Saturday 31 March, 1990, one day before the introduction of the poll tax in England and Wales, and one year after its introduction in Scotland, 250,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate in London and Glasgow organised by the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation (in which the Militant Tendency was playing a leading role).
This was just the culminating act of a mass campaign organising millions of people’s non-payment and active resistance against the implementation of the tax. This massive movement of civil disobedience eventually succeeded in bringing down the hated Thatcher government, despite being lamentably opposed by the TUC and Labour Party leaders.
We reproduce here the Militant pamphlet which marked this important turning point, written by Rob Sewell, now editor of Socialist Appeal.
“If the Secretary of State does not find a better way of evening out poll tax payments throughout the country, there will be a big revolution.” (Tory MP Gerard Vaughan, September 1989)
“Imagine a country where more than one in ten of the adult population is refusing to pay a tax. Welcome to Scotland 1990… Today’s drama in Glasgow may be repeated in Liverpool.” (The Economist, January 1990)
“Two years on, and more than a million cannot or will not settle their bills North of the Border.” (The Daily Star, March 1990)
“Judging by experience in Scotland and opinion polls in England and Wales, the number refusing to pay will run into millions. Since enforcement on such a scale is impossible, this will not only bring the law into disrepute, but will generate a fresh backlash against the tax by those who are currently paying up.” (The Guardian, March 1990)
“Mrs Thatcher is now said to admit in private that the poll tax was a huge mistake.” (Evening Standard, 1 June 1990)
The poll tax is now in complete disarray. After a year over one million Scots are still refusing to pay. Following their example the people of the rest of Britain are rising up. Millions from every corner of the country, from every town and remote village, are joining the ranks of mass non-payment. Following the example of “people’s power” in Prague, Berlin, and Bucharest, Britain is now facing the biggest movement of civil disobedience in its history. This magnificent campaign of resistance has reduced attempts to collect the tax to a shambles. “Mrs Thatcher’s once impregnable government,” states the big business Financial Times, “faces its greatest crisis since it was first elected in 1979.”
On Saturday 31 March an unprecedented 250,000 took to the streets of Glasgow and London to demonstrate their hatred of Thatcher’s brutal poll tax.
It was the largest protest seen this century. Its effect has shaken the Tory government to its foundations. The ten million strong campaign of mass non-payment, led by the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, has the power to defeat Thatcher’s tax and drive the Tories from office. That is our objective. We are determined to achieve it.
The poll tax, totally rejected and despised by more than 80 percent of the population, is doomed. It is seen by the vast majority as a blatant class tax. It ruthlessly takes from the poor and gives generously to the rich. It puts the billionaire royal family (except the Queen who pays nothing) on the same level as the low paid. The Duke of Westminster (who will make £10,000 from the tax) will end up paying roughly the same as an unemployed family in Lambeth!
The Thatcher government claims to be the guardian of “the Family”. But its measures have undermined and destroyed the family. Many poor families faced with poll tax bills of one, two or three thousand pounds will be forced to split up. “How many families will suffer division?” asked Bradford MP Pat Wall, “How many young people are going to join the cardboard cities of homeless in London and elsewhere as a result of this tax?”.
At the same time other families will be doing rather well: Viscount Cowdray, with a personal estate worth £360 million, will save £2,528 compared to the rates. Lord Egremont, with a personal family fortune of £30 million, will save £2,389, while the Duke of Richmond and Gordon (personal fortune £45 million) will reap £1,470 from the tax.
In Thatcher’s Britain there are 17 million living on or below the poverty line. Millions daily are being driven into debt. As mortgages soar hundreds of thousands are forced into arrears. Home repossessions are spiralling. Home ownership has become a nightmare for millions. At least 200,000 households are in serious arrears with loan repayments. Now, on top of massive rent rises (54 percent in parts of the South), mortgage increases, huge gas, water and electricity bills, they face the burden of the poll tax.
Minnie Adam, a 70-year-old widow from Glasgow, says: “It’s not that I won’t pay. I just can’t pay. I’ve honestly thought about killing myself because of the worry.”
Norman Say, a 54-year-old farm worker from West Oxfordshire, now faces a £2,400 poll tax demand because he and his wife Mary still have four grown-up sons living at home. His old rates bill was £418.60. Mr Say has never voted in an election because he says that he doesn’t understand politics; if he did vote, however, it would not be for Mrs Thatcher. His mistrust is based chiefly on the knowledge that he is doing all he can to support his large family. He does an early-morning paper round to supplement his £97 per week farm wages – and can do no more to meet this extra bill.
“The government is robbing the poor to pay the rich,” said Mr Say, who has no savings and will not be paying the poll tax. “If I have to go to prison, that’s what I’ll have to do. Mrs Thatcher got us into this hole and she will just have to get us out of it.”
At the same time the rich are getting richer. The number of millionaires has risen by more than 400 percent under the Tories. The bankers, industrialists, and directors are giving themselves massive salary increases, while limiting their workers to paltry rises of about seven percent. Cadbury Schweppes boss Dominic Cadbury’s salary was up 38.2 percent to £430,000. Lord Blakenham, head of Pearson merchant banking group was forced to “struggle by” with a 55.5 percent increase to £465,000. The drug group Beecham’s chief executive Robert Bauman awarded himself a 45 percent rise to take his pay to £1.26 million. His chairman, Henry Wendt, “a good golfer and tennis player”, awarded himself a 365 percent increase to £1.99 million a year.
The poll tax, together with other Tory measures, especially the £4 billion tax hand outs in 1988, have widened the gulf between the classes.
After a decade of attacks on the poorest sections of society, especially on the unemployed and low paid, the Thatcher government has seen the bulk of the population turn against it. The Tories, despite three general election victories now face electoral catastrophe. The poll tax has been the main reason for this collapse in their support.
In the words of Tory MP John Biffen, “There is a sharp mood of discontent on account of a broad range of the government’s social policies. The poll tax has become a lightning conductor for this discontent.”
Thatcher’s plan to introduce her government’s flagship – the poll tax – has turned into a disaster. The victor over the miners and the Argentine generals believed she could drive the Scots into submission, then impose the law on the rest of the country without resistance. Had she not cowed the unions, sold off nationalised industry, and sold council houses? Now with the poll tax she would deal with “high spending” Labour councils. They would be made to appreciate what “Victorian values” really meant – a return to the Victorian poor law.
She measured the strength of likely opposition from the lamentable performance of the Labour and trade union leaders, who for years had been desperately seeking a responsible image to appease big business. If it was left up to these “new realists” there would clearly be no fightback and the opposition to the poll tax would have fizzled out. But Thatcher reckoned without the iron resistance of ordinary people – and particularly the leadership given by the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, which served to provide the backbone to the struggle. Her dream is now in tatters. Even her own future looks bleak.
Originally the Tory government, their kept press, the establishment, right-wing trade union and Labour leaders all forged an alliance to ridicule the idea of mass non-payment. It would never happen! At best they claimed, it would be at the same level as failure to pay rates. Last year, right-wing Labour MP John Maxton put it bluntly: “All responsible politicians have now rejected the case for non-payment leaving the SNP (Scottish National Party), Militant Tendency and a few Labour politicians who should know better to continue… down that irresponsible road.”
