Britain - Fuel crisis, Hatfield crash, BSE scandal - Blair's electoral hurdles

Nov-Dec 2000

With 18 months to go before the next general election, Blair is on the election trail. In and of itself, this does not mean that the political landscape will be very different in the coming period. Indeed, this government, thanks to its obsession for its media image and its standing in opinion polls, has given an impression of permanent electioneering ever since it came to power. But now, it is the real thing which looms. And unless a major event intervenes to throw a spanner in the well-oiled workings of parliamentary politics - for instance some significant development in the realm of the class struggle - the coming months are likely to be dominated more than ever by demagogy and electoral calculations. In other words, the dirty tricks season has opened - and promises to reinforce the already widespread cynicism felt by the working class electorate for parliamentary show business.

How could it be otherwise? For those who had hoped that, despite Blair's wooing of the City, Labour would somehow stop the rot, this government has only meant a continuation, indeed, a worsening of the many attacks against working people and the jobless which had started under the Tories. Today the differences between the parties that will be bidding for office in the next election appear even more tenuous than ever. Their language is the same and the interests they defend - those of big business - are identical. So why should workers feel concerned by the wrangles between politicians who are, in reality, partners in crime?

From the point of view of the working class, there are, however, some positive features in the present situation - positive in that they may help to spread the idea that workers have no choice other than to take matters into their own hands.

Not only can Labour no longer generate the limited illusions it did in 1997, but, over the past year, this government has been at the centre of a series of scandals which exposed the consequences of its blatant servility towards capitalist interests. At the same time, over a number of issues, it has proved weaker than it had appeared before. And this relative weakness has become visible enough for the media to speculate that Blair may call an early election, well ahead of the official deadline.

Whether Blair calls an early election or not is, in itself, irrelevant from the point of view of the problems faced by working people and the jobless. More significant however, are the reasons invoked to back up this speculation.

Indeed, the real question today is not what will happen in the next general election - as there is nothing to expect from elections anyway - but, rather, how the working class could take advantage of the present situation to make its voice heard, despite the electoral agenda set by the politicians - and independently of it.

The question of the euro-pill

Most political commentators see the issue of the euro as a major reason for Blair to want to get the general election over with as quickly as possible.

From the point of view of British capital the issue of the euro is indeed probably the most important today - and there are all sorts of pressures on Blair to sort out Britain's entry into the euro-zone. The majority of big businesses, particularly in manufacturing, as well as foreign companies, are pushing for an early entry.

They claim that the (relatively) high value of the pound compared to the euro makes export of goods into Europe (just over half of foreign trade) uncompetitive. The main car manufacturers have all used the "high pound" to bargain for government subsidies. Nissan has used it as a pretext to cancel its promise of a new model for the Sunderland plant, leading to 1,300 job cuts, while winning a subsidy to retain existing production. Now, Toyota is threatening to stop its investment programme in Britain and others threaten to follow.

And indeed, the issue of the high pound is directly linked to that of the pound joining the euro. Since the euro was adopted in most of the rest of Europe, speculative capital has been flowing from Europe to the USA in order to benefit from the US financial bubble and its relative industrial growth. Similar flows of capital from Britain to the US have also taken place over the same period - British capitalists were the world's largest exporters of capital in 1999, investing £135bn overseas, which should be compared with the dire state of investment in Britain! The result of all this for the euro and the pound has not been very different: over the year up to September, the euro lost 18% against the dollar, but the pound lost 17%, hitting a 14-year low against the dollar in September this year - something seldom mentioned by the British media. The fact that the pound is over-valued compared to the euro (but probably not as much as we are told) seems mostly due to the flow of foreign capital attracted by the series of large-scale mergers hosted by the London stock market, such as the Vodafone-Mannesmann deal. Had the pound been part of the euro-zone, these flows would have been absorbed by the euro- zone as a whole without significantly affecting the value of the euro.

