had little connection with the struggles of the working class, particularly industrial workers. The movement in France and Britain in 2000 enjoyed mass support from the working class. Moreover, we pointed towards the example of the US labour movement in the 1930s, where Trotskyists played a key role in historic and successful strikes which fused different groups of drivers together, including independent owner drivers, into the powerful Teamsters union. They had established a very strong base in Minneapolis. During the Liverpool struggle we looked towards the model of Minneapolis as to what could be achieved with determined leadership.

Different branches of the Socialist Party attempted to act in a similar fashion in intervening in the tanker dispute. Dave Reid, a key organiser for us in Wales then and now, gave a first-hand account of how our Welsh organisation – particularly in Cardiff – intervened: “Two Socialist Party members drove to Cardiff Docks on 10 September to see if anything was happening there.” They introduced themselves to the demonstrators and offered help for the struggle. “The core of the pickets were haulage contractors, their drivers and self-employed drivers. Some drivers worked during the day and slept in their cab on the picket line… Many pickets were owners, probably Tories at some time. During the miners’ strike many haulage contractors crossed the NUM picket lines in the huge coal convoys outside the steelworks. But the fact that some of them might have crossed picket lines was no reason not to intervene. The dispute showed the power that lorry drivers have and they have to be won behind the working class.”

There was no dewy-eyed romanticism: “This movement could go either to the right or the left, but was tending towards the left. We needed to try and link this struggle to the labour movement and to raise socialist ideas as far as possible. This was a strike, with unionised tanker drivers taking secondary action to support the haulage contractors. The oil companies didn’t put too much pressure on the drivers – any threat of disciplinary action would have led to a complete walkout, but there was no evidence that they colluded with the protesters.”4

The Socialist Party tried to gain support from other sections of workers. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and ambulance representatives came to the picket line. A very successful meeting between the FBU, the ambulance convenor and picket organisers was followed by a press conference with trade unionists confirming their support for the strike. By Wednesday, support was growing. An eight car cavalcade of ordinary working class people arrived from Pontypridd. Other visitors were arriving by the hour. A 50-strong taxi protest led by the TGWU taxi organiser (a regular buyer of the Socialist) arrived. A meeting between picket leaders and Socialist Party members discussed further action. Firstly, a Cardiff leadership committee was formed, including a Socialist Party member. They attempted to create a coordinating committee.

Despite all this evidence of mass support for the fuel protesters, Monks unbelievably compared the lorry drivers to the right-wing truckers who helped to prepare the downfall of the Allende government in Chile in the 1970s. Those truckers had been financed by Chilean big business and US imperialism. In Britain this had been a largely spontaneous revolt from below. Participating in the protests were some traditional Labour supporters who said they would never vote for Blair again. Members of the TGWU were also present on the picket lines. This movement had some features of what a general strike, or near general strike, would look like in the way 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.

In no way could this dispute be presented as ‘reactionary’. It had the support of the majority of the population, despite the hardship which it meant. However, terrified by the newly-revealed power of important groups of workers, the government set up a task force, headed by Straw, to consider legislation that would give powers in the future to the government to make a refusal to deliver fuel a  criminal offence. 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.” We drew the conclusion that this meant 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.”5 Indeed, Edmonds warned that Thatcher backed off from banning industrial action in ‘essential services’.

As it turned out, the Labour government did not proceed to introduce extra anti-union legislation at this stage, largely because of the electoral fallout which could have put its re-election in doubt. The mass of the population came behind the strike. It was not the same as 1984-85, when Thatcher succeeded in defeating the miners. It was more akin to 1981 when Thatcher was compelled to retreat and give concessions to them. 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 were being used to distribute oil throughout Britain. The movement had a seismic effect on the development of British politics. Some sections of the middle class, including drivers, had supported Thatcher in the conflict with the miners. But others now confessed on tv: “We were wrong. The miners were right.”6 This movement had been mainly direct action by small business people, although with widespread sympathy amongst workers. Crucially, however, it was the tanker drivers who prevented oil leaving the depots. This was a glimpse of the potential power which working class people have.

