Oil Squeeze

On Tuesday 12 September, at the height of the fuel protest, Tony Blair famously declared that the government would resolve the situation within 24 hours. Blair had summoned oil industry leaders to meet him in No 10 the following day. But they did nothing. The 24 hours passed: the fuel `blockade' had not been broken, and reports were coming in of supermarket shelves being stripped of bread and dairy products. Suddenly the government looked extremely vulnerable: its cocksure arrogance had disappeared overnight. There was a real possibility of a complete breakdown in the retail supply chain by the weekend. Panic set in - the NHS was very publicly put on red alert. Blair spoke of `real damage being done to real people'. Robert Clough reports on the fuel crisis and its political consequences.

As it turned out, by Thursday protesters had decided to withdraw from outside the petrol depots, and by Friday the `blockade' was over. Yet the crisis had exposed the deep unpopularity of the Labour government: it seemed their only defenders were a band of trade union leaders and frightened New-Labour-friendly journalists. This was despite the completely reactionary character of the protest, which focused on the right of the petty bourgeoisie in this country to have access to cheap fuel and hang the consequences. The ten days of the crisis hold many lessons for socialists, not least of all how the middle class particularly in an imperialist nation will strike out when it feels its material privileges are under threat. The absolute weakness of the left and of the working class movement was never more evident than over this period.

The background to the crisis

Whilst the immediate stimulus for the start of the `blockade' was the similar action of hauliers, transport workers and farmers in France, behind it lay a rapid rise in world oil prices, and the petrol taxation policies introduced by the last Tory government and continued by Labour. Contributing to it also has been the destruction over the last 40 years of an adequate, integrated public transport infrastructure.

Britain is now the most road-dependent country in Europe. 84.3% of goods are delivered by road, compared to an EU average of 73.1%. 87.7% of passenger traffic is road-bound; the EU average is 81.8%. This has not happened overnight. Its origins lie with the Beeching railway cuts of the early and mid 1960s, which closed dozens of branch lines and removed British Railways' public carrier responsibilities which had obliged it to provide a goods transportation service on demand. As people were forced on to the roads, so a massive investment in motorways took place during the 1970s. In the 1980s, the Tories deregulated bus services which brought chaos and higher fares, and drove away 25% of all passengers. In the 1990s, it was the railway system which once more became a victim: starved of investment, it was then privatised into a host of disconnected services whose quality and punctuality rapidly deteriorated. The result has been that whilst average rail fares have risen by about 50% over the last 20 years, and bus fares by 80%, private motoring costs have more or less remained the same. Whilst 29% of all households remain car-less, middle class dependency has risen: the school run, the shopping experiences in out-of-town shopping malls and centres, which proliferated after the Tories relaxed planning legislation, are standard features of middle class and upper working class life today. The malls, after all, are free from the tensions of the inner city. The number of miles driven by private motorists rose by 12% during the 1990s.

In 1993, the Tory government introduced the so-called `inflation-plus fuel duty escalator'. Essentially this allowed the government to increase petrol duty by a factor greater than inflation.

This was important to secure revenues that were being lost by cuts in income tax; every 1p duty on petrol raises over £400m for the government. The Tories set the escalator at 5%; Labour increased it to 6%. Its impact was offset however by a 40% fall in world oil prices between 1993 and 1998, by which time oil was less than $10 a barrel. Since then, increasing world demand, coupled with attempts by OPEC oil producers to limit production, has forced the price up to over $30. British petrol prices rose 40% between January 1999 and June this year, despite the abolition of the escalator in the April budget. 77.5% of the price of petrol is made up of duty. Hauliers had already started protesting in 1998/99 with a number of high street demonstrations, complaining that they were being put at a disadvantage against their European competitors. Labour's response was not just to remove the fuel duty escalator, but to raise the limit on lorry size from 40 to 44 tonnes. This was despite the fact that studies show that hauliers receive hidden subsidies of £2.5bn per annum because of the damage that heavier lorries do to the roads.

The crisis itself

The French blockade was four days old when, on Wednesday 6 September, a group of Welsh farmers meeting in St Asaph in North Wales decided that they would blockade Stanlow oil refinery in Cheshire. This followed an earlier inconclusive meeting on Monday organised by Farmers For Action which had been addressed by Tory Welsh Assembly member Peter Rodgers. On Tuesday, however, both BP and Texaco had raised pump prices. Welsh farmers had been protesting without success about the supermarket squeeze on milk and meat prices. Although farmers pay only just over 3p per litre duty on so-called red diesel delivered direct to the farm, they recognised that an alliance with hauliers might bring their grievances to the fore. Early on Thursday morning, protesters blockaded Stanlow for a few hours before police moved them out of the way. From that point there was no blockade as such: there was no attempt to obstruct routes in or out of refineries and oil depots. Instead, refinery and petrol fleet managers colluded with protesters, with the active support and sympathy of the police, to prevent any movement of petrol. Hence at Coryston, the `blockade' consisted of eight vehicles and about 30 protesters parked at a roundabout near the entrance. It was the same at Trafford Park in Manchester, while five men and three vehicles were sufficient to stop Immingham and throw the northeast into complete chaos. It demonstrated the vulnerability of the `just-in-time' supply system that underpins much of today's industry.

