Bolshie Britain: a new Winter of Discontent

Fuel demonstrations and pay protests hark back to the dying days of a Labour Government. But will Gordon Brown be scuppered by a new Winter of Discontent?
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Indy Politics

He will bristle at any comparison with the last Labour prime minister to lose a general election, but in coming weeks Gordon Brown will struggle to escape memories of the troubles that did for Jim Callaghan.

The Prime Minister has been preoccupied with difficulties overseas, but when he finally concentrates on the home front, he will realise that bolshie Britain is becoming a critical problem in its own right. Mr Brown, Old Labour man and friend of the unions, is sliding towards his own version of the Winter of Discontent, amid demonstrations, sloganeering, placards and possibly strikes on a scale not seen for three decades.

His government has had to deal with a full-frontal assault from the police in recent days, after their 1970s-style call for a strike in support of a better pay deal. But, almost below the radar, tens of thousands of jobcentre, benefit office and pensions workers have launched their own 48-hour strike against the same, old-fashioned policy of pay restraint.

The much-heralded fuel protests did not bite as deeply as originally feared yesterday, but the well-organised protesters remain a menacing presence as Mr Brown enters the most challenging phase of his premiership.

An initial announcement last week, by the umbrella group Transaction 2007, of plans to picket fuel depots stirred fearful memories of seven years ago when blockades led by the Transaction 2000 group caused long queues for petrol nationwide. With fuel prices now above 1 a litre, the group wants the Government to cut fuel duty and introduce rebates for what it calls "essential" road users.

While the fuel protesters decide whether to push for the level of chaos they caused in 2000, widespread strikes are threatened in other sectors. Police officers have voted to stage a ballot next month to seek the right to go on strike, having recently made the unprecedented call for the resignation of the Home Secretary, in response to Jacqui Smith's decision not to backdate a new pay deal.

Workers at seven airports operated by the British Airports Authority, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Glasgow, are voting on strike action over pension cuts. More than 5,000 members of the Transport and General Workers' Union have been balloted. If they vote in favour of a walkout, the union's chief negotiator, Brendan Gold, has described it as "inevitable that airports affected will be closed". The BAA ballot closes on the same day as a vote by workers at Virgin Atlantic, so it is likely that any resulting walkouts will coincide.

Strike action also looks imminent at the BBC, with pickets planned as early as 16 January in protest at proposals to slash 1,700 jobs.

Meanwhile, three of the UK's leading environmental groups used the latest fuel protests to call on the Government to raise fuel duty, and do more to get freight and other traffic off the roads. Friends of the Earth, WWF-UK and Greenpeace said the cost of motoring had fallen 10 per cent in real terms since Labour came to power in 1997, while the cost of public transport had risen.

But June Walker, a retired care assistant who joined the protests yesterday, said: "I've got nothing to do with the haulage industry. I'm a pensioner who pays 57 to fill up a Peugeot 307. I am fed up of this Government. This is tax on the poor if you pay so much for fuel, it knocks on to everything."


Balloting for strike action over planned job cuts

Civil servants

48-hour walkout held over an imposed pay deal

Air transport

BAA staff and Virgin cabin crew voting on strikes

Hauliers and farmers

Picketing depots to call for cuts in fuel duty