The SNP belatedly jumped on the bandwagon but has played a minimal role in the Scottish resistance. It was only Militant who understood and appreciated the potential mass opposition to the tax and the lengths to which people would be prepared to go. As early as May 1988 a Militant pamphlet pointed to the “huge groundswell of resistance” developing in Scotland. On 20 May 1988, under the banner heading “Poll Tax – We won’t pay”, Militant criticised Labour controlled regional councils who “meekly agreed to comply with the government regulations and introduce the poll tax” despite the willingness of the Scottish workers to fight. “But the housing schemes will remain no-go areas for the Tories.” In July 1988, Militant predicted mass non-payment by Scottish workers, “an irresistible force that could bring the government to its knees.”
These predictions were borne out by events – with a magnificent one and a half million Scots refusing to pay the poll tax. Despite all the regional fiddling of the official figures for non-payment issued by the Scottish regional councils, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) was forced to admit that 850,000 people had either not paid the tax or were well behind. The Guardian, which had also ridiculed non-payment, stated on the 7 April that the “Authorities (in Scotland) would face a financial crisis later this year if non-payment stayed at its present level of up to 20 percent.” It went on: “400,000 had been sent legal warrants by sheriffs officers (bailiffs) acting for councils, while a further 450,000 were at the ‘final notice stage’ of debt recovery. Alarmingly for the councils there appears to have been no significant improvement since January.”
In addition to this calamity, they failed to disclose that an extra 300,000 had disappeared altogether from the registered figures, who had certainly not paid a penny.
In Strathclyde alone, the regional councils figures show that in Glasgow 205,140 people have not paid or are in serious arrears. That is 42.5 percent of the adult population! Strathclyde is now owed over £100 million (out of 310 million) in lost poll tax revenue! Despite all the predictions of the pessimists and faint-hearts, mass non-payment has become a reality in the housing schemes of Scotland. This magnificent movement has become an inspiration and example to millions in England and Wales.
Despite the two-year conspiracy of silence, the work of the All Britain Federation, and Militant in particular, has brought home the tremendous scale of the struggle in Scotland to the rest of the country. Week after week, for more that two years, Militant has carried the message from the front line which has served to prepare the ground for mass non-payment throughout the rest of Britain.
This revolt in Scotland, and the massive groundswell of opposition developing in England and Wales, has caused panic throughout the Tory Party. Right-wing Tory MPs like Rhodes Boyson and Tony Marlow, have compared the tax to a “political cyanide pill” for the government. Marlow even told a shell shocked Tory 1922 Committee: “There is a risk that we will be seen to have declared war on the people… We risk being confronted by a massive and unchallengeable campaign of civil disobedience.” It was no accident that Peter Walker, following in the footsteps of Nigel Lawson, resigned from the cabinet “for family reasons”. Rats were deserting a sinking ship.
Too little, too late
The concessions already granted have totally failed to quell the growing hatred of the poll tax. Last October the government announced they would spend an extra £1.3 billion over the next four years to soften its introduction. The promises by Chris Patten, the Environment Minister, towards the end of 1989, that the average poll tax would be £278 was met with utter disbelief. It was a blatant attempt to pacify disgruntled Tory voters, particularly in the marginal seats. The introduction of-transitional relief – which claimed that no rate payer would be worse of by more than £3 per week in the first year – was a complete sham. Their calculation was based on Tory Government assessment figures about what a council should be spending, and not on the actual expenditure. In reality, 380 out of 402 councils, which is 95 percent, all spent more than the official government guidelines, and therefore failed to qualify for relief!
For Thatcher these concessions proved too little and too late. They have utterly failed to stem the growing disenchantment with the poll tax. As with the £100-per-person grant received by Strathclyde Region in 1988, they have not succeeded in buying people off. On the contrary, a Glasgow Evening Times editorial in November described Glasgow as “the non-payment blackspot, with 27.3 percent of adults failing to pay anything after seven months under the new system.” It then went on: “The Big Question is this: How do you take almost a quarter of a million defaulters to court.”
Could anything be clearer? Of course the level of mass non-payment is underestimated. If the 100,000 people in Glasgow who have disappeared from the official figures are added, then it would mean 48 percent of adults have not paid a penny or are in severe arrears. In the Lothians, after more than a year, about 250,000 are still refusing to pay. “We’ve come this far”, said Andy Clachers vice-chair of the Lothians anti-poll tax federation, “and now we’re told that Edinburgh’s poll tax is going up to £437. Who will start paying now?”
The whole government strategy has fallen to pieces. There has never been a better time for the Labour leaders to go on to the offensive, backing mass non-payment, to force an immediate general election.
Failure of Labour leaders
Unfortunately they still throw away such golden opportunities. Three times, Labour’s Executive Committee decided against organising a demonstration against the poll tax because of the cost and for fear “it would he taken over by the Militant Tendency!” This is a scandalous abdication of responsibility.
To maintain a statesmanlike image, Neil Kinnock and the other leaders have attempted to ingratiate themselves with the Tory press by denouncing mass non-payment and slavishly accepting unjust laws. “Wait until 1992 for a new Labour government!” they cry as if it was simply a case of people being impatient, and “It is against the law”. They repeatedly failed to grasp that millions will not pay the poll tax because they cannot afford to. Even a Labour Party statement correctly says: “They will have to decide whether to pay their poll tax or buy essential food or clothing.”
Should these people be abandoned by the labour movement or defended? The poll tax is seen by the majority of the population as an unjust Tory law, imposed upon the country against the will of the majority. The Labour leaders have a responsibility to defend working people, even if it means defying the law. Of course, nobody is suggesting breaking laws generally. We support laws to protect people against violence, theft and exploitation. But class laws which benefit the rich at the expense of the poor are entirely different.
All our democratic rights: the right to vote, strike, free assembly, free speech, etc. were all won in the past by defying the class laws of the rich which banned trade unions and denied the majority their rights. There would not be a Labour movement but for the sacrifice made by the pioneers like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, and the Suffragettes and the mass class struggle that developed around them.
The Tories are quite prepared in their own class interests to turn a blind eye towards the everyday law breaking of the employers and big business. Major companies are deliberately withholding nearly £26 billion from the Inland Revenue because of disputed corporation tax bills. Some £629 million was written off last year. “These figures are alarming,” said Labour MP Terry Davis, “In a recent court case in America a woman millionairess said ‘only poor people pay taxes’.”
“Mrs Thatcher seems to want Britain to move towards America, and these figures seem to indicate that this is exactly what is happening.” Labour MP Terry Fields also explained.
“We hear people saying don’t break the law. Yet we see kids weekly, and daily, being injured on these phoney employment schemes, without any health and safety protection for them.
“Where was the protection of the law for the workers on the Herald of Free Enterprise, those killed in the Kings Cross fire or on Piper Alpha? After all this, I am supposed to tell people to keep to the law and pay the poll tax!”
The early pioneers of the labour movement were not afraid to fight, to sacrifice or even break class laws, if it defended the interests of the working class, especially the poor. In 1921, George Lansbury and the Poplar Labour Councillors were prepared to go to jail rather than reduce the relief payments to the unemployed. The councillors headed their defence statement “Guilty – and proud of it!”. They created such a sensation that the government was forced to give way and rush through legislation amending the poor law relief. It is ironic that the then leader of the Labour Party, Ramsey McDonald, also denounced and belittled their heroic actions.
In Liverpool between 1983 and 1987 the Labour Council defied the Tories and carried out their commitment to build more houses, leisure centres and generally improve the conditions of the people of Liverpool. Within five years 5,400 new homes were built, at least 10,000 jobs created. The Militant-led City Council forced the Tories to grant the money for these reforms by a mass campaign involving rallies and demonstrations of up to 70,000 people and a series of one-day general strikes. Despite the Tory rate-capping laws, they declared: “Better to break the law than break the poor.”
