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5 days that shook Blair

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Issue 1715

Fuel protests tapped bitterness

5 days that shook Blair

THE FUEL blockades and the massive public support for them lifted the lid on the deep bitterness inside British society. That bitterness against New Labour does not exist just among workers. There are many small owners and self employed people who feel angry about the government.

These people were behind the blockades. The class of small owners and self employed people has grown in recent years as companies contract out and the public sector uses more private firms. Much privatisation and contracting out involves big companies whose employees are wage workers. But small outfits have also mushroomed.

People who would previously have been employed by a big firm find themselves self employed or members of a little partnership. They are hit hard by the ups and downs of the economy, and for many the fear of hardship and bankruptcy is never far away.

This does not mean they are left wing. Their anger is often turned against competitors and organised labour rather than the bosses. One typical example of last week’s protesters is Steve Bryant, a haulage contractor from Evesham in Worcestershire.

He had driven supplies through the miners’ picket lines in 1984-5 although he says, “I was young at the time and didn’t understand. But that was different. Yes, they were fighting for their livelihoods like us, but that was organised political picketing. This is a spontaneous grassroots protest. Most of us are self employed, probably Tory voters-the last people to defy the elected order.”

These small owners are torn two ways. One part of them identifies with people at the bottom of society who are suffering. Another part looks upwards towards leadership from the giant firms and the right wing politicians. There were very large haulage firms involved last week. Lorries from Eddie Stobart’s firm were part of the protests.

Stobart has a family fortune of 70 million and controls around 1,000 lorries. The oil companies did not conspire to start the protests. But they helped them once they began.

The Daily Telegraph reported how BP dealt with the blockade at the Kingsbury terminal in Warwickshire: “Tea and bacon sandwiches served to the protesters from the canteen of the very terminal they were blockading reinforced the sense of comfortable camaraderie.” One of the blockaders at the Stanlow refinery in Cheshire said, “Shell are right behind us. They have supplied hot coffee and refreshments. They’ve been great.”

It need hardly be said that this has not been capitalists’ usual reaction to pickets. The companies resolutely refused to consider legal action against the blockades. Andrew Ward, corporate communications manager of Total, said, “We are advised injunctions would be difficult because the protest is not by an official union presence, so therefore it would be difficult to serve injunctions.”

Farmers join blockades

SOME FARMERS rushed to support the protest-although they have no right to complain about the price of fuel. About 200,000 farmers have the perk of “red diesel”-fuel delivered directly to the farm at 24p a litre instead of the normal price of over 80p.

The farmers saw their chance to raise their grievances over falling incomes (for some) and restrictions due to mad cow disease. The protesting farmers were a mixed bunch. They included David Handley chairman of Farmers For Action, the most militant group involved in the blockades.

He is a tenant on an 88-acre farm in Wales. This is a small farm. Farmers For Action vice-chairman Kelvin Lindsey owns an artificial insemination business-but calls himself a “diehard socialist”.

Also involved in the protests was one of FFA’s founders, Derek Mead. He has a 1,600-acre arable and dairy farm in Somerset with 380 cows. This makes him a rich farmer.

This contradictory and confused movement was seized upon immediately by sections of the right wing. They were quite comfortable with protests that just called for a cut in fuel tax-a move that would help corporations like Stobart, TNT and the supermarkets the most-and did not at all target the massive profits of the oil giants.

Tories on bandwagon

The right’s task was made far easier by the trade union leaders’ refusal to provide any focus of active opposition to the government. It might have been very different last week if the unions had called for blockades over pensions, NHS funding and low pay.

Such demands would have sorted out those who were involved in the fuel blockades and offered a way for millions of workers to organise around issues that mattered most to them.

The fact that 75 percent of people backed the protests is a reflection of the general bitterness rather than the particular issue of fuel. In the absence of a lead from the unions, the right was able to climb on the bandwagon.

The Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail offered support to people whose tactics the same papers would have utterly condemned if they were trade unionists, environmentalists or peace campaigners.

Top Tories identified with the protesters and tried to become a focus for their anger. New Labour just condemned the protests and begged the oil companies to “play fair” with a government that has done everything in its power to prove it is business friendly.

The oil companies eventually agreed to restart deliveries-but on the urging of the Confederation of British Industry rather than Tony Blair. Last week’s protests are a further sign of the potential for British people to “act like the French”, to adopt the most militant methods and defy the law.

But they are also a warning and challenge to the left. They show that not all outbursts of anger at the government are automatically left wing. They emphasise the need for the left to be big enough and active enough to become the dominant focus for those who are furious at Blair.

A confident and combative workers’ movement could not only mobilise millions of trade unionists, the unemployed and pensioners. It could also split the small owners and businessmen and at least neutralise the pull of the right.

Sympathy from the cops

THE POLICE responded entirely differently to this crisis from how they would have done if the unions had been involved. Sir John Evans, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, stressed “the need to balance the rights of protesters against the rights of others”.

The idea that this principle guides the police would certainly come as a shock to anyone who has stood on a picket line or taken part in events like this year’s May Day march in London.

Inspector Grant Adern at the Stanlow refinery praised the protesters, saying, “This has been an example of what can be achieved if people remain in dialogue.” The police never bothered much with dialogue when they were beating people during the miners’ strike or at the Welling demonstration against the Nazi British National Party headquarters in 1993.

Union inaction

THROUGHOUT THE fuel crisis the trade union leaders stood absolutely with the government. TGWU union officials used their members to provide information to the authorities from inside the refineries.

The justification the union leaders gave for their position was that the protests were organised by a very right wing coalition of oil bosses, farmers and haulage companies.

Yet at the end of last week the TUC announced it was joining an action group to review government policy on road taxes. This group was formed by the bosses’ Confederation of British Industry and includes a coalition of the Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and the National Farmers Union.

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