These are the sort of advantages that British companies would like to gain by entering the euro-zone, together with a more stable currency - given that the ups and downs of the pound have been causing chaos on the balance-sheets of British companies over the past period. But, of course, because the bosses want to benefit from the best possible conditions before entering the euro, they will want the pound to go down against the euro. In other words, they will expect working people to foot the bill of increased competitiveness through a higher cost of living.

In electoral terms, this means that the euro is a highly sensitive issue. In particular, Blair cannot tell the section of the middle- class electorate, which still harks back to Britain's empire, that the imperial flag and the pound would best be put in Mme Tussaud's and that, with or without their agreement, British capital will join the euro - especially since this is one of the sections of the electorate whose votes Labour is competing for against the Tories.

So, since he came to power, Blair sits uncomfortably on the fence. He toys with Brown's famous "five tests". But these so-called "tests", vague and abstract as they are ("would the euro improve conditions for long-term investment; would it allow sufficient flexibility; would it promote growth, stability and an increase in jobs? etc..") are of course designed partly to please the bosses but mostly to allow Labour the flexibility it really wants - i.e. to be able to declare conditions to be "right" or "wrong", not on the basis of economics, but on the basis of electoral prospects. And of course, particularly after the Danish referendum, which went against joining the euro by a narrow margin, Blair and Brown are even more edgy about risking Labour's electoral fortunes on this issue just now.

Hence Blair's hardened attitude towards the euro since September, while he uses a patsy such as Mandelson to ensure that the pro- euro business lobby gets the message that the government remains, after all, firmly on their side. The euro will have to wait for the general election and until then, Labour will keep waving the Union Jack.

As to workers, Blair tells them that they can rely on him to take care of their interests in the event of Britain's entry into the euro. Quite rightly, they view this claim with utter suspicion. But Blair's other face - the nationalist one, which is not that different from Hague's - should generate just as much suspicion. The euro belongs to a category of red herrings which workers know very well - it includes competitiveness, the "high pound", "national interests", etc.. How many times have bosses used "competitiveness" as a pretext for cutting conditions? And how much further down that road would they go should Britain remain outside the euro? Euro or no euro, this may lead workers to the conclusion that, ultimately, the only guarantee they have to protect their conditions is to fight the greed of the bosses.

How to discipline labour politicians?

One of the reasons mentioned by political commentators to support their speculation over an early election, are the increasing difficulties Blair seems to have to maintain discipline within the Labour party - something which can only alienate the section of the middle-class electorate which switched to Blair's Labour in 1997, after years of on-going wrangles among the Tories, because he had proved capable of reining in the factions of his own party. If Blair is to avoid losing again these voters to the Tories, he needs to restore discipline before the factional fights within Labour's hierarchy become too obvious. And from this point of view, an early election might just do the trick, by forcing these factions to close ranks behind Blair and his government, at least for the duration of the campaign.

Indeed this is no longer the run-up to 1997, when no Labour politician dared to question Blair's policies in public. The internal resentment to his heavy-handed rule has become more vocal over the past year through a series of high-profile setbacks inflicted on Blair. There was, of course, the support given to Livingstone by a section of the Labour party machinery in his challenge against Blair during the run-up to the London mayoral election. Then there was Blair's personal defeat in October, at the party's conference, over the question of restoring the link between earnings and the level of state pensions, in which a number of staunch Blairites among the union machineries played a decisive role. Last month again, Labour MPs openly disowned Blair in the election of the Speaker of the House of Commons: instead of voting in Blair's unofficial candidate, the Tory ex-cabinet minister Sir George Young, they elected Michael Martin, a right-wing Labour backbencher.

Less prominent, but not less embarrassing for Blair, is the on- going guerilla campaign waged in the Commons by a group of "anti-Blair" MPs who have regularly opposed government bills dealing with social issues. Not to mention the public protest registered jointly, in October, by the health union and a number of Labour MPs against the "concordat" signed by the government with the private health sector - another move towards back-door privatisation which provides the private sector with a new mechanism to parasitise the NHS.

