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Seven Days that Shook Blair
SOME MEDIA 'experts' dubbed the fuel protests 'poll tax revisited'. Seven days of protests shook Blair and New Labour to the core. People have had a glimpse of the power of collective struggle - France came to Britain.
Trades Union Congress (TUC) leader John Monks called it a "bosses' blockade", incredibly comparing the protesters to lorry owners who blockaded Chile in 1973. This one-sided picture deliberately misrepresents the significance of the protests.
True, many of the pickets were business owners. Some farmers were quite wealthy, owning large acres of land. Some hauliers ran big operations employing several drivers, many on low wages and working in poor conditions.
But most protesters were small business people; small farmers struggling to survive, hauliers running companies with just one or two workers, often just family concerns. Others were self-employed lorry drivers, some unionised, some former workers who had lost their jobs at Fords or as miners or steelworkers.
Some drivers undoubtedly crossed picket-lines during the 1984/85 miners' strike. But as one protester told a TV interviewer: "We were wrong. The miners were right". In these protests, many will have learnt similar lessons to the miners themselves about the role of the state, the media and the need for workers' solidarity.
In Chile the lorry owners were used by the forces of reaction to undermine a left-wing government and pave the way for General Pinochet's bloody dictatorship. The fuel protests in contrast, have been the catalyst for an outpouring of middle- and working-class people's accumulated discontent against a pro-big business New Labour government that's doing nothing to solve their problems.
This is why the fuel protests inspired widespread support across the country. In a BBC poll at the height of the protests, when the effects were starting to bite and Blair, through the media and Trust bosses, was trying to whip up hysteria over the situation in the NHS, 78% continued to support the protests.
Fuel prices triggered the movement but as one protester commented: "It's more than that now. I'm also here because of the health service, because of what this government is doing to the post offices. It's about time people like me voiced our discontent".
The word "betrayed" was constant on the picket-lines. Blair was seen as arrogant, remote and above all not listening to ordinary people's grievances. Protesters were joined by postal workers, lone parents, pensioners and the unemployed, some travelling long distances to show their support.
One supporter said: "I've never done anything like this before. It's the first thing I felt that I could do something about". The general feeling was that at last somebody was standing up to New Labour.
THE PROTESTS showed how rapidly events can develop. This spontaneous movement was inspired by the French struggles which forced concessions from the Jospin government.
Within days protests spread, as the French newspaper Le Figaro put it, "like an oil slick across Europe". In Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Greece, Hungary and Spain, drivers and others affected by high fuel prices took to the streets and the barricades. Struggle can quickly become 'Europeanised' and international in scope in today's global economy.
It has mostly been spontaneous direct action from below. In Britain the chairman of the Road Haulage Association said he was "against all forms of protestation". The National Farmers Union distanced itself from the demonstrations.
Many protesters were suspicious of the idea of 'leaders' or organisation. But as the movement developed, the need to get organised became clear. Protesters held meetings at the depot gates, discussing and democratically deciding what constituted emergency services and which tankers could leave with fuel. By the end of the protests, things were clearly more co-ordinated.
Comparisons have been made with the winter of discontent in 1978/79. The effects on the economy have been similar and both were against a Labour government.
But the winter of discontent involved millions of low-paid public-sector workers striking against attempts to hold down their wages. This movement has been mainly direct action by small business people, although with widespread sympathy amongst workers.
Crucially however, it was the tanker drivers who prevented oil from leaving the depots. This was a glimpse of the potential power which working-class people have to change society. It nails the myth that changes in the composition of the working class (away from manufacturing towards service industries and 'white-collar' jobs) has undermined its strength.
It also crushes the 'new economy' nonsense which argues that capitalism based on new technology is immune from 'old' crises such as an oil shock. "Just in time" delivery and low stocks make supermarkets and other businesses extremely susceptible to strike action by workers.
In most cases the word blockade was a misnomer. Tanker drivers weren't physically prevented from crossing picket-lines - they chose not to do so.
Much is made of the 'collusion' between the oil bosses and the protesters. Lower fuel taxes benefit the oil companies, making it easier for them to increase profit margins. Had tanker drivers been striking against the oil bosses themselves, their attitude would have been very different.
But interviews with drivers show that the main reason they didn't cross the picket lines was because they supported the protesters. At one depot, when bosses tried get drivers to take the tankers out, they walked out and joined protesters on the gates.
THE UNION leaders did Blair's dirty work, convincing drivers at Grangemouth in Scotland to break the picket. This, along with fear of losing public support, was why the protests were eventually called off.
The trade union bureaucracy plumbed new depths. TGWU leader Bill Morris called on protesters, some of them his own members, to be arrested.
Blair commented "If we were to give in, how long would it be before another grievance emerged, the same tactics used with another group of people?" The union leaders have exactly the same outlook as Blair.
They are completely enmeshed with New Labour and the state apparatus. They are terrified that workers will draw the lesson from these protests that collective struggle is needed to get results. That's why they condemned the protesters so vehemently.
But many workers will get the message that collective action is the only way forward. And many will realise, as workers at Peugeot already have, that they need to organise and reclaim the unions from the bankrupt leaders who are an obstacle to effective struggle. Others will go further and support breaking the links with New Labour and the idea of a new working-class party.
Workers also saw how, in future, the state could be used against working-class people to defend the bosses' system. The Queen was wheeled out to invoke emergency powers through the Privy Council. Blair was clearly contemplating sending in the Army to drive tankers if the protests hadn't ended.
But Blair seriously misjudged the mood. This was not a victory for Blair or New Labour. The protesters made it clear that they will renew action if they don't get confessions in the November budget.
The perception of Blair as arrogant and out of touch has been reinforced. New Labour have been seriously damaged - one poll puts them two points behind the Tories.
If Blair does make concessions, as seems likely, everyone will understand that it was because of the protests, just as everyone knows that the poll tax brought down Thatcher.
This has been the most important movement in Britain since Heseltine announced the closure of the mines in 1992. A significant change has taken place in the political situation. Working-class people have seen the potential power of collective action and have learned important lessons for future struggles.
In a future issue, The Socialist will analyse the protests' wider impact on political developments in Britain.
In The Socialist 22 September 2000: