Workers' Liberty #68


A strange autumn

The comet-like course of the fuel-tax movement - from small and rather desperate sectional lobby, to people's crusade, then back to special-interest rump again, all within a couple of months - is explained by its peculiar character. It was an insurgence of small capital and the petty bourgeoisie, with parallels in other countries, but none at all close in British history.

'Mr Blair - after the election we will remember you as 'one term only',' read a placard on the final hauliers' and farmers' protest on fuel tax, on 14 November in London. The threat rang hollow. There were only 400 demonstrators there, hugely outnumbered by the 15,000 students who marched in London the next day for 'Grants, not Fees'. Now the fuel-tax militants plan nothing more ambitious than lobbying MPs and swelling the Countryside Alliance demonstration in March.

The fuel-tax movement started small, too, with little groups of hauliers and farmers blockading oil refineries in September. Then, even though maybe no more than 2000 people became actively involved, they soon brought Britain almost to a halt, blockading fuel distribution all across the country. Around 80% of the population backed the blockaders' demand for lower fuel tax. As late as 2-3 November, a poll showed 73% demanding a cut in fuel tax, and 56% saying they would support a new blockade of oil refineries to achieve it. Extensive militant picketing, which for the labour movement has become a thing of ancient legend since the miners' strike of 1984-5 and the Tories' anti-picket laws, showed its potency. Direct action brought results. In its economic statement on 8 November, the New Labour government made concessions to the hauliers bigger than to the pensioners.

The comet-like course of the fuel-tax movement - from small and rather desperate sectional lobby, to people's crusade, then back to special-interest rump again, all within a couple of months - is explained by its peculiar character. It was an insurgence of small capital and the petty bourgeoisie, with parallels in other countries, but none at all close in British history.

Capitalist society has a large class of 'working people' who are not working class. Small business owners who work in their trade - haulage, farming, retail - on their own or alongside a few hired workers, may work as hard as, or harder than, and in similar conditions to, wage-workers. They may be little better off than skilled workers, or even downright poor. Nevertheless, they are separated from wage-workers by a class divide.

Their economic position gears them to the aim of increasing their capital (their invested wealth) at the expense of competitors and of any workers they employ, rather than to working-class aims of solidarity, democracy, and social provision. They are, on the whole, more fervently Tory even than the big bourgeoisie.

The pressures of capitalist competition drive the small business class towards Tory attitudes whether they like it or not. Concessions on work conditions and union rights which seem no more than common sense to a big capitalist company which uses the latest technology and is secure enough to look to the long term look very different to a small business owner operating on the margins with outdated technology. One of the hauliers' prime initial concerns was to make sure that their and their employees' driving hours would not be restricted by the European Union's Working Time Directive. Small business owners are also usually better able to get away with squeezing their workers, since small and often shortlived businesses are harder to unionise. Only 15% of workers in workplaces with fewer than 25 employees are unionised.

The typical small-capitalist attitude is resentful of big business and big government, too. That is a lever by means of which the labour movement, when self-confident and mobilised for radical demands, can hope to draw significant numbers of small business people to its side. In some countries, where small farmers form one of the basic productive classes, making that alliance is indeed a life-or-death matter for the labour movement.

The small business class, however, has no way of taking effective action against big business. And its organisations - diverse and fragmented, like the class itself - are usually led by its more successful members, those who best hope to enter the ranks of big business themselves. Its fulminations against big business generally come to nothing. Against the labour movement, however, small-business mobilisations can become a real force, in the shape of right-wing populist or fascist movements.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, the number of small businesses and the self-employed in Britain has doubled over the last 20 years, and is now five million. That figure exaggerates. Many 'self-employed' people, for example 'lump' building workers and some taxi-drivers and truck owner-drivers, are in economic reality wage-workers whose employers use legal dodges to avoid obligations for National Insurance, sick pay, and so on. Nevertheless, there has been a real growth. Big businesses use more and more small subcontractors. Workers displaced by industrial restructuring who have some savings or a large redundancy pay-out use the money to set up on their own.