Of course Labour dissenters will not change government policy, nor is it their objective. For a minority, like those Labour MPs who have been associated with what used to be known as the "Labour Left", this opposition is merely a symbolic political stand. But for the majority, their dissent is based more on a reaction against Blair and Brown's authoritarianism, which leaves little space for backbenchers to play any role whatsoever in the Commons. At a time when these MPs are facing the prospect of going back to their constituencies to stand for re-election, the discomfort caused by this state of affairs is no doubt even harder to bear, resulting in demonstrations of opposition primarily aimed at their electorate. It is no coincidence, for instance, that among the most vocal dissenters are those Labour MPs elected to marginal seats. But one can be sure that as soon as the general election is imminent, these dissenters will quietly ditch their opposition to line up behind Blair for fear of rocking the boat on which they sailed into Westminster.

Obviously, workers should expect nothing from such "dissenters", whether MPs or union leaders, who do not object to the fundamental orientation of Blair's policies but only to their "packaging", because it is unlikely to appeal to the electorate. But the fact that today these very tame "dissenters" dare to raise their voices against Blair, whatever their motives, is an indication if a relative weakening of his government's authority.

Blair's problem with fuel

Besides the weaknesses displayed by Blair's government over the past period, new developments have altered the political situation in a way which is still difficult to measure. The September fuel protest was one such development.

For those whose political horizon is limited to opinion polls, the significance of the fuel protest lies in the fact that Brown's blunt refusal to yield to the protester's demands resulted in a sudden swing against Labour in the polls. In fact, it did more than that, by opening a space for the Tories to pose as champions of lower petrol duties. Coming from the very same people who first introduced the famous "escalator" on petrol duty, which helped Brown to increase the proportion of the price of a gallon that goes to the Treasury, this was, of course, pure hypocrisy. However, the Tories' posturing, together with the poll results, was seen as a warning that Labour's majority might be more fragile than it has so far seemed. Wasn't there a risk that this could help the revamping of the Tories' political image if they appeared to various sections of the electorate as a possible vehicle for a protest vote against Labour? And, given this, wouldn't it be wiser for Blair to call an early election before this phenomenon developed too far, in case similar crises developed in the near future?

It is this kind of reasoning which some commentators have. Maybe they are right and, no matter how paradoxical this may seem, events like the fuel protest may allow the Tories to rebuild some electoral credit. If so, it would provide a crude exposure of the fact that by continuing the Tories' policy, this Labour government ended up providing them with a breathing space to revamp their image before paving the way for their return into office.

However, from the point of view of the working class, the real issues raised by the fuel crisis are elsewhere. The Labour government was caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, Blair did not want to upset the section of the middle-class electorate which was directly involved in the protest. So leaks appeared in the press about possible changes in the next Budget concerning petrol duty levels for certain categories of consumers. On the other hand, neither did Blair want to upset that other section of the middle-class electorate which is in favour of pricing workers off the roads in the name of protecting the environment. But the most decisive factor in Blair's attitude was his determination not be seen to give in to direct action. His worst fear was that yielding to the protesters could only be interpreted as a sign of weakness by the many sections of the population which have accounts to settle with him and particularly by the working class, which might have feel encouraged to go down the same road as the truckers and farmers who set up the blockades. And Blair had every reason to harbour such fears.