Big reforms were implemented in Liverpool. But, unfortunately the councillors, after being abandoned by all the other Labour councils and disowned by the Labour and trade union leaders, were eventually surcharged and disqualified. Neil Kinnock, under the pressure of the Tory press, scandalously denounced these fighters as being “irresponsible”. But what was the alternative? Complete capitulation to the Tory Government, without a whimper, and carrying through a drastic cuts budget.
Despite this setback, the Militant led Liverpool Labour Council demonstrated in action what could be achieved when the labour movement is prepared squarely to take on the Tories. The Tory Party has been practically wiped out of the city with only two seats left. In the 1987 general election, the Liverpool Labour Party won 57 percent of the vote, its best result ever. In this years May council elections, the Liberals lost hand-over-fist. The reforms from 1983-87 were a by-product of militant struggle.
The Labour leaders keep repeating the same old defeatist tune: don’t break the law and wait for the election of a new Labour government in 1992.
Labour must fight
What were the Labour Party and trade unions founded for? They were built to fight for the interests of ordinary working people against the tyranny of big business and their political representatives, the Tories and Liberals. They were not founded to undermine and obstruct workers’ struggles against Tory class laws.
It is sad to see the Labour leadership witch-hunting and expelling longstanding party members for consistently fighting the poll tax. Labour councillors have been disciplined in Edinburgh, Brighton, Leicester, Liverpool, London and elsewhere for the crime of voting against the implementation of the poll tax. Shamefully, membership of the Labour Party has been denied to anti-poll tax activists in some areas!
Unfortunately, they are helping the Tories’ campaign of misinformation and intimidation. They too are attempting to frighten people by falsely arguing that non-payment will undermine services and jobs in local government. As if paying the poll tax will save them! On the contrary the poll tax is destroying them, not the non-payment campaign. Local authorities have already carried out drastic cuts in services, jobs and conditions of employment in order to keep their poll tax bills low. This has resulted in strikes in defence of jobs and conditions. In Newham, for instance Nalgo has staged three one-day strikes over cuts. A local leaflet stated: “The council have given themselves the power to get rid of anyone they or their managers do not like… Cleaners have had their hours cut in half, school meals are degenerating into cold lunches and the story goes on. Nalgo members are taking action and seeing the proposed redundancies drop in number. We will keep going until they are all withdrawn.”
This is the inevitable consequence of local councils failing to challenge the government effectively. They have given up the pretence of fighting the Tories and allowed working people to face the consequences.
The Thatcher government will not give up the poll tax voluntarily, on their own petitions or parliamentary questions will not make the Tories retreat. After all, didn’t the ambulance workers have the vast majority of public opinion on their side? For Thatcher it meant nothing. We have to create a mass movement that really means business. Mass non-payment of the poll tax is the only weapon that can defeat Thatcher. We must make this tax unworkable and non-collectable. We must make the tax so discredited that they will be forced to withdraw it. Such a campaign, which is now involving millions of people, will be the biggest movement of civil disobedience seen in British history.
The Blacks in the Southern States of the USA defeated racist laws by outright defiance. They succeeded – not through pleas and petitions – but civil disobedience and the deliberate mass breaking of these unjust laws. Eventually, the authorities were forced to repeal them completely.
We can and will do the same in Britain with the poll tax.
Labour is the mass workers’ party in Britain, built up over generations to represent the interests of the working class in Britain. It is our first task to ensure that it does so on all occasions. The Labour leadership at various levels is clearly failing in its responsibility on the poll tax. So working people have no alternative but to reclaim their party.
It is futile for people to turn their backs on the Labour Party in disgust because of the actions of the national and local leadership. It will simply reinforce its present position. Militant urges people to join the Labour Party and help to transform it into a fighting socialist organisation. Those leaders and councillors who are failing to protect the interest of working people should be replaced with genuine class fighters prepared to go to the end in the fight with the Tories and the system they represent.
We must congratulate those twenty-eight Labour MPs who have steadfastly backed mass non-payment despite all the threats against them. They have provided a courageous example to be followed throughout the labour movement
Our task must be to campaign for local Labour Parties to adopt the non-payment position. Further, we must commit Labour councils to refuse to prosecute non-payers. Resolutions, petitions, lobbies, and demonstrations must be used to bring home the local feeling. This has already been achieved in Derwentside, Co. Durham.
In Stockton also, under the pressure of a 1,000-strong lobby, the Labour council passed a resolution saying it would not take legal action against non-payers and pledging that Labour councillors would be at the front of the picket lines against the bailiffs.
All-Britain Federation founded
The failure of the Labour and trade union leaderships has meant the urgent need to build the anti-poll tax movement from below. In Manchester, on 25 November 1989, a bold step was taken: the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation was founded by 2,000 delegates from trade union branches, Labour Parties, youth and community organisations from all over the country. This represented an historic step forward for the struggle. It brought together the local anti-poll tax unions and regional federations into a nationally co-ordinated framework – enriched by the experience of Scotland – to defeat the poll tax.
The conference passed a resolution unanimously calling on the TUC and Labour Party to organise a mass demonstration against the tax on 31 March 1990. Unfortunately the appeal fell on deaf ears. As a result, the Federation had no alternative but to step into the leadership and call a demonstration itself.
The New Year’s message from Steve Nally, the newly elected secretary of the Federation, published in Militant, stated that “Scottish poll tax collectors faced a miserable new year. Over 400,000 letters had been sent out by sheriffs officers to people who have not paid a penny. But councils still have to deal with another 600,000 who are in serious arrears, and thousands of others claiming rebates.” In England and Wales he promised the “opening of a second front against the government. It would spell the end of the poll tax and possibly even the Tory government itself.”
Out of sheer desperation the Scottish regional councils have attempted to frighten people into paying the poll tax by issuing half a million summary warrants – 145,000 in Glasgow alone, a third of the city’s population. Since June 1989, sheriffs officers have attempted to carry out poindings (the valuation of property for sale) for non-payment of fines over non-registration but with no success. The attempts to use them against poll tax non-payers has met with stiff resistance from the anti-poll tax unions and the communities generally. In the Lothians huge protests have been held outside council meetings demanding non-prosecution of non-payers. These have led to the repeated cancellation of council meetings. When sheriffs officers have turned up to houses they have been driven out of town: Jackie and Chris Moyers and Jennifer Mason reported from Musselburgh:
“We had already decided that they weren’t going into our homes to take things that we haven’t got or have worked for all our days. We were armed with nothing but the registration numbers of their cars and our anger and determination.
“We spotted the first sheriffs officer’s car. It stood out like a sore thumb, a posh blue Cavalier, car ‘phones, the lot, everything you need for a good day’s harassment of ordinary people. We chased it clean out of Musselburgh, then through every wee town just to make sure that they didn’t sneak back and carry out poindings before dinner. The big coward finally ran to the police station and complained they were being harassed. They’ve got some hard neck, considering they make a living out of terrifying and humiliating ordinary people. Then we spotted another car outside a pub in Dalkeith. A few quick ‘phone calls and reinforcements arrived from the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, complete with press.
“14 of us marched into the pub. They were there eating their three course meal with a bottle of wine, paid for no doubt by poindings of single parents and people who have got no money. ‘I hope it chokes them,’ we thought.
“‘Are you the sheriff’s officers?’ By this time a look of horror was on their faces.
“‘Who wants to know?’
“‘We do, the Anti-Poll Tax Federation.’
“‘Yes, we are the sheriff’s officers’.
“By this time the whole pub knew who they were. A few phrases that cannot be repeated followed. The message is clear: ‘Get out and stay out, and leave our people alone!’