On the eve of the dispute the government was well ahead in the opinion polls and was set fair for a big majority in the election, probably to be held sometime in 2001. In the aftermath of the strike the government’s self-assured image was shattered. This opened the way to increased confidence to protest on other issues. There was a massive drop in support for the government. The strength of Blair lay in the clear weakness of the Tory opposition and the feebleness of the Lib Dems. The trade union leaders had ridden to the defence of Blair. Yet in the past these union leaders had been excoriated and attacked by the Blairites. Now they had effectively propped up the Blair government. Commenting on the TUC conference and the performance of the leading right-wing figure, the Financial Times 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.”7

After the seven days that shook Blair, we carried a front page headline: ‘New Labour in Crisis: Out of Touch with Ordinary Working People, a Government for the Fat Cats.’ Blair had a personal rating of minus 34, the lowest for a Labour Party leader since 1989. The columns of our paper were filled with workers complaining about the arrogance of the government: “Unless Blair pulls something out of the hat… for the first time in my life, I couldn’t vote Labour… I think Blair’s arrogant and he’s not listening to the people he should be listening to,” said a nurse at Whipps Cross Hospital, London.8

However, soon after the fuel dispute a terrible train crash occurred near Hatfield on the line from King’s Cross to Leeds. The company responsible was GNER and the crash revealed the shocking state of the railways under privatisation. This showed eyewatering complacency on rail maintenance. The number of broken rails had increased from 750 in 1995 to 973 in 1998 and 937 in 1999. It was no accident that this coincided with a cut in the number of rail maintenance workers. We, of course, called for immediate renationalisation, a demand with mass support as all opinion polls at the time and since have demonstrated. A rail guard told the  Socialist: “Every day we see that maintenance isn’t done, trains are in a bad condition. If we report a fault they don’t like it, they want to run the service whatever happens. If they cancel trains, they have to pay Railtrack.”9

Criticism mounted as the year drew to an end. Even Bill Morris, leader of the TGWU and one of the government’s ‘boys’ against the fuel protesters, made a startling admission – for him – at the union’s conference, when he described the Labour government as “a shambles”. The CBI went a step further, describing Blair’s Britain as being like a “Third World banana republic”. Brown did his best to prettify the image of New Labour in the autumn statement in November. Kevin Parslow wrote: “If you are a Christian, the recent Pre-Budget Statement rewarded your faith – Gordon Brown reduced VAT on church repairs to 5%. If you had faith that the Chancellor would raise your living standards, you would have been disappointed.” Little was proposed, outside of the concessions on pensions and fuel, which would lighten the burdens of working class people. Unlike now, the government was sitting on a cash mountain: “But rather than spending it on wage rises for low paid, public sector workers or further improvements to public services, a large part of the budget was aimed at giving bribes to big business to ensure their further support for New Labour.” Furthermore: “Brown aims to make Britain the ‘best place in the world for multinationals to invest’ – and create the ‘most modern environment for business in the world’… No wonder, with New Labour having reduced corporation tax from 33p to 30p in the pound, the lowest of all major countries and the lowest in British history.”10

As a consequence of the battering which the government was receiving, some commentators described 2000 as Blair’s ‘annus horribilis’ – his horrible year. Without doubt the perception of the Labour government had changed. Gone was the image of ‘Teflon Tony’, where no calamity could stick to him for long. During the fuel crisis he was blamed for every problem – and to some extent he was responsible. Nevertheless, we posed the question: “Why is it that a government that is presiding over such chaos, that is deeply unpopular and pursuing unwanted pro-capitalist policies like privatisation of air traffic control, privatisation of schools, health, etc., seems likely to win a general election?” The answer, of course, lay in the complete ineptitude of New Labour’s rivals, the Tories and Liberal Democrats.11 But Labour’s continued patronage of big business would inevitably see growing disillusionment and anger with the government the following year, whatever the election result.