Indeed, despite the problems and general chaos created by petrol shortages, the government failed to turn public opinion against the fuel protesters. Even the blanket condemnation of the protest by the TUC had only a limited impact among rank-and-file workers. Trying to con workers into supporting the government on this issue, by portraying the protest as a "bosses' protest" or a "Tory trick" was a flop. Simply because what was in question, was one of the most unfair taxes - one that affects everyone in the same way regardless of income, just as VAT does and just as Thatcher's poll tax did back in 1990. The realisation of the injustice of this tax coupled with the fact that fuel duty took such an enormous proportion of the price of a gallon and that the government managed to increase its takings thanks to the rise of oil prices had exactly the same effect as the poll tax by mobilising general opposition. And if large contingents of workers did not join the blockades, it was not due to lack of support but to lack of leadership - lack of leadership on the part of union leaders who failed abjectly to stand up for the most basic interests of their members in this context, and lack of interest on the part of the leaders of the protest, who were more concerned with their particular sectional interests than with imposing a general reduction of the fuel duty.

In reality, even if it did not succeed immediately in forcing the government to retreat, what the fuel protest has shown is that by resorting to direct action, it is possible to create a balance forces which could force the government to yield - something that most workers did not think possible after all these years in which the union leadership endorsed, or engineered, so many partial defeats, and displayed so much reluctance to fight the bosses and their trustees in government.

And this is what kept bothering this government long after the blockade was over. This is why they made such a show of preparing contingency plans aimed at getting the army to break a future similar blockade. This is also why, at the time of writing, just a week before the 60-day ultimatum given to Brown by the September protesters, Labour ministers make such a big show of the heavy-handed policy they intend to implement should the protest restart - even though, so far, the protest leaders themselves have denied any plans to this effect.

If all this posturing shows anything, it is the government's fear of the street - or of the road - its fear that the victims of its policies might join ranks across the country, like the truckers, farmers and many cabbies did in the last protest - and choose to ignore the "normal" dead-end of parliamentary politics in order to voice their feelings. And if this government indeed has such fears, it should be an indication to the working class that it is high time it used its strength.

Labour derailed at Hatfield

The state of the railways has been a hot potato for Blair ever since he came to office, due to Labour's determination to respect the "right" of rail companies to make profits on the backs of railworkers, and passengers at the expense of safety. Over these years, Labour's indulgence towards the private sharks operating the railways has turned into a scandal - which came to a head with the Hatfield train derailment on 17 October.

In the past twelve months there had been 90 derailments and the general state of the track was known to be downright dangerous, to the point where earlier this year Railtrack had even been threatened with revocation of its licence and a £70m fine. So after Hatfield, with 4 passengers dead due to a broken rail, there had to be a very big stunt to convince the public that the government and the rail industry were doing something about this shocking state of affairs. First, the Railtrack chief, Gerald Corbett, made his offer to resign (which was, of course, rejected) and then multiple stretches of track were shut down for emergency repairs, ("the biggest rail inspection and maintenance programme this century") causing the worst disruption to services ever experienced.

This time, however, given the catalogue of profit-motivated negligence, it was hard to ignore the role of private companies. So instead, privatisation was put in the dock. Not the fact of it, of course, but the method by which it had been carried out. Said Corbett on the BBC's Newsnight programme, after his position at the top of Railtrack had been reaffirmed, "The Railway was ripped apart after privatisation and the structure that was put in place was a structure designed, if we are honest, to maximise proceeds to the Treasury. It was not a structure designed to optimise safety, optimise investment or, indeed, to cope with the huge increase of passengers the railway has seen." Even Tories came forward to admit faults in the structures which their government had imposed on private companies.

This exercise in hypocrisy was meant to shift the public's attention away from the companies' responsibilities - in this case, primarily Railtrack - and from the fact that, by its very nature, capitalist profit is designed to be maximised, necessarily at the expense of safety in the case of the railways. So, this condemnation of the way privatisation was implemented was merely a sleight of hand and a cover up.

But now this is allowing Prescott to present his intention to reduce the number of businesses controlling the train operating companies to five, as a "solution". Of course 25 different owners meant inevitable chaos. But five would make up a cartel, for which it will be easy to fix prices and safety rules and to find people in ministries to cover their backs. Talk about a "solution"!