Insecurity is rife. Each year one business in ten is wound up. In recent years farmers have suffered severely from the BSE crisis and from pressure by the increasingly dominant supermarket chains to reduce supply prices. Small hauliers suffer from overcapacity in their industry and new advantages given to the bigger companies by new computer technologies. Lower fuel tax will not resolve these problems. The competitive gap between big hauliers and small will remain the same. But the hauliers and farmers seized on the example of the French fuel-tax blockades to make a stand, and found fuel tax a good cause to rally people behind them.

The fact that politics have so increasingly become something transacted between party leaders, spin-doctors, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and the media, with the mass of the population relegated to the role of TV-watchers, also played a part, by increasing the frustration of the aggrieved hauliers and farmers.

They could get top-level support, since the Tories and their press welcomed the embarrassment to the government, and the oil companies were happy to have attention diverted away from their rocketing profits and would prefer lower fuel tax anyway. And they got sympathy from millions of workers who dislike paying extra for an unavoidable drive to work and disbelieve the government's claims to care for the environment or to want the tax revenue for hospitals and schools.

Thus the momentary appearance of a people's crusade - Tories and Trotskyists, oil moguls and hard-pressed wage-workers, all united behind the banner of lower fuel tax. Thus also its rapid collapse, when the top layers of the hauliers' and farmers' movement went to negotiate with the government.

Historically Britain has been more polarised between bourgeoisie and working class than any other country, with scarce any autonomous activity of small capital or the petty bourgeoisie. The left has become used to thinking of petty-bourgeois mobilisations in terms of peasant rebellions against feudal (or semi-feudal, or quarter-feudal) landlordism in capitalistically less-developed countries, and to viewing those in terms of romantic Third Worldism.

The blockades were, however, essentially a movement of small capital. As Engels explained long ago in writings like The Peasant Question in France and Germany, the labour movement cannot, without betraying itself, undertake to defend small capital in its competition with big capital. 'We have no more use for the peasant as a Party member, if he expects us to perpetuate his property in his small holding, than for the small handicraftsman who would fain be perpetuated as a master. These people belong to the anti-Semites. Let them go to the anti-Semites and obtain from the latter the promise to salvage their small enterprises. Once they learn there what these glittering phrases really amount to... they will realise in ever-increasing measure that we who promise less and look for salvation in entirely different quarters are after all more reliable people'.

Whatever our personal sympathy for hard-up hauliers and farmers, and whatever the special provisions that a workers' government might offer them (aid for cooperatives, cheap credit, etc.), the job of socialists was to puncture the illusions of a 'people's crusade' and to encourage the working class to formulate its own independent aims and priorities. Cut fuel tax? Yes, but. But a lot. Fuel tax in Britain is exceptionally high, and hits many workers who have to use cars to get around. We have no brief to defend the government's high fuel tax. But that does not mean that a victory for the cut-fuel-tax blockaders would be a wedge for further working-class demands in the way that, even, a wage gain for relatively well-off workers (which might not be our priority) will naturally tend to be. It would be a boost for the capitalist 'roads lobby'.

Marxists oppose indirect taxes. But we are not fanatics of free-market price-setting, either. Drastic cuts in fuel tax would not be an immediate priority for a workers' government. It would first move to establish better public transport, less-polluting means of private transport, resiting of industry and facilities to reduce unnecessary journeys, etc. If all that's in play is marginal adjustments made out of the government's budget surplus - such as the cuts in fuel and vehicle tax which the government has actually made - we have no reason to disapprove, but no reason to make cutting fuel tax our priority among such adjustments, either.

The priorities for socialist advocacy around the fuel crisis were therefore demands like: Tax oil profits; fund public transport; stop and reverse privatisation; tax the rich; restore the health service and free education. We can still hope that the lasting legacy of the September strangeness is that the labour movement relearns the value of militant direct action in winning such demands. * Both a statement posted on our website, and the editorial in Workers' Liberty 64-5, have provoked controversy and disagreement among supporters of Workers' Liberty. For details follow this link.

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