“They eventually leave the pub with police protection. They find that somebody has let their tyres down. These big shots used to bullying their way into homes look totally ridiculous as they start to blow up their tyres as we look on.” (Militant, 16 February 1990)
In England and Wales throughout February and March. huge protest rallies were organised in every area. When the real levels of poll tax were announced – as expected far above the government levels – bitterness turned to anger, particularly in the Tory areas. There developed a widespread feeling of betrayal about the poll tax, which had come on top of huge mortgage rises as well as the general rise in the cost of living. From Tory Maidenhead to Surrey the rebellion spread.
“A poll tax war erupted in the South West last night,” commented the Western Daily Press, “as chanting protesters forced councillors to abandon their levy setting meeting. Councillors left by the back door rather than run the gauntlet of the crowds.” In Radstock, again in the South West, 10,000 demonstrated out of a total population of 30,000; in Plymouth 15,000, led by ex-Tory voters, came out onto the streets to march against the poll tax, the biggest demonstration yet seen. The mood was reaching boiling point throughout the country with hundreds of thousands attending massive anti-poll tax union meetings and lobbies. What was to follow was like scenes from the Romanian revolution with the biggest demonstrations seen in Britain for 100 years.
Angry scenes were witnessed at a number of council meetings called to set the poll tax. In Hackney, East London, 2,000 people laid siege to the Town Hall where only 40 protesters were allowed into the public gallery. The mood was tense as several hundred youth faced police lines. Violence erupted as police attempted to split the crowd up. The Hackney Against the Poll Tax Federation condemned the police provocation and also opposed the attacks on local shops, many of which supported the campaign.
1,000 people at a rally in Weymouth were called upon to defy the law and follow the example of the Tolpuddle Martyrs! A peaceful demonstration of over 2,000 took place in Lambeth at the first council meeting, and over a thousand attended the second. A further 2,000 chanting “We won’t pay!” surrounded the town hall in Sheffield. In the small Oxfordshire village of Cholsey a meeting of 1,000 voted not to pay, against cries of ”Revolution! Power to the people!”. In Norwich, a lobby of 1,000 caused the abandonment of the council meeting called to fix the rate. At Hillingdon, West London, 1,300 protested outside the council chambers. In Charnwood Council, Loughborough, 1,000 demonstrators chanted “Maggie Out!” and “We wont pay!”. In Birmingham the 250 who were outside the council meeting were denounced by the Tory leader as a “rabble”. Dick Knowles, the Labour leader gave two fingers to the public gallery when somebody shouted: “Labour should be defending the working class, not driving them into poverty with the poll tax.” In Bishops Green, Hampshire, no fewer than 180 of the 280 residents declared for non-payment, only one person refused to sign the petition in the village shop!
The massive increase in the uniform business rate introduced by the Tories at the same time has created an insurrectionary mood amongst small businesses and shopkeepers. The headline in The Times captured the mood amongst these sections: “Bath bourgeoisie joins rebellion”. This was a report of 200 shopkeepers in Bath who took the incredible step of striking for one hour in protest at the high levels of business rate and declaring that they will refuse to pay it, (despite the pleas from Chris Patten, their local MP). Protest groups are flourishing in London, Bath, Brighton and York – where in the latter case, shopkeepers face increases in rates of 7,000 percent and bankruptcy. At the same time big businesses, like Harrods, will be making massive gains. Instead of paying £8 million in rates, government “phasing” will reduce its bill to about £3 million. “We know we are advocating breaking the law by not paying rates,” stated Nick Troup, one of the Bath businessmen, “but we feel that we must do something.”
Kinnock attacks campaign
When millions are enraged by the poll tax levels and Tory heartlands are in open revolt, the Labour leaders decide to go on the offensive – against mass non-payment! A day after The Sun talked of a “raggle taggle army of Toytown Trots”, Neil Kinnock launched an attack on the advocates of mass non-payment as “Toytown revolutionaries”!
At the Labour Party Scottish conference he accused MPs who have pledged not to pay the tax of “luxurious self-righteousness” and demanded that they examine their consciences. Non-paying MP Dennis Canavan stated that he had examined his and had a confession to make: “I’m not paying my poll tax, and I don’t intend to pay the poll tax.”
Kinnock’s remarks were not just aimed at Militant and the 28 MPs. They were seen as an attack on the million and a half Scots already not paying, and the millions ready to join them in England and Wales. He was taken to task by Michael Connarty, Labour leader of Stirling District Council and normally a Kinnock supporter.
“The people of England and Wales are standing up to be counted”, he said. But “they were left leaderless… The National Executive Committee have let the people of Scotland down by refusing to organise the mass demonstrations and rallies that are necessary… We asked you to lead and you refused to lead…
“The party must not be dragged whimpering and complaining into the battle against the poll tax in England. Rather it must seize the opportunity to lead the people in a historic struggle.”
Unfortunately, they failed to do so. In fact at the May National Executive Committee meeting, in response to pressure from Kenneth Baker, the Tory chairperson, the party hierarchy passes a resolution attacking the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation as a “Militant Front” and asking members to boycott it. The Labour leaders were dancing to Baker’s tune, and acting as little more than Thatcher’s unpaid poll tax collectors! They have gone so far as to get the national official, Joyce Gould, to collect photos of anti-poll tax demonstrators which can be used in evidence to expel them from the party!
But whatever they do, even making the Federation “illegal”, it will not have the slightest effect. In the 1920s the trade union leaders banned the Unemployed Workers Movement, which was heavily influenced by the Communist Party, but this did not stop the organisation of the unemployed or the success of the hunger marches. In the same way the Labour Party members will not be deterred by witch-hunts or instruction from Neil Kinnock – they simply cannot afford to pay. As usual the actions of the Labour leaders played into the hands of the Tories. Immediately Baker returned to the offensive: “Now that you have accepted what I have been saying about the links between Militant and the All-Britain Federation of Anti-Poll Tax Unions, I hope you will also accept my advice and sever the links between Militant, the Federation and the Labour Party”.
“It is high time you backed your words with action. You must immediately expel all Federation and Militant members from the party you lead. You must also take firm action against those who oppose payment of the Community Charge.”
Press attack on Militant
At every opportunity the Tory gutter press ranted on about Militant “violence” in the council chambers. The Sun claimed that Militant and its supporters were “masterminding the violent council protests,” and wrote about “rent-a-mob scum urged on from the back by the remnants of the Militant movement.” (8 March)
The supposedly more serious Times. was no less rabid with its smear above the main headline on 7 March: “Policeman knocked out as Militant leads violent protest”.
It referred to “evidence emerging of Militant involvement in orchestrating the demonstrations”. An article headed “How the disruption is organised” was full of such phrases as “masterminding the disruption”, “carefully orchestrated campaign” and “provoking confrontation with the police”. The only “evidence” was that Militant supporters had been in the forefront of the anti-poll tax campaign, but not a scrap of proof about allegedly organising or condoning the violence.
On 10 March the smears continued with wild allegations that “Trotskyist agitators… closely associated with the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation ‘may’ already have planted computer viruses to disrupt the software of two Scottish boroughs”. The use of “may” was the licence to make smears without any proof.
The Sunday Times on 11 March devoted two whole pages, complete with photos of “sightings” of prominent anti-poll tax activists in more than one place.
But ironically a Sunday Times columnist, Robert Harris, explained how short-sighted his own papers tactics were: “I doubt whether the ordinary voter, watching the violence on television, says: ‘Look at those horrible communists, Mabel. We must vote fur Mrs Thatcher as the only person who can deliver us from these ruffians.’ The voter is more likely to say: ‘Look at the latest bloody mess that women has landed us in’.”
