Petty bourgeois protest shows need for workers' independence

Divide and conquer. That was New Labour's strategy to stave off the threatened renewal of fuel protests by farmers and hauliers after the expiry of their 60-day deadline for fuel duty cuts on November 13.

The operation was essentially twofold: first, use all available means to drive a wedge between the protesters and the public, robbing the spontaneous, amorphous and already fissiparous protest bloc centred on the People's Fuel Lobby of that vital widespread support which had so embarrassed the government back in September; secondly, consolidate the division by bringing forward some conciliatory concessions in the chancellor's pre-budget statement.

That the strategy was successful can be seen from the anti-climactic - not to say shambolic - end to the 'Jarrow 2000 anti-fuel tax crusade' on Tuesday this week. On a thin day for news, even The Daily Telegraph, staunchly supportive throughout, was reduced to consigning the story to an inside page; ditto The Daily Mail. London was not brought to a standstill; there was no armada of fishing boats on the Thames, no mass gathering of a million people in Hyde Park. Just some 300-400 lorries and tractors, whose drivers were obliged by the police to abandon their vehicles a mile away from the site of the projected 'mass demonstration'. The image of these dispirited men trudging their way to the park was a fitting symbol of a force in the process of defeat and disintegration. "We'll be back," they bluster, but somehow one doubts it ... at least for the moment.

Nothing of this should come as a surprise. On the one side, a government humiliated and thirsty for revenge, armed with the full panoply of the state's coercive power; on the other, a ragbag of sectional interests marred from the outset by the petty bourgeoisie's Janus-like ambivalence, insecurity and vacillation. Yet the episode does furnish us with some useful, if predictable, reminders about how the state works. Its conclusion should also prompt some sections of the left to engage in an honest appraisal of their own theoretical shortcomings and errors in coming to grips with a new phenomenon.

In retrospect, the government's propaganda offensive against the protesters seems grotesquely disproportionate. Not only were they condemned as selfish and obsessed with their own business interests (some truth here); they were also vilified as criminally holding the country to ransom and threatening the welfare and even the lives of citizens - in short, enemies of the people (blatantly ridiculous). Yet, whether consciously or not, the government hit home on this point.

It was David Handley - a blunt-speaking west-country farmer, unschooled in the niceties of conventional political discourse - who was singled out as the epitome of everything 'evil' in the protest movement. "Stop this silly fuel protest," shrieked the front-page headline of The Mirror, as ever the faithful voice of Alistair Campbell. Handley was the man "who plans to bring Britain to a juddering halt", the man intent on "hitting supermarket distribution centres" in a move that would purportedly "hit hardest the poor, elderly and sick. Thousands of shop workers will be laid off" (November 2).

On the following day, the same paper warned that implementing the protesters' demands would require public spending cuts that would 'rob the nation' of 14,750 doctors, 29,500 nurses, 30,000 teachers, etc, etc. Nonsensical scare-mongering of this order was backed up by a carefully leaked memo from Jack Straw, advising hospitals and other public services to begin stockpiling petrol. The result was predictable - a fresh wave of panic-buying that saw many filling-stations run out of fuel once again.

In the midst of the panic, few seemed to notice that the government's assertions about the effect of fuel duty cuts on public services revealed a double lie. First, and most obviously, the projected surplus of revenue over budgeted expenditure (in the order of some £15-20 million) for the current year would have been more than adequate to cover significant cuts in fuel duty. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, reiterated statements by the prime minister that fuel duty cuts would mean the government could do nothing for pensioners, that a rise in interest and mortgage rates would be inevitable, and so forth, give the lie to the claim that fuel tax revenues are supposedly devoted to improving the roads and the environment. Out of a total of some £400 billion in tax take, motorists contribute around £35 billion (less than 10%). If a reduction in this sum spells disaster for public service spending, one can only conclude that we are talking about a 'vital' stealth tax.

The reported involvement of the Security Service (MI5) and the Special Branch in spying on the activities of the fuel protesters raises other interesting questions. Of course, this is hardly something new, but it serves to remind us that the Security Service Act, a measure that supposedly introduced some degree of parliamentary oversight and accountability into the activities of the secret police, actually broadened their remit.