As to Corbett's claim that privatisation has enhanced the Treasury's finances, it is a ludicrous attempt to draw attention away from the fact that the private rail companies were bought for a song, still drain treasury finances and mostly have brought huge windfalls to their shareholders at the expense of investment and safety. (In Railtrack's case, £700m over the past two years.)

But Corbett also knew at the time that the government, via the rail regulator, had already moved to change the financial structure of Railtrack. And far from tightening the controls, under the pretext that it needed more funds to provide new tracks, Railtrack was allowed to increase what it charged to the rail companies and to boost its return on investment to 8% before tax. But the government went much further than that, by announcing a £4.7bn subsidy over the next five years to finance rail improvement, in addition to the £7bn that will go to the train companies over the same period.

This £4.7bn grant will go entirely to Railtrack. And what is this grant, if not a subsidy to negligence and profiteering? Even the Economist, although a staunch supporter of privatisation, points out: "If the government had taken an issue of new shares in return for its injection of funds, it would have owned almost half the company and, in effect, carried out its threats made while in opposition to re-nationalise the company." Yes, but this Labour government is much too bent on serving the interests of the City to risk interfering with big companies like Railtrack. So more public subsidies will be ploughed into the coffers of the rail sharks without the slightest guarantee in return. But no matter how many layers of regulating bureaucracy are put in place and how many token fines are charged, the rail companies will see to it that this public money finds its way into their shareholders' pockets - because these are the only people to whom they are accountable. In the end, Labour's slavishness to capital will only pave the way for more dead and more injured.

Yet not only is there no intention to question private rail operation, but the catalogue of disasters on the railways has not been met with even one significant measure to deal with the obvious problems. Yes, Labour set up inquiries - after the 1997 Southall crash (7 killed) and again after the 1999 Ladbroke Grove crash (31 killed), both of which were caused by the lack of train protection systems. Yet the interim report after Southall and Ladbroke Grove now concludes that TPWS, an "old" system which does not work on trains going over 70mph, should be fitted on "cost-effective" grounds, with the possible introduction on some trains of the more effective systems some time in the future. So much for Prescott's assurance, last year, that public safety would be paramount!

Labour's respect for profit is not just costly for the working population, due to the squandering of public money for the benefit of shareholders. It is above all dangerous, for the hundreds of thousands of workers who commute to work on public transport as well as for the tens of thousands who run this transport. And this last series of accidents shows only one thing - that as long as commuters and transport workers do not join forces to bring the transport companies to account, as well as the ministers and regulators who cover their backs, there will be no safety on the tracks.

BSE - a ministerial white-wash

The 16-volume, 4,000 page Phillips Inquiry into BSE, just published, provides all the details of the shocking cover-up, delays and blatant protection of vested interest that is the horrific tale of BSE. Today the media and politicians are quoting the adage that "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", as if they had just discovered this trite and self-evident idea.

Yes, the Phillips report names the names, and criticises each individual in turn for their utter disregard for the health and safety of the population (far beyond Britain since many other countries had infected cows, beef and later, infected cattle feed, dumped on them) right up until 1996, when eventually, Steven Dorrell, the then Tory Health Minister, decided to tell the public that BSE could be passed to humans in the form of new "variant" Creutzfeld Jacob disease.

Despite the damning evidence contained in the documents produced by the inquiry, Phillips manages to conclude that official assurances to the public were made in "good faith" by Tory ministers on the advice of MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food). So everything should be blamed, says Phillips, on MAFF's bureaucracy and lack of regulations - in short on its inefficiency.

Phillips goes on to say that there was no "industrial bias" in ministers' decisions, meaning bias towards the farming industry. Of course the compensation scheme did not do much to protect the smaller farmers against the loss of the beef market in Europe. But what about the big industrial farms which had the finances and got more enough compensation to switch their activities to other areas? And what else, other than "industrial bias" motivated this incredible exhibition of slowness to react, vacillation and prevarication for over ten years? Indeed, there were even greater stakes than the immediate interests of farming and the pressures of the farming lobby. There were the interests of agro-businesses like the animal feed and fertiliser companies, but also a vast industry which depends on all kinds of animal products - pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies, processed food manufacturers, the confectionary industry and many others, including giants like Nestle, Medeva/Celltech, Cadbury-Schweppes, Wellcome...