At the same time as this hysterical press campaign against Militant and the Federation, both Kenneth Baker, the chair of the Tory Party, and Margaret Thatcher denounced Militant for “orchestrating violence”. We immediately issued 50,000 leaflets answering these slanders and declaring the desperate Baker a barefaced liar:
Lie one: “Militant is orchestrating violence”
Militant has never orchestrated violence. It is Tory Central Office which has perpetrated “violence”. 22 million people will lose out on the poll tax. Many face a catastrophic fall in living standards. Anger has sometimes boiled over, with some people being carried away in the protests. This is unfortunate. We understand the reasons for it, but it is not the policy of Militant or the Federation to resort to violence. We stand for peaceful, organised mass protest and demonstration. We want a mass campaign of civil disobedience, and non-payment of the poll tax to defeat the Tories.
Lie two: “Militant uses bully boy tactics”
This is a dirty smear. It is the Tory government and their agents who use these callous methods to crush the poor with their poll tax, threatening them with bailiffs, courts and imprisonment. Their vicious laws against people and their families are the worst form of intimidation.
Lie three: “The Federation is a Militant front”
This is nonsense. Although Militant supporters play a leading role in the anti-poll tax campaign, the Federation contains all strands of opinion, from “non-political” to “militant Tories” and Militant supporters.
The leaflet pointed to the bosses’ paper, the Financial Times, which admitted that Baker’s action was “an apparent attempt to deflect the disquiet away from the government”. Unfortunately for the Tories it completely backfired.
Baker had the cheek to demand that Kinnock discipline the 28 Labour MPs that supported non-payment and take further disciplinary action against Militant supporters. As the Militant leaflet explained: “He not only wants to run the Tory Party but the Labour Party too!”
The mass movement which was sweeping England and Wales, in turn strengthened the non-payment campaign in Scotland. A statement by Tommy Sheridan towards the end of March explained that North of the Border, the poll tax was uncollectable and unworkable. Far from dwindling, the campaign was growing stronger. “For every arrangement to pay, with the sheriff officers,” stated Tommy, “four or five more are falling into arrears. Even those who made arrangements to pay are already breaking them.”
“The movement in the South is inspiring thousands more to stop paying in Scotland. One man wrote to the Glasgow Evening Times about the mass lobbies of the town halls. “I am ashamed to say that I have been paying, but now I have stopped.”
“But the main reason for this level of non-payment is the success of the anti-poll tax campaign. Confidence has risen because all attempts by the hated sheriffs officers to extract fines or debts have been thwarted. They’ve had to face the Federation.”
Tories in crisis
The anti-poll tax revolt, from one end of the country to the other, has put the skids under the Thatcher government. Following on the heels of Morecambe Conservative Club’s decision to disaffiliate from the Tory Party, the Tory mayor of St Austell in Cornwall resigned from the party after 40 years saying the poll tax was “the last straw”.
Rumours of resignations and a cabinet coup were rife which served to play havoc with the foreign exchange markets.
“If there is such a thing as the British Establishment,” comments the Financial Times diary “…it would like Mrs Thatcher to step down voluntarily as Prime Minister in the relatively near future.”
Cecil Parkinson was rushed onto the TV to calm Tory nerves and declare Thatcher had still the backing of her ministers. It carried the same conviction as a football club chairman’s obligitary confidence in the manager just before he sacks him.
The results of the Mid-Staffs By-election came as a crushing blow for the Tories. “She’s gone too far”, especially over the poll tax, was the feeling that. turned a 14,654 Tory majority into a 9,449 Labour one. In the words of Tory MP Sir Neil MacFarlane, it was “an earthquake”.
It was a bitter blow from which it will be extremely difficult to recover. The Labour Party lead in the opinion polls was at an all time high. Far from driving voters away from Labour, the poll tax has been its greatest asset. The rise of Labour in the opinion polls began during the summer of 1989 – at the beginning of the illegal mass resistance against the poll tax in Scotland. The campaign gave people the confidence that they are not powerless but organised. They were even capable of bringing down bad governments.
At the end of March, just before the national Federation demonstrations, huge meetings and rallies were organised throughout the country. In Sunderland, 2,500 demonstrated and voted unanimously to resist the actions of the bailiffs. The biggest demonstration in Southend’s history took place when 2,000 marched to the poll tax office, Thatcher House, after voting unanimously not to pay the tax. At Winsford, almost 1,000 people crammed into the Civic Hall and voted unanimously for non-payment. 2,000 marched in Leicester. Bob Waterton and Paul Gosling, two of the ten Labour councillors suspended for six months for voting against the City Council’s cuts budget, called for people not to pay. For the second time, 800 people lobbied Norwich Council against setting the poll tax and rent rises. In Folkestone there were 700 at a mass rally to hear Tommy Sheridan. Outside Newcastle-under-Lyme council, 1,500 chanted: “We won’t pay the poll tax”. Hundreds also attended meetings throughout the villages of Cornwall where agricultural workers will be hard hit.
The news of this sensational rising throughout Britain hit the headlines of the world press. A report appeared in Militant from New South Wales, Australia:
“Our TV screens and newspapers have covered the anti-poll tax fight in the last week and your campaign has made a big impact.
“Our conservative state government has in the last month floated the idea of a poll tax, however, after getting a good look at what is happening in Britain, Nick Greiner, an ardent Maggie supporter stated that all plans were cancelled. Your campaign was even noted at my local pub, which is not noted for a high level of political discussion. I went for a beer with a mate the other night wearing an anti-poll tax T-shirt. It was instantly recognised by one lady, who asked if I was a Pom, while another bloke stated: ‘Those Brits are right; they should tell Thatcher to f*** her tax’.”
250,000 take to the streets
Saturday 31 March, 1990, will go down in history. One day before the introduction of the poll tax in England and Wales, and one year after its introduction in Scotland, 250,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate in London and Glasgow. What a magnificent achievement for the anti-poll tax movement! What a show of strength against Thatcher! London witnessed the biggest demonstration of “people’s power” for over a century. It was a mighty display of strength – far beyond the hopes of the organisers – of the non-payment struggle. Even Ian Aitken of The Guardian described it as “one of the biggest peaceful demonstrations ever staged in the nation’s capital.” The All Britain Federation played a magnificent role in organising these marches, despite the lamentable opposition of the TUC and Labour Party leaders.
At Trafalgar Square, Steve Nally, Federation secretary, said that 1,500 anti-poll tax unions and affiliated groups made the Federation the fastest growing political movement in Britain.
“We’ll have ten million non-payers by the autumn and become the biggest, most unstoppable force Thatcher has ever seen.
“The Tories lost in Mid Staffs because of our campaign and will lose the local elections because of our campaign. I say to Thatcher: we are going from door-to-door, workplace-to-workplace to build mass non-payment. We are going to beat you. That’s what we think of your poll tax!”
Larry Flanagan, a Glasgow district councillor, brought greetings from the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation and the 250 anti-poll tax groups from Shetland to the Border:
“85 percent of Scots oppose the tax. 500,000 haven’t paid a penny and over 500,000 more are in arrears.
“This is not a passing storm but the start of a hurricane. A mass movement of trade unionists, tenants and community groups has organised itself from the grass roots.
“When the sheriffs’ officers start to victimise people who haven’t paid, we will organise demonstrations outside every house which is threatened.”
With a sea of placards and banners, Trafalgar Square looked like an East European-style demo. Fittingly Radu Stepanesku from Romania addressed the rally, saying it was the first time he had been allowed outside his country.
