Petrol protests: Jacobin rage

New Labour confronts its gravest crisis. There can be no doubting the seriousness of the situation triggered by the current wave of protests. Not only have petrol pumps run dry, but the government has assumed emergency powers to ensure deliveries of fuel...

New Labour confronts its gravest crisis. There can be no doubting the seriousness of the situation triggered by the current wave of protests. Not only have petrol pumps run dry, but the government has assumed emergency powers to ensure deliveries of fuel - attended by Elizabeth Windsor, the privy council met on September 11 at Balmoral.

Tony Blair solemnly told the nation on the evening of Tuesday September 12 that he's not for turning. He won't be intimidated. Police chiefs, government departments and oil company executives have subsequently been issued with their instructions. The army awaits, ready in reserve. Ominously the Financial Times editorial recommends that Blair shows "the same steel as Lady Thatcher when she was faced with unlawful picketing" (September 13).

As a tactic the 'sitting pickets' have proved a stunning success. Blockades and panic buying combine to cause widespread and almost instant fuel shortages from one end of the country to the other. Yet nothing could be easier than dismissing it all as the work of a tiny and unrepresentative minority.

The biggest motorway crawls attract 300 lorries, tractors, and taxis. Most blockades involve fewer than two dozen vehicles. The giant Milford Haven oil port in Pembrokeshire was blocked by 15 lorries. The Elf refinery, only six miles away, was sealed off by 10 lorries. In contrast the left routinely mobilises thousands to its demonstrations. However, it would, of course, be foolish in the extreme to downplay the protests. This is mass action and class against class.

Shadow transport secretary Archie Norman says that the protests reflect "genuine, widespread and heartfelt disgust" over fuel costs. For once he is right. Pump prices in Britain are the highest in Europe and are set to continue on an upwards curve for at least another three months. Countryside dwellers and small business people in general consider themselves cruelly victimised. Enraged, this petty bourgeois mass is now revolting against New Labour, green taxes and the effects of unremitting exploitation by monopoly capital and the blind laws of the market. For many of them it is protest or see their businesses die. A GMTV poll on September 12 showed 98% of respondents saying 'yes' to a tax cut on fuel.

Those who have taken the lead are typically small farmers, self-employed taxi drivers, owner-fishermen, and lorry operators. Here is the once ardent social base of Thatcherism who, despite all their hard work and endless hours, now find themselves crushed, as if in a vice, between high fuel prices and falling profit margins. The petty bourgeoisie as a class is virtually ignored by New Labour, apart from its worth as a source of taxation. All the while the petty bourgeoisie is being sucked dry by a globally situated monopoly capital.

Desperate, the petrol protesters lash out against the robber government and the mega-rich oil companies. The parliamentary road holds little or no relief for them. The Tory Party is a rump and deeply divided over the euro. More than that, it is still nowhere in the opinion polls. Hague's prospects for the forthcoming general election look decidedly dim.

Hence the danger recognised by wide swathes of the establishment of petty bourgeois discontent finding its own Jacobin avenues and making Britain ungovernable. The Tory front bench have been notably cautious. Not only was it they who introduced the fuel escalator when in government, but the petrol protests could perhaps reignite trade union militancy.

Evidently any worthwhile analysis of the petrol protests must therefore take full account of a dominant New Labour and a marginalised Tory Party and the mutual relations between the three main classes under capitalism - the working class, the bourgeoisie, and the middle classes (including the petty bourgeoisie).

Inspiration for the petrol protests winged its way from across the channel. After a week of blockades by fishermen, lorry owners, ambulance operators, and small farmers, the Socialist Party-led government of Lionel Jospin announced measures on September 6 to offset rising fuel prices.

Road hauliers got a 15% cut in fuel taxes, while farmers secured a 30% reduction. The farmers' organisation, FNSEU, along with the lorry owners' associations, Unostra and its rival FNTR, celebrated a partial victory. Jospin's total cave-in was only prevented by the intransigence of his Green Party coalition partners who are still determined to save the planet and their programme of so-called ecological fuel taxes.

After the petty bourgeoisie of France showed how, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland, Ireland, Italy, and Britain followed. Initially the mainstream bourgeois press here mocked a craven Jospin and used his troubles to reinforce anti-French sentiments. Needless to say, once protests started in Britain itself, the tune became much more variegated.

The Independent and The Guardian wrung liberal hands and expressed sympathy for the dilemmas of both sides. Other mainstream bourgeois papers found themselves pulled between worries about a revival of the 'British disease', concern for hard-pressed small businesses, and an ingrained dislike of the Labour Party. "Until we have straight talking, ministers deserve to feel the heat," trumpeted the Daily Express (September 11). Along the same conventional lines The Sun editorial insisted upon tax cuts, as demanded by "enraged motorists and farmers", but warned against following the perilous example set by the "revolting" French (September 11).

Interestingly, columnists in The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail suffer no such qualms. Not content with urging a swift cut in tax duties, the most reactionary, most rabid class war media warriors proclaim outright solidarity with the fuel protests and defiantly agitate for their spread. Blind hatred of Labour rules.

A necessary aside. Showing confusion and an elementary inability to distinguish between proletarian and petty bourgeois revolt, Socialist Worker praises the "French spirit", which apparently made the "bosses quake". It should be emulated by "British trade unionists", the paper declared (September 9).

