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Editorial: How should the left respond to motorway protests against fuel duty?

IT SPELLS trouble for the Conservatives when go-slow anti-fuel tax protesters demand the resignation of the Tory Prime Minister.

In contrast to the disruption caused by climate change activists blocking roads, the mostly self-employed drivers clogging up Britain’s motorways are likely to receive sympathetic media coverage. 

Priti Patel is unlikely to demand new legislation imposing draconian penalties for their audacity in obstructing the highway. Nor will Labour’s front bench call for injunctions to shut down the action, as it did when Just Stop Oil protesters targeted infrastructure.

These protests are mounted by a category (motorists) accorded unusual reverence by Establishment politicians of both parties, often depicted as the aspirational swing voters termed “Mondeo Man” by New Labour strategists in the 1990s — an internalisation by Labour of the disdain felt for public transport by Thatcher-era Conservatism.

The supposed appeasement of “the motorist” has stood in the way of developing safer cycling routes and low-emissions zones in towns and cities across Britain for years, imposing a hefty toll on communities through the air and noise pollution that car dependence generate.

The protests are also in favour of a policy — tax cuts — normally guaranteed an enthusiastic hearing at Westminster. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak cut fuel duty as recently as March, a move which Labour supported, though the savings disproportionately benefit richer households.

Further cuts would again reward giant oil companies whose record profits are a key driver of the rising cost of living in Britain.

At the same time the left should not adopt a mirror image of the Establishment’s fawning attitude to “motorists” and assert pious indifference to their difficulties on the grounds that driving should be discouraged anyway.

Car dependence is not largely a matter of choice, but a direct result of the wrecking of Britain’s public transport network by privatisation and chronic underinvestment.

Train and bus services are too often expensive and unreliable where they run at all, while the Beeching decimation of smaller railway stations and the closure of innumerable “unprofitable” bus routes — by private companies given charge of what should be an essential service — mean public transport is not an option for millions of working-class people. 

No such “profitability” test is applied to road construction, improved connectivity being seen in this case as worth public investment.

This forces people to rely on cars — and rising petrol prices are another intolerable pressure on households facing rocketing inflation.

Using “green” policies to attack the living standards of ordinary people proved the trigger for the huge yellow vests protests that rocked France in 2018-19. 

The urban and often liberal leadership of most organisations of the left was perceived as indifferent to the plight of small-town working-class communities, meaning this huge explosion of anti-Establishment anger was not channelled into a sustained attack on the capitalist class which provoked it. There are clear parallels with the Brexit process in Britain.

The public support workers are winning for taking strike action to secure pay rises shows the opportunity this upsurge in industrial militancy presents to build a deeper-rooted, class conscious working-class movement.

The case can be made for massive investment in universal cheap or free public transport to address the cost-of-living crisis and climate change at the same time — after all, polls showing majorities want faster action on global warming must reflect the views of millions of daily car users.

Free, publicly owned buses are no doubt among the Jeremy Corbyn policies Keir Starmer referred to as “unaffordable and unworkable” while boasting in the Guardian that Labour’s unremarkable performance in the Wakefield by-election shows he’s turned its fortunes around.

But it’s the economic status quo that is proving unaffordable and unworkable for ordinary people. The labour movement must express the public appetite for radical change.

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