“We heard all about the bloodbath of Timisoara, yet workers and youth were prepared to go on the streets of Bucharest. Two of my brothers were arrested, only the rapid victory of the revolution saved their lives. The revolution showed the power of the people to bring down any government.
“We proudly unite with your struggle. People’s power can destroy the tyranny of the poll tax and she who introduced it.”
At this mighty gathering, Tony Bern MP announced that this was the biggest demonstration since the Chartists of 150 years ago. Today’s generation are the direct descendants of those heroes of working-class history and they are treading the same road, demanding justice and a better future.
“Liverpool council was attacked for building houses. Now we see the homeless in cardboard cities.
“If we stick together and support each other there is no way that we can be defeated.”
Next the unofficial parliamentary spokesperson of the Federation, Dave Nellist MP stated that “millions are operating their own do-it-yourself rebate scheme – they ain’t paying! It is not a philosophical argument – they simply can’t pay.
“Enforcement procedures against non-payers are a house of cards. If eight. to ten million don’t pay, the system will collapse.
“We’re laying the ground for a famous victory, but remember the American saying “Don’t get mad, get even”. To get even you’ve got to get organised.”
The Glasgow Labour MP George Galloway told the rally that the poll tax is the issue that will break the back of this Tory government.
“I am one of the one million non-payers, if the bailiffs come to my house, they’d better bring the SAS and their canine friends.
“Some say that there is something wrong with a ‘law-maker’ urging people to break the law. I say that this is an unjust law and there is a proud tradition of opposition to unjust laws.”
Finally, after a dash from Scotland by plane and tube, Tommy Sheridan, the chair of the Federation, brought news and brought greetings from the 45,000 strong march in Glasgow.
“The million non-payers in Scotland salute the ten million non-payers in England and Wales.
“Thatcher talks of democracy. Let her go to the country and we’ll kick her out at the next election. A mass campaign of civil disobedience will sink Thatcher’s poll tax.”
Thatcher responsible for violence
Unfortunately very little of this was reported by the media. The violence that had broken out at the end of the demonstration, which developed into a full scale riot throughout the West End hit the headlines. The responsibility for this violence lies squarely with Thatcher and the Tory Party. It is they who are responsible for the desperation and plight of those condemned to homelessness, poverty and unemployment. On top of this they are attempting to impose the hated poll tax.
Thatcher’s government has condemned tens of thousands of young people to the London streets – not to march but to sleep on every night – and to beg outside the plush shops that they can never afford to enter. Added to this plight is the burning resentment at the harassment which many youth systematically receive from the police.
The violence at Trafalgar Square and at Strangeways Prison are the result of Thatcher’s violent Britain.
During the demonstration the police chiefs reacted in a provocative and violent manner against a small sit-down protest. As the Militant editorial explained following the demonstration:
“The use of police horses, the driving of vehicles into the crowd at 50 miles per hour, the lashing up by riot squads of innocent and peaceful demonstrators, absolutely infuriated a section of the demonstration, particularly the youth.
“The Tories have piously denounced this ‘violence’. Yet the real instigator of this riot, the biggest for 100 years in London, sits in 10 Downing Street.
“Kept in the dirt by capitalism and the Tory government, a layer of youth are prepared to resort to the most desperate measures to hit back. On Saturday’s demonstration, some were prepared to risk life and limb in order to hit back at the hated symbols of authority which they blame for their plight. This has clearly terrified the ruling class and the police themselves.”
The editorial, however, refused to condone the arson and looting that took place. It is one thing to understand the cause of the almost nihilistic and violent behaviour of a big layer of the youth, and it is another thing to justify it. It went on:
“Militant supporters are not pacifists … we entirely support the South African workers’ rights to arm themselves against the terrorism of the apartheid state machine. Moreover, the working class and the labour movement has every right to take the necessary steps to protect its meetings and demonstrations against the violent onslaught of the state machine or its auxiliaries in the form of fascist gangs.”
It then dealt with the disgraceful statements of Roy Hattersley, the Shadow Home Secretary, who called for “exemplary punishment” for those tried and convicted for allegedly participating in Saturday’s events:
“In the light of the frame up of the Guilford Four, the Birmingham Six and many others and the gross anti-working class bias of the capitalist courts, we do not share Hattersley’s touching faith in capitalist ‘justice’.
“It is impermissible to collaborate with the capitalist state, even against those whose methods and actions we implacably disagree with.”
“To advocate individual violence, looting or to cheer on a layer of the youth who mistakenly take to this road as some cowardly sects have done, is entirely false. Throwing a brick through a town hall window, unprovoked attacks on the police, and setting out on a demonstration for a punch up or violent confrontation with the police will not defeat the poll tax.”
The editorial continued:
“On the contrary, violence plays right into the hands of Thatcher and Waddington, in their attempts to deflect attention from the issue.
“Above all it could alienate the millions who have been drawn into action for the first time by the mass non-payment campaign. Millions more need to be convinced to join the army of non-payers.
“Nothing could be more calculated to undermine this task than to present the supporters of non-payment as the purveyors of mayhem.”
In conclusion, Militant stated that, “The masses of non-payers will be mobilised to crush the tax and with it Thatcher, not through individual nihilistic violence, but through the magnificent civil disobedience campaign organised by the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation.”
In Scotland, the scenes at the 40-50,000 strong Federation demonstration were reminiscent of the days of the Red Clydeside. The confidence and euphoria of the event pervaded everywhere as Glasgow’s George Square was brought to a stand still by the biggest event since the war. The strongest message was reminding people that they were not alone. In the words of Tommy Sheridan: “Over one million haven’t paid. There hasn’t been one warrant sale. Over ten million in England and Wales are joining us now. We are on our way to victory!”
Despite all the attempts of the Tories to use the violence to whip up public opinion against the Federation, it completely failed. The Tory MP Sir John Wheeler, chair of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee ranted: “Those who organise these events must be financially responsible for the outcome” and pointed to a sinister hand behind the Federation providing cash for demonstrations! The day after the demo, prisoners at the Strangeways Prison in Manchester, began their roof-top protest displaying a poster “Pay no poll tax”!
Attempts to intimidate Fed
The Federation officials immediately established an enquiry into the trouble to prevent a cover-up by the police. They covered all the London courts to help those arrested during the demonstrations, and have since then ensured that as many as possible get proper legal representation. The government through The Crown Prosecution Service are attempting to make an example of those arrested by setting up a special unit to deal with the cases. There are 90 hours of video and 30,000 photographs which 125 police are working on full-time. After arrests of 400 people, the police say they are intending to arrest a further 100 people – a blatant attempt to intimidate and harass anti-poll tax activists. The enormous police resources allocated to this issue is in complete contrast with the four officers working on the hunt to find the paedophile ring of child-murderers in the long-running East London case.
Within a few weeks, the Tory Borough of Westminster issued the Federation with a bill for £616,000 for the “police operations”. The reactionary bosses’ organisation, Aims of Industry, added its voice to the threats with a poll showing a majority in favour of legal action against “the Militant Tendency and other Anarchist groups”.
Dennis Canavan, Labour MP for Falkirk West, replied that “Threats of legal action will not stop the anti-poll tax campaign which will continue until the tax is abolished.”
The low-key TUC lobby of Parliament three days later turned out to be a damp squib, with Norman Willis amid some heckling, scandalously lecturing 800 trade unionists about why they should wait until 1992 to defeat the poll tax. He, true to form, attacked the “violent scenes” at Trafalgar Square. As one older worker told a Federation official: “You should be proud of yourselves organising a march of a quarter of a million, what these people have organised today is pathetic.”
