Fuel crisis continues to spiral out of ministers' control

Pressure on Maude grows as a woman is burnt in York and sales of jerry cans soar.

While George Galloway's startling win in Bradford may have provided some temporary respite, there is no question that this has been a bad week for the coalition.

The self-inflicted fuel crisis is continuing to spiral out of ministers' control, with fresh pressure on Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude. A woman in York has suffered 40 per cent burns after transferring petrol from one container to another in her kitchen. The political implications of this sad incident have yet to be seen. Reaction from the opposition has been divided. Labour peer Lord Toby Harris called for Maude to step down, while Labour MP Tom Harris tweeted: "Instead of blaming ministers for the accident involving the York woman decanting fuel, we should simply warn people against storing fuel."

Downing Street eventually responded to the news, saying only:

We are aware of the reports. People should follow the advice from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

But this does not exonerate Maude -- who said earlier this week that people should put "a bit of extra fuel in a jerry can in the garage". The HSE advice explicitly warns against keeping petrol in a container of this size (a jerry can holds 20 litres):

The limit is a maximum of two suitable metal containers each of a maximum capacity of ten litres and two plastic containers (which have to be of an approved design) each of a maximum capacity of five litres. These limits also apply to any containers kept in a vehicle parked in the garage or on the driveway (but not to the internal fuel tank of the vehicle). Under no circumstances should the petrol containers be stored in the home itself.

Anyone who wishes to store larger quantities than this, or use larger containers, is required to notify the local Petroleum Licensing Authority.

It may be unfair to hold Maude directly accountable for the incident in York (although news organisations have wasted no time in trying to establish whether the woman was explicitly acting on his advice or not -- latest reports say not). However, it is indisputable that he gave advice that not only prompted panic, but was in breach of government safety regulations. York was one of the first places to be affected by panic buying, with many petrol stations dry as quickly as Tuesday.

The Transport Minister Mike Penning told Newsnight earlier this week that Maude's comment was "a mistake", saying: "He didn't understand the size of a jerry can."

But unfortunately for him, the figures show that his advice has been taken literally, mistake or not. Halfords is reporting a 500 per cent increase in sales of jerry cans. Amazon has seen an astonishing hike in sales of jerry cans, of over 20,000 per cent, with the containers' sales rank rocketing from 58,380 to 283. Maude's comments on Tuesday caused sales of petrol to rise 81 per cent and diesel by 43 per cent.

It is debatable how much blame can be laid at the door of the government -- and Maude -- for one individual accident. Their culpability in creating a pointless fuel crisis and all the panic that goes with it is indisputable.

Francis Maude is under pressure. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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By refusing to stand down, Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed the British working classes

The most successful Labour politicians of the last decades brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes but also an understanding of how free market economies work.

Jeremy Corbyn has defended his refusal to resign the leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that to do so would be betraying all his supporters in the country at large. But by staying on as leader of the party and hence dooming it to heavy defeat in the next general election he would be betraying the interests of the working classes this country. More years of Tory rule means more years of austerity, further cuts in public services, and perpetuation of the gross inequality of incomes. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Seema Malhotra, made the same point when she told Newsnight that “We have an unelectable leader, and if we lose elections then the price of our failure is paid by the working people of this country and their families who do not have a government to stand up for them.”

Of course, in different ways, many leading figures in the Labour movement, particularly in the trade unions, have betrayed the interests of the working classes for several decades. For example, in contrast with their union counterparts in the Scandinavian countries who pressurised governments to help move workers out of declining industries into expanding sectors of the economy, many British trade union leaders adopted the opposite policy. More generally, the trade unions have played a big part in the election of Labour party leaders, like Corbyn, who were unlikely to win a parliamentary election, thereby perpetuating the rule of Tory governments dedicated to promoting the interests of the richer sections of society.

And worse still, even in opposition Corbyn failed to protect the interests of the working classes. He did this by his abysmal failure to understand the significance of Tory economic policies. For example, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had finished presenting the last budget, in which taxes were reduced for the rich at the expense of public services that benefit everybody, especially the poor, the best John McConnell could do – presumably in agreement with Corbyn – was to stand up and mock the Chancellor for having failed to fulfill his party’s old promise to balance the budget by this year! Obviously neither he nor Corbyn understood that had the government done so the effects on working class standards of living would have been even worse. Neither of them seems to have learnt that the object of fiscal policy is to balance the economy, not the budget.

Instead, they have gone along with Tory myth about the importance of not leaving future generations with the burden of debt. They have never asked “To whom would future generations owe this debt?” To their dead ancestors? To Martians? When Cameron and his accomplices banged on about how important it was to cut public expenditures because the average household in Britain owed about £3,000, they never pointed out that this meant that the average household in Britain was a creditor to the tune of about the same amount (after allowing for net overseas lending). Instead they went along with all this balanced budget nonsense. They did not understand that balancing the budget was just the excuse needed to justify the prime objective of the Tory Party, namely to reduce public expenditures in order to be able to reduce taxes on the rich. For Corbyn and his allies to go along with an overriding objective of balancing the budget is breathtaking economic illiteracy. And the working classes have paid the price.

One left-wing member of the panel on Question Time last week complained that the interests of the working classes were ignored by “the elite”. But it is members of the elite who have been most successful in promoting the interests of the working classes. The most successful pro-working class governments since the war have all been led mainly by politicians who would be castigated for being part of the elite, such as Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Blair, and many others too numerous to list. They brought to politics not only a burning desire to improve the lot of the working classes (from which some of them, like me, had emerged) and reduce inequality in society but also an understanding of how free market economies work and how to deal with its deficiencies. This happens to be more effective than ignorant rhetoric that can only stroke the egos and satisfy the vanity of demagogues

People of stature like those I have singled out above seem to be much more rare in politics these days. But there is surely no need to go to other extreme and persist with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, a certain election loser, however pure his motives and principled his ambitions.

Wilfred Beckerman is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and was, for several years in the 1970s, the economics correspondent for the New Statesman