By Mike Forster, Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in England, Wales and Scotland)
Headlines warning of a Winter of Discontent have filled the media all week as the fuel crisis left angry motorists struggling to get petrol at empty forecourts. Essential workers, such as NHS, teaching, social care and other frontline staff have been unable to get to work due to lack of fuel. Johnson’s hapless response has been to execute another U-turn by offering temporary work visas to 5,000 EU HGV drivers for just 3 months until 24 December. Perhaps he has forgotten the awful queues of lorry drivers at Dover last year who were struggling to get home to families for Christmas.
The government has now put the army on standby, executing ‘Operation Escalan’ to use a fleet of 80 reserve army trucks. They have also relaxed the Competition Act between competing oil companies to try and ensure all filling stations get their quota of petrol. On top of all this, the owners of Stanlow Oil Refinery (which supplies one sixth of UK petrol), who took over Asda last year, are in crisis talks with the government over an unpaid £223m VAT payment which could result in its collapse. In reality, the government is far more likely to step in again to bail the company. This is what they have done with the US-owned company CF Fertilisers which produces vitally needed C02.
Naturally, profiteering is now taking place with reports of petrol shooting up to £1.40 a litre which will be compounded by the continuing rise in the price of oil, now at $80 per barrel compared to less than $40 last year. Media pundits now predict a ‘perfect storm’ for the Tories as they grapple with multiple shortages and crises.
Fuel crisis causes
The Tories try to blame ‘panic buying’, which may be a temporary factor, but in reality this crisis has been brewing for years. The Road Haulage Association (RHA) wrote to Johnson back in June urging him to take ‘decisive steps to address the shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers’, describing the supply chains as ‘finely balanced’. Last week, the government tried blaming the RHA for provoking panic buying. In reality, the number of qualified HGV drivers has been in decline for the last 5 years.
Former drivers continue to describe inhumane working conditions on social media. The General Secretary of the Dutch Trade Unions, interviewed on Radio 4, said “drivers from across Europe have lost all trust in this industry which was already sick, plagued by exploitation”. Drivers have been left to sleep in their own cabs, often with no toilet facilities, service stations are way too expensive and lack basic facilities and drivers are expected to pay for their own accommodation. Little wonder that 25,000 European drivers returned home to work after Brexit.
Of course, Covid is also a contributing factor. There is a huge backlog of tests to be carried out by the DVLA which were cancelled during the pandemic. The Tories are now trying to fast-track these but in reality, all these problems will not be resolved by the quick fixes Johnson dreams up. He has even suggested that drivers could be allowed to work longer hours which would be very unsafe and a huge recipe for further disasters.
More broadly, this crisis highlights the ongoing reliance of huge swathes of the economy on fossil fuels which drive climate destruction. It exposes the superficial nature of the government’s green rhetoric, which masks the Tories’ total unwillingness to challenge the interests of the huge capitalist monopolies that make a killing from polluting the planet.
Winter of discontent?
Last week the headlines were all about gas shortages as the fuel industry went into meltdown; already 13 companies have gone bust with rumours of one of the so-called ‘Big Six’ about to go into administration. This will cost working people dearly, already struggling on meagre budgets. The UK is now gripped by a cost of living crisis with the end of furlough, the cut to Universal Credit, NI rises next year, an ongoing pay freeze, and rising fuel and food prices. An ex-Tory minister has predicted ‘very very difficult times ahead for hundreds and thousands of people’. These multiple crises require a determined response from working and young people who cannot shoulder any more of this system. Socialist Alternative demands:
- End the profiteering, nationalise under workers’ control and management the big fuel, energy and transport companies
- For an end to the public sector pay freeze and an immediate minimum wage rise to £15 an hour, with an annual cost of living rise
- Free accommodation and driver training for all HGV drivers
- A socialist ‘Green New Deal’ – a democratic economic plan for the immediate transition away from fossil fuels, including via massive investment in genuinely green infrastructure and technology
- For a mass campaign to drive the Tories out of office and fight for a government committed to the interests of working people