One thing was crystal clear. The Tories were badly shaken by the events of 31 March. It again became headlines in the world’s press.
“The Iron Lady is seeing the beginning of the end”, stated the Italian La Repubblica. “The poll tax revolt is only the most vivid manifestation of a deep rooted social crisis.”
The French Le Monde explained that “the sense of injustice provoked by hardline Thatcherism” was behind much of the violence. “For many British people a moral crisis is sweeping their country.”
“The political news for friends and admirers of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is grim,” wrote the Washington Times.
The news of the huge protests and rioting over the poll tax led to big falls in sterling and share prices. At one stage the FT-SE 100 Share Index fell 36 points. According to Robin Leigh-Pemberton, Governor of the Bank of England, “political uncertainties have had an effect on sterling.” Britain ceased in the eyes of speculators, both at home and abroad, to be a safe haven under Thatcher.
In the Commons, David Waddington, the Home Secretary, attempted to place the blame for the violence on Labour by pointing to the 30 Labour MPs who had supported non-payment. He demanded that Kinnock take disciplinary action against them. But Waddington miscalculated! In a poll for The Sunday Correspondent three times as many people pinned the responsibility for what happened on the Tory government as on Labour. Amazingly, despite the avalanche of press abuse, 53 percent stated that no action should be taken against the 30 Labour MPs.
In the midst of this panic, Chris Patten announced the poll tax capping of 21 local councils – not one of them Tory controlled. He used the most blatant and rigged methods to hand pick his victims. Those capped would not be the areas with the highest poll tax bills (which would inevitably mean Tory councils) but furthest from his own arbitrary spending assessment figures!
As a result Tory Windsor and Maidenhead with a poll tax of £450 per head escapes capping while Labour Calderdale with a poll tax of £250 is hit.
Now the capped councils have been told to slash services and cut jobs – all because the Tories are desperate to save themselves from a political debacle of their own making. In Greenwich it means savage cuts of a further £10 million – on top of the £13 million the council has already agreed. For local people it will mean the closure of community centres and libraries and the removal of meals-on-wheels subsidies. It will also mean the destruction of education and push public leisure facilities out of the reach of most people.
To top it all these capped councils have had to fund the extra cost for sending out new poll tax bills and reassessing the rebates. But it will not save the Tories or the poll tax. Poll tax payers in St Helens will save all of £29 a year. For their mere 56p a week reduction, they will face £4 million cuts in already hard-pressed Social Services and education. The biggest reduction will be in Hammersmith and Fulham – £99 from a poll tax of £425. It will not fundamentally alter the situation as the Tories imagine.
The claims by the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation that up to ten million would defy the Thatcher government and embark on a campaign of mass non-payment was confirmed by The Sunday Correspondent. On 25 March, it published a poll where 21 percent said that they would not pay the poll tax in England and Wales – that was nearly eight million people. A third of those polled believe it was “justifiable” to refuse to pay. A further poll in the middle of April, conducted by MORI, found that only 12 percent of voters now backed the poll tax. It also revealed that 27 percent would support a campaign of mass non-payment, but amongst the youth (18-24 years old) this rose dramatically to 51 percent. The London Evening Standard stated that by June up to three quarters of Londoners had not paid a penny. That alone would mean between 3-4 million people. This proved to be a complete confirmation of everything that the Federation and Militant had said. That the battle lines for mass non-payment were now being drawn in England and Wales.
For the authorities, the main question now was whether they would be able to enforce the legislation. In the words of Kenneth Simpson, spokesperson of the Messengers at Arms and Sheriffs’ Officers: “Sending our letters to thousands of individuals is not a problem. Having physically to carry out the poindings, however, is a different matter.” Despite the chaos of the poll tax, where many areas had still not issued their bills, plans are being laid to take measures against non-payers throughout the summer and autumn months.
According to a parliamentary reply, “the Department (of Social Security) expects that in any year in England, Wales and Scotland some 850,000 applications for deductions from income support may be made in respect of the Community Charge… We expect about 700,000 of the applications to be enforced.” Hansard, 19 February 1990.
This is the scale of the problem that now faces them.
Clog up the courts
A number of local authorities have booked time in the magistrates’ courts to prosecute non-payers. Hackney Council for example, estimated that it would need an extra 366 court days every year to deal with the likely scale of default. The government had assumed that the courts would be in a position to deal with non-payers. But if non-payers demanded their rights to a full hearing, the courts would rapidly get clogged up. As Duncan Forbes, a solicitor from South Wales, in a letter to The Guardian explained:
“If the government and the courts expect the issue of liability orders to be automatic they are in for a shock. I bet there are as many obstacles as possible placed in the way of defendants who wish to defend the proceedings…
“The courts have got away with their treatment of rate defaulters because so few have been represented and were aware of their rights. The range of issues arising in poll tax cases are far more complex and there will be many more defendants who have ‘genned’ up on the law themselves or who are properly represented…
“The system of rates relied upon the fact that no-one turned up to argue. Only a few need to raise some arguable dispute on each hearing, and the courts will be clogged up within days.
“They will often be faced with advocates and defendants armed with some or all of the two acts and thirty-odd regulations so far issued on the poll tax, and ready to state their case at length. I only wish that I could be a fly on every court wall!”
This is exactly the situation that faced the Medina Council on the Isle of Wight, the first to take legal actions against non-payers in England and Wales. Due to the work of the All-Britain Federation, hundreds turned up to put their case to the magistrates. They expected to push through 1800 cases in one day. They managed less than 60 and were forced to abandon the action and declare the summons void on technical grounds. It was the fear of a repeat performance that then forced South Tyneside and Wandsworth Councils to abandon their summonses. What a magnificent success! It is the dress-rehersal for what is to come elsewhere.
It is time to make a stand. Industrial action in a number of authorities has become a focal point for the struggle. In Sheffield, council housing staff are refusing to co-operate with the poll tax collection. They are refusing to put information onto the computers following a three-to-one vote against. In North London, postal workers have refused to deliver poll tax bills, despite a lack of leadership from the union tops. In Greenwich, Nalgo workers have been on strike since 1 May when they refused to collect the poll tax on top of their normal duties. Management suspended them, so they walked out. In Glasgow – as a real pointer to the future – a 24 hour strike has taken place in a DSS Office in protest over benefit arrestments.
Already the Fire Brigades Union, the National Communications Union and National Association of Local Government Officers have adopted policies in favour of mass non-payment. Despite opposition from the union leadership, the National Union of journalists and the TV Technicians Union have now followed suit. At the National Union of Teachers’ conference the right-wing leaders got the motion advocating mass non-payment ruled out of order for being “illegal”!
Already the capped authorities will be attempting to make further cuts in jobs and services which could draw the local authority workforce and unions into the battle. Education, the largest item of local authority spending, is under particular threat. Somerset is planning to cut its education budget by £4.5 million, a quarter of what is required to meet the government’s target. In North Tyne people face a reduction of £6.8 million in education spending! The choice is clear: either capitulate to job losses or fight!
If local councillors take measures to meet the poll tax targets then 78,000 teachers would be made redundant – one in five of teaching jobs! No wonder teachers have gone on strike in Bradford against the cuts.
At the NUT conference over Easter, the general secretary, Doug McAvoy, attempted to deflect away anger over local redundancies by an attack on the Militant‘s influence in the union.
As with the Tories’ attacks on Militant, it simply backfired with delegates repudiating McAvoy. They then went on to pass a motion, against the wishes of the leadership, to take strike action over any threatened redundancies over the implementation of the poll tax. McAvoy condemned this as a “victory for Militant“.