In 1989, drug companies, for instance, were told to change their sources of supplies of calf serum, used in the production of oral polio vaccine. It took them four years to use up their stocks, however. So despite the fact that the government kept saying that this serum came from "BSE free countries" (but were there any, given the lack of "evidence" everywhere?) the vaccines in use up to 1993 at least could have contained serum from calves who contracted BSE. But according to experts, the risk could not be quantified accurately. Given this, the vaccine should have been discarded. But it was used. And with what consequences?

Despite the shocking catalogue of lies and cover-ups, inaction and concern for profits rather than health, exposed by Phillips' 4000 pages, he nevertheless concludes that nobody is to blame! And no wonder. Because how many heads would have to roll in high places otherwise? No doubt Labour ministers were careful in choosing the chair of this "independent" inquiry on BSE which they commissioned in 1997. Wasn't Phillips the judge who presided over the Maxwell fraud trial in 1995, which still left many Mirror Group pensioners with empty hands? Wasn't he one six judges who ruled that Pinochet should not stand trial but be returned to Chile last year? "Independent", maybe, but not independent of his class!

There is a definite solidarity between the politicians whose ambition is to manage the affairs of the capitalist class. They will do anything to prevent the role of governments and ministers in protecting profits, from being exposed publicly - they will even forget about their rivalries. So Blair was careful not to try to make political capital out of the BSE scandal at the expense of the Tories. And Phillips must have been given a very clear brief - that is to absolve the politicians of any blame, which he did. But he went even further. He said in his conclusions that Britain's response to the BSE crisis "reflects credit on our system of government and in particular on the State Veterinary Service"! But who will believe such a white-wash of government responsibilities?

The report does not cover the period in which Labour has been in power. After 1997, Blair turned the issue of the European beef ban into a crusade to defend Queen and country. And he did his best to make political capital out of getting the ban lifted. And yet, at the same time, blood, tallow and gelatine were still going into animal feed, and up to 2,000 cattle per year were still found to have BSE, while the funding for research on BSE was still not made available.

On the other hand, the Labour government pre-empted the Phillips report by setting up yet another so-called "independent" body to take over responsibility for food safety from the Ministry of Agriculture - so that now, in case of trouble, ministers will be able to hide behind this new body, despite the fact that they, and no-one else, are in a position to make decisions. So is Blair's policy more responsible than that of his Tory predecessors? Hardly!

Of course, in order to be on the right side of the BSE scandal and probably to avoid court cases which might be a lot more damaging than the Phillips enquiry, Labour has now announced a compensation scheme for the families of the 85 BSE victims - although it is unclear whether this will be extended to future victims. And this is the very least this government can do. But what about the big companies which benefited knowingly from the past governments' criminal failure to act? What about those which chose to disregard the few regulations that were eventually put into place? When will they be made to pay?

Working to be poor

As Blair's campaign gathers momentum, having put aside these scandals, what will he have to say about the policies which have helped to push a quarter of Britain's working class below the poverty line since the 1980s? Specially since his government has tightened these policies even more since it came to power.

Blair pledged to end child poverty in 20 years. He has 16 years left, if he can stick around that long. But so far the increase in poverty has accelerated, not decreased. Between 1983 and 1990, households living in poverty increased to 21% of all households. By 1999, this figure was 24%. We can predict confidently that Blair will keep quiet about his old pledge.