By Friday panic had set in the northwest; huge queues built up outside petrol stations, and by Saturday they were empty. On Monday oil companies issued warnings that petrol stations would run dry in the rest of country if panic-buying continued, which merely accelerated it. On Tuesday 12 September, petrol had all but run out, and the first signs of a food panic were emerging. Sections of the press, scenting the possibility of damaging the Labour government, suddenly switched their position. The Daily Mail, which has always been a mouthpiece for the bigotry of the British middle class, decided that the protesters embodied `the best and deepest instincts of the British people' a few days after condemning the French protesters as `militants...tearing up the rules because they know they can get away with it.'

The role of the oil companies was fairly evident even from an early stage. High petrol duty limits their cut: their profit per litre sold on the forecourt is about 1p, and overall such sales contribute less than 5% of profits on all their operations. They had a vested interest in the success of the `blockade'. A protester at Stanlow said `Shell are right behind us. They have supplied hot coffee and refreshments. They've been great.' It was a similar story up and down the country: at Kingsbury in Warwickshire `tea and bacon sandwiches, served to the protesters from the canteen of the very oil terminal they were blockading, reinforced the sense of comfortable cameraderie' (Daily Telegraph). Tanker drivers were under no serious threat. If they were sub-contractors, they were supporters of the `blockade' anyway. Meanwhile fleet drivers were under no compulsion to take their tankers out: management was quite happy to pay them for doing nothing. The police did not intervene: there was simply nothing for them to do. This was no miners' strike, Wapping print strike or J18: it was a cosy arrangement behind which stood the giant oil companies. It was almost unnecessary for Association of Chief Police Officers' (ACPO) president Sir John Evans to speak of `the need to balance the rights of the protesters against the right of others'; it was certainly a contrast to what was said, let alone done, in London on 1 May this year.

The government was well aware of the role of the oil companies. On Wednesday 13 September, Blair huffed and puffed at the oil chiefs, but they made no concessions. One said after the meeting `we were in listening mode, but we would not force drivers if they felt intimidated.' Such concern for their workers' welfare was touching. Fleet drivers later said they were positively instructed not to drive their tankers over the four days up to Monday, and only half-heartedly afterwards, even though ACPO said there was no problem clearing routes. Esso even apologised to protesters on one occasion when one of their stations which received a delivery for emergency supplies sold the petrol to the general public. In the end, it was the decision of the protesters themselves that ended the stand-off: by the end of Thursday, they had decided to call their action off. Petrol supplies were resumed normally on Friday, and total collapse averted.

The significance of the protest

Although we can take great delight at the discomfort the fuel crisis caused this arrogant, reactionary Labour government, this does not mean that socialists should have supported the protestors. Far from it: their aims were socially reactionary. Their presumption was that they should have access to cheaper fuel regardless of the social and environmental consequences. The small hauliers who were the backbone of the protest expect their subsidies to continue; but the fact is that there are now too many lorries on the road. This means that there is now cut-throat competition, with, as a result widespread law-breaking - overloading, poor maintenance and speeding. Hauliers both large and small had no compunction in driving through picket lines during the miners' strike or at Wapping during the printers' strike. Their absolute concern is to hang on to what they have got, and devil take the consequences. Their protest was about defending their stake in capitalist society, and was one which illustrated the arrogance of the privileged in an imperialist nation. The penalties of a petrol-driven society are being paid now by the poor, by the people of the Niger Delta, of Venezuela, Colombia and the Gwich'in people in Alaska, those lands ruthlessly exploited by the vast oil multinationals. This was never an issue in the protest

Where was the left in all of this? The TUC and trade union leadership, their spinelessness exposed by the actions of a few hundreds, backed the government completely. Their lives are dedicated to preventing any opposition to Labour from developing, and now they found themselves irrelevant. On BBC's Newsnight, Friends of the Earth condemned direct action, even by environmentalists. Some on the left, such as the Socialist Party, explicitly supported the protest by pretending its objectives were in the interests of the poor and the working class. This was a coded attempt to keep in touch with the middle class, who overwhelmingly supported the protest, by giving them a `feelgood' reason for supporting cheaper petrol. The SWP was more ambivalent, although members attended protests (apparently only to be told to leave). It drew a distinction between the small and large capitalists in a fine tradition of the former CommunistParty, arguing that `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 toward leadership from the giant firms and the right-wing politicians'. This is nonsense. It is well-known that small owners are in fact `the most unscrupulous and grasping exploiters of hired labour' (Lenin). The defence of privilege however small is always reactionary.

The protest certainly exposed the fragility of bourgeois parliamentary politics. It demonstrated widespread hatred for the Labour government. But its strength arose from its alliance with a powerful section of the bourgeoisie and with the police. It showed that a protest by the petty bourgeoisie about the loss of its privileges is more likely to take a right wing and reactionary form. Hence socialists could not opportunistically support it. Rather they had to argue that the only answer to the transport problems facing the working class lies not in cheap petrol but in an integrated, affordable, nationalised public transport system.

 FRFI 157 October / November 2000