The original charter that governed the activities of MI5 was put in place by the post-war Attlee Labour government, in the wake of the cold war and scares about communist infiltration of the state apparatus. Its definition of 'subversion' - aimed specifically at the Communist Party of Great Britain - was always broadly interpreted by the special services, but it did stipulate that subversion involved activities designed to overthrow parliamentary democracy by (amongst other things) political or industrial means. By contrast, the new act gives the special services permission to investigate any activity that could cause 'economic' damage to the state - a much broader category. On this basis, any form of industrial action, or indeed any activity that could lead to a disruption in public services - however small or temporary - can be judged to be 'subversive'.

Sooner or later, the trade union bossocracy, which so avidly supported Blair's attack on the fuel protesters, will have cause to reflect on the cowardice and folly of their stance. When, at some time in the future, we hear Bill Morris of the TGWU or some other union top whining about the state's interference in a 'legitimate' industrial dispute and about the impermissible involvement of special services in seeking to crush it, we should remind him that he and his like sold the pass long ago by their supine acquiescence in a frontal assault on a few angry and despairing petty bourgeois. Were it not for the fact that we know already that for Morris and his ilk class collaboration is second nature, we might counsel them that there are times when the interests of our class must be seen through the prism of other, contradictory struggles, such as that presented by the fuel protesters.

It is, needless to say, the class character of the fuel protests that has caused most difficulty among some sections of the left. The lesser sinners are those that we could dub the wishful thinkers, or the 'if only' school. Their position can perhaps be represented by comrade Mark Osborn of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. In Action for Solidarity (October 20), the comrade claims that the fuel protests acted as a "focus for discontent", and that "large numbers of workers backed the demand for a reduction in petrol prices". According to comrade Osborn, it is a pity that the protests did not involve trade unions, that this "possible spearhead for working class politics" did not come up with better demands such as workers' rights, better public transport, nationalisation of the oil corporations and so forth.

Indeed, it is a pity, but let us get back from the world of fantasy politics to that of reality. Our job, as Marxists, is to take our theoretical postulates and categories and apply them to the real world, not the world as we would like it to be. The comrade's way of thinking on this question is no more than a tautology: 'If things had been different, then they would not have been the same.' The fact of the matter is quite straightforward. The September events represented a despairing tax revolt by heterogeneous sections of the petty bourgeoisie.

To say that "large numbers of workers backed the demand for a reduction in petrol prices" is, at best, grossly misleading. Yes, the majority of the population are workers. Yes, the majority of workers are motorists. Small wonder, therefore, that they should favour a reduction in the cost of motoring. But to talk in terms of "large numbers of workers" implies a class perspective, indeed a conscious class perspective that was entirely absent.

The strength of support garnered by the September protests - support that cut across all class divisions - was merely an index of the generalised frustration felt by the population at large in the face of a manifestly crooked way of extracting tax, all in the name of an improved transport infrastructure and a cleaner environment, that actually goes toward funding all manner of government projects (including such discredited ventures as the dome).

At least comrade Osborn has one foot on the ground. The same cannot be said for the Socialist Party - specifically its ever more desperate leader, Peter Taaffe - who would have us believe that the fuel protests were a manifestation of working class revolt in the face of that ever-impending economic slump (if not the terminal 'crisis of capitalism' itself), which will magically usher in a golden age for his "small mass party".

The objective nature of the September fuel blockades - an improvised, spontaneous revolt by petty bourgeois farmers, hauliers and other small business interests - was, it has to be said, almost immediately subsumed under a general media portrayal of dissatisfaction on the part of 'motorists' at large. Hence, in the end, the ease with which chancellor Brown's smoke-and-mirrors budgetary 'concessions' cemented the division between selfish 'extremists' and the rest of us. In fact, the hauliers got something concrete, the 'motorist' rather less, when the figures are added up. The farmers got almost nothing at all, but who gives a damn about farmers? Not New Labour, that is for sure.

The seemingly ignominious defeat of the fuel protests in the face of the state's propaganda and security machine no doubt gives comfort to New Labour and its collaborators in the trade union hierarchy. For us, as communists, it was a dispute in which we do not as yet have the programmatically trained working class party with which to lead and focus the petty bourgeois underdogs. On the other hand it would have been totally misguided and unprincipled to follow them ... to who knows where.

Michael Malkin