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Editorial: The Fuel Tax Dispute

The fuel blockades last month—which threaten to return unless Gordon Brown cuts excise duty in the next few weeks—brought the operation of capitalism in Britain to its greatest point of crisis since the 1970s. Everyday life and the functioning of the emergency services were threatened in a way not seen since the dark days of the Winter of Discontent during the last Labour government.

This time it was not the organised working class in the trade unions that was battling the government. Instead, it was a tiny group of small businessmen and farmers who, without ballots and for the most part acting unlawfully, decided to try and hold the government and then other sections of the owning class—such as the oil companies—to ransom. Through receiving majority public support for their stand against fuel prices they were able to bring the country to a near standstill.

Looked at in the round, there are a number of points to be noted about this action:

  • The protestors were only able to make headway because they received the tacit support of the bulk of the working class—including (for the most part) the oil tanker drivers
  • The police did not immediately move against the protestors (who were guilty of secondary picketing, obstruction, a variety of road traffic offences, and periodic intimidation) until ordered to do so by the government, in sharp distinction to disputes like Grunwick, Wapping, and the Miners' Strike. While at Wapping, thousands of pickets didn't manage to stop a single Murdoch rag leaving the compound, a few hundred small businessmen from the shires were allowed to act with impunity in this dispute until Blair was forced to get tough with the police and oil companies so that the tankers could get rolling again
  • That the government, with its control of the repressive agencies of the state machine, would ultimately have won out in the name of upholding "democracy" and "law and order", even if the short-term damage was severe
  • That the government has been hoisted by its own petard in being forced to blame high petrol prices at the pumps on the operation of the world oil market and the spiralling price of a barrel of crude—in other words the normal operation of the market economy, whose infallibility they previously lectured everyone else about whenever possible
  • That the fuel protestors were not acting in the interests of the working class as they claimed, but in their own narrow economic and political interests. Many have been part of the so-called Countryside Alliance and many more have been bitter opponents of the working class movement at every turn (e.g. the haulage companies that crossed picket line after picket line during the Miners' Strike).

None of the parties to this dispute have come out of it with any credit, and it has not been a dispute for the working class to get involved in. The real determinant of working class livings standards is not the operation, or precise level, of any one particular tax (and the government are always most likely to pay for reductions in one tax by raising others anyway) it is the overall level of economic activity and the ability of the organised working class to increase its living standards on the wages front. While oil companies try to pass fuel taxes on to the general population through higher prices, the workers tend to pass them on to the capitalist class as a whole through increased pay claims and subsistence payments made by the state, which is why taxation generally is ultimately a burden on the owners of capital rather than the non-owners.

If there is to be a battle against the government within capitalism for a better standard of living the wages front is the arena to fight it and where intervention by the organised working class can pay real dividends. And this is the arena where the workers, democratically organised, are most likely to come into conflict with all sides in this current dispute – the government, the multinationals and the whingeing petty capitalists too.