One of Britain’s biggest employers’ organisations, the Engineering Employers’ Federation, joined the chorus of disapproval over “a significant extra burden” faced by employers concerning wage arrestments to recover poll tax debts, saying that such action could damage relations between companies, employees and unions!
Given the experience of Scotland where the bailiffs have been driven off the streets, local authorities now see wage arrestments as an easier option. It is therefore essential that anti-poll tax unions are established in every factory, office block and workplace. Local authority workers – especially in Nalgo, CPSA, etc – should be targeted in order to establish fortresses of resistance to wage and benefit arrestments, as well as the fight against cuts in services and jobs.
Labour announced that the May local elections would be a referendum on the poll tax. Despite the loss of nearly 300 Tory seats to Labour, this serious defeat was played down by the media. All headlines were on the meagre Tory victories in Westminster and Wandsworth. You would have thought that they had won the local elections.
But the results gave an eleven percent swing to Labour, enough, at a general election for a parliamentary majority of 60. Bradford – Thatcher’s northern flagship – went to Labour. In Scotland the Tories were driven into third place. In the Highland Region, the Tories got less than 1,000 votes altogether! For the first time in 190 years, Labour and others swept away Independents, on a policy of “no warrant sales” in Dumfries and Galloway. In the South and Midlands, where Thatcher won the last election, the surges to Labour were even greater -15 percent in the South and 13 percent in the Midlands.
In Bath, the seat of poll tax minister Chris Patten, the Tories lost control. On the basis of the vote, Patten would have been defeated if it had been a general election. So much for the popularity of the poll tax!
The only crumb of comfort for the Tories was in London, but there too we saw a 6.5 percent swing to Labour. Their victory in Wandsworth and Westminster was due to bought votes. Behind the scenes, the government had manipulated the figures and poured resources into these boroughs to keep their poll tax low. But the high poll tax areas in London were no attraction and the Labour campaign failed completely to inspire people to vote Labour. Added to this was the memory of recent massive rate rises under Labour plus savage cuts in services.
Next year the people of Westminster and Wandsworth will be asked to pay the price through big rises in poll tax or cuts. In Wandsworth the Tory leader of the council has estimated that next year the poll tax will have to rise from £148, the lowest figure in the country, to £408 – a staggering 180 percent! Again, in a general election, the issue will be posed more starkly: should the Thatcher government continue? For Londoners the answer will be a massive NO. It will be on the lines of the Mid Staffs by-election – a debacle for the Tories. But the local election results were seen as a temporary “breathing space” for Thatcher. She saw the results in London as a vindication of her stand. This has temporarily strengthened her grip.
Her plans have turned to ashes. She had hoped to ride out the recession in the British economy this year, hoping to sustain a recovery in 1991 or 1992, then, on the basis of big tax handouts, coast to victory in a June 1992 general election.
But inflation is now set to officially go over ten percent. There is continued threat of a further rise in interest rates, given the continuing crisis of a £22 billion trade deficit, forcing mortgages up once again. Given that Britain has now the highest home ownership in Europe (68 percent) this will have catastrophic electoral consequences. On top of this unemployment too is on the increase as the recession begins to take a hold. Already the building trade faces a six percent fall in output.
Such a scenario means a Tory defeat and even the loss of Thatcher’s seat itself. Even now 72 percent of Finchley’s voters believe Thatcher is out of touch with ordinary people. No wonder the knives are being sharpened. Behind the scenes, Heseltine is still making a play for the Tory leadership. But being leader is not the greatest attraction, given the state of the opinion polls, but there may be no choice if Thatcher is forced to resign.
Given the desperate situation, concessions on the poll tax are being closely scrutinised. Already Thatcher’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, Lennox-Boyd, told backbenchers that a new bill would be brought in by the autumn to modify the poll tax for 1991/2. This was then countermanded by Chris Patten, amid protests from ex-Environment Minister Nicholas Ridley. But in the Commons, Thatcher refused to rule out any option in the coming period. She appears to be caught in the cross fire from different wings of the party over the poll tax issue.
The Thatcher regime is attempting to look for reforms from above to prevent a “revolution” from below. Some ministers have floated the idea of banding the poll tax to link it to ability to pay. But this would repel their rich supporters. Others have called for education to be taken out of local government spending. Again another wing has called for a massive injection of cash through rebates to poll tax payers. But to soften the impact of the poll tax substantially would mean spending an estimated £7 billion. This would completely wipe out any possibility of further tax concessions and eliminate the budget surplus at a stroke. Their election plans will be in ruins.
But we cannot rule out any changes to the tax by the Tories to save their political skins as they approach a general election. They may be faced with no alternative.
But all these possible changes would only affect next year’s poll tax bills. In the meantime, Thatcher’s message seems to be: ride it out!
Instructions have gone out from the Home Office to magistrates instructing them to deal more harshly with non-payers than they have done in Scotland, reminding them that they can imprison people for debt. The government has also threatened Scottish councils with surcharge unless they collect the outstanding £200 million shortfall in revenues and pursue the non-payers more vigorously.
Out of sheer frustration at the scale of non-payment, the Deputy Director of Finance for Central Scotland, Ron Skinner, has called for imprisonment for debt to be introduced as in England and Wales.
At their current rate of failure it would take them well into the 21st Century to visit just the first 40,000 non-payers in the Lothians and they still wouldn’t have carried out a warrant sale!
Nine months after Jeanette McGinn’s poinding was stopped she had still heard nothing. Neither had Phil Traish. Rifkind boasted that 98 percent had registered in Scotland. But they can’t even collect the fines from the two percent who, according to him, haven’t registered. How will they collect poll tax debts from the 42.5 percent in Glasgow who haven’t paid? At this rate it would take them 80 years to get round to all the non-payers. People in Scotland are more and more confident that the whole poll tax system is crumbling.
Even if people arrange to pay it will be impossible to pay the arrears back. Already payment arrangements have been agreed with some people at 50p per week for £102 arrears. At that rate it will take five years to pay one year’s poll tax! And Lothians poll tax has just gone up by £47 per head – a 12 percent rise – for 1990/91.
The gauntlet has been thrown down. Everything is coming to a head. In England and Wales, although many authorities are in a mess, a number are beginning to pursue non-payers. A growing number of councils are booking time in magistrates’ courts during the summer – as high figures for non-payment begin to emerge. In Greenwich, a capped council, official estimates of the number of people who may have to be prosecuted for non-payment are as high as 60,000, which has forced them to double the number of collection officers.
Birmingham City Council, the biggest in England, estimate that final notices will rise to 250,000 and summonses are likely to rise to 120,000, with attachment to earnings from nothing to 50,000 and bailiffs’ warrants up to 30,000. In some cases drastic measures are being undertaken to collect the tax. In Staffordshire, the council is fitting bullet proof glass to its offices. In the Lothians, poll tax staff are being offered classes in martial arts, after more than 80 reports of harassment or assault on staff.
With fire-bomb damage in Cambridge, and buckets of urine poured over collectors in Broadwater Farm in North London, authorities are providing training videos and seminars on how to deal with potential violence.
In South Wales the Rhymney Valley District Council has bought a specially designed armoured vehicle from Securicor, with equipment to protect poll tax collectors touring the area against attacks from chainsaw, axe and gas! One official said: “We have to ensure that all our pay points for the tax are more secure so that members of the public cannot attack.”
The Federation must launch a massive offensive to counter the intimidation of the government and their allies. The Tories’ threats must be exposed as hollow. The latent force of ten million non-payers