It is common knowledge that comrade Chris Bambery is besotted with France. But does the Socialist Workers Party not realise that French lorry owners, ambulance operators, and small farmers are bosses in their own right - albeit employing little more than a handful of workers? Either way, we on the left must act boldly. The Times reports National Front members turning up to join the blockade of Ellesmere Port - thankfully they were asked to leave by farmers (September 12).

For his part the Daily Mail's Leo McKinstry unaccustomedly also advises that "we could learn from the French in showing a greater willingness to challenge our political masters". Naturally he draws a clear line of demarcation between today's actions and the industrial disputes of the 1970s, CND, and May's anti-capitalist demonstration in London. The former is the "lifeblood of democracy"; the latter "implies only violent mob rule, disrespect for the law and, ultimately, anarchy" (Daily Mail September 11). Janet Daley too gave an enthusiastic "welcome" to the "blockaders". She is perfectly clear about what side of the barricades to stand on. Her class instincts tell her that, while the fuel protesters are using "some of Arthur Scargill's favourite phrases", they are "his precise political opposite" (The Daily Telegraph September 12).

After the May 1 1997 general election the left - the SWP, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, the Morning Star, Workers Power, etc. - talked a great deal of nonsense about a "crisis of expectations" confronting the incoming Labour government. Ironically it is only the old pro-Labour left that had any socialistic or progressive expectations in Blair's Labour Party. Trapped in a mechanical mindset whereby the landslide election of a Labour government must be a class act by the workers and must result in an upsurge of trade union struggles, the theoretically ill equipped left has shown itself up as completely nonplussed.

In fact strikes and working class combativity remain at an historical low. As shown by Glasgow, the TUC and the big trade unions are supine. We live in a period of reaction of a special type, not one of revolution or class polarisation. The working class as bearer of an alternative system to capitalism has for the moment been removed from the stage of history - both in Britain and internationally. It is therefore no longer perceived as an imminent threat to the system of capital. So the petty bourgeoisie is not just about to be marshalled into a counterrevolutionary battering ram. There has been no failure to make revolution. We are not on the edge of some fascist abyss.

Nevertheless, lack of fear of the working class and fear of permanent opposition has encouraged Haig's still inchoate unconstitutional thoughts and proclivities. Another big general election defeat, a referendum to adopt the euro and the probable emergence of the SNP as the largest party in Holyrood would doubtless have the Tories frothing about New Labour's treachery to crown and country. Suffice to say, the largest and most effective mass demonstration under the Blair government has not been staged by the left and the trade unions, but the Countryside Alliance - the extra-parliamentary wing of the Conservative Party.

Aristocratic money, plus Hague's desperation, plus deep-felt rural discontent brought huge numbers out onto the streets of London on March 1 1998. The organisers claimed 285,000. Mori estimated that 79% of them were Tory supporters - only 7% Labour. Sociologically, while the leadership consisted of high-ups, the march was overwhelmingly middle class and petty bourgeois in composition.

There has never been anything quite like it before. Something new is surely happening in British politics. A parallel - and it is not a very close one - might be Sir Edward Carson and his Ulster Volunteer Force prior to World War I. For the first time, at least since the great Reform Act of 1832, respectable Britain seeks to express its politics using the methods of the working class and the radical left.

So there was always far more to the Countryside Alliance than fox hunting. Now, sprouting from the same political conditions and the same social base, Britain has the petrol protests - which are, though much less tightly controlled, almost totally spontaneous and therefore prone to Jacobin methods.

For the moment there is neither an elected leadership nor a charismatic saviour figure. Shades of anarchist anti-capitalist protests. At present all that exists is a motley network of ad-hoc groups: Less Tax on Fuel, Farmers For Action, Hauliers and Farmers Alliance, etc. Most blockades have relied on salesroom chats, media snippets, business contacts, email, and impromptu telephone chains. There is a healthy recognition of the need for secrecy in order to guard against state snoops.

While Marxism in general insists that the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of constructing an independent strategic politics, the petrol protests prove that, left to its own devices, this class will break through the safe norms laid down from above.

Those of us within the Socialist Alliances must be absolutely clear about our duty to present a clear-sighted revolutionary programme, which includes immediate economic and democratic reforms specially designed to improve the lot of the self-employed and small businesses and farms. It would be criminal for the Socialist Alliances to leave the petrol protests to the Tory ultra-right, the NF, and Little England nationalists.

For our part the CPGB argues for a set of immediate programmatic demands including the abolition of VAT, the cancellation of small business debts and mortgages, cheap credit, and generous subsidies. Communists also have a longer-term vision of overcoming the distinction between country and urban life. We reds are for the rounded development of all human beings, not rural deserts or urban jungles. As a step towards the sort of society we consider necessary for a fully free and natural humanity, communists demand inexpensive and frequent rural public transport, free trains and buses within towns, a rational distribution of industry and population, and ending the profligate use of scarce resources such as oil.

Crucially the CPGB emphasises the pressing need for the revolutionary left to unite as revolutionaries into a single democratic centralist party so as to begin to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Only thus armed can the working class provide a strong pole of attraction for all exploited intermediate classes and strata.

Jack Conrad