And what about the conditions of those who are in work? Blair has boasted time and again of the way "his" economy has created jobs for the unemployed. Indeed jobs have been created. Many casual jobs are now paid at the minimum wage of £3.60 per hour, so that the only way to make a living is to work often - with as many little jobs as can be squeezed into a working day - and to work overtime. The TUC estimates that £23 billion worth of unpaid overtime is worked at present in a full year! All this, while permanent full-time jobs continue to be slashed. After the large job cuts announced at the beginning of the year in the car industry, the latest round in September/October include Dunlop (1,100), Corus (1,400), C&A (4,800), BAE Systems (3,800), among others.

There are exceptions however. Like at the Siemens semi- conductor plant in Stephen Byers's constituency - the company which made 1,100 workers redundant just after it was opened by the Queen in September 1998. Here, Byers' Department of Trade and Industry has just awarded a £28m grant of public money to clinch a deal whereby a US microchip manufacturer takes it over as a kind of subcontractor to Siemens. 1,500 jobs are now meant to be created there - that is, in reality, 400 if one takes the jobs cut by Siemens two years ago. Perhaps it will be King Tony who will personally host the opening scheduled for possible pre-election April 2001? But who do they think they can fool with another electoral stunt like this?

The worst of it is that politicians actually boast of the few casual jobs being created, particularly in call centres. Another call centre which will employ 1,000 workers is planned for Dundee, an unemployment "blackspot", adding to the host of others sited in Scotland now which apparently is meant to be a source of national pride - "enhancing Scotland's reputation as one of Europe's foremost call centre locations", as Henry MacLeish, Labour's Scottish Enterprise minister says of this new sweatshop.

Conditions are not only getting worse at work but conditions at home are faring no better for the working class and particularly the low-paid. Under Blair, many workers end up having to work in order to be poor! Apart from not being able to afford rising rents - due to the virtual disappearance of affordable council housing - let alone being able to pay for a mortgage, 9.5m people cannot afford to heat, decorate or damp-proof their homes. 10.5m people have no savings whatsoever and no bank or building society accounts. These statistics are of course well-known to Blair's "Social Exclusion Unit", in fact it even helped produce them. But his government's only action so far has been yet another of Straw's outbreaks of anti-social behaviour, this time against "beggars" - meaning the homeless.

The working class has a lot of ground to regain against the bosses over its conditions at work, and many accounts to settle with this government over its attacks against the unemployed, the welfare system and local and public services. And it is certainly not through the ballot box that it can regain this ground nor settle these accounts.

In a negative way, the latest round of scandals shows what needs to be done. This society has reached such a degree of corruption, that those who are supposed to be responsible for running it choose consciously to risk the lives of hundreds, but possibly millions of people, to preserve the profits of a few shareholders. And all the cogs and levers of the system, including its parliamentary facade, conspire to provide a cover for such criminal behaviour. This means that as long as the vast majority of the population which has no stake in the profit system, does not impose its direct control over the capitalists, the big companies and their agents at every level of society, no-one can be safe from the profiteers.

In a positive way, Blair's weaknesses and the bloody nose he got during the fuel protest, shows that this government is not as strong as it seems, or as many workers still think it is. It depends heavily on the lack of confidence in its own strength that the working class has developed over the previous two decades. But as the fuel protest showed, with enough determination it was possible to make a show of strength without the government being able to do very much about it. And if a few thousand truckers, farmers and cabbies managed that, nothing would be impossible for the millions who produce everything in this country. As to the trade-union leaders' implication that workers would never be able to achieve the same balance of forces because they would be dealt with differently by the police, it should be treated with the contempt it deserves, coming from bureaucrats whose first concern is to avoid any independent action by the working class.

The strength of the working class lies above all in its numbers, its collective consciousness and its decisive role in the operation of society. But it lies also in the fact that, against the corruption of the system and the servility of its politicians towards the profit- makers, it can win the active support of whole sections of the population who have had enough of footing the bill for the profits of the big companies. It is this strength and this ability that the working class will have to use in the future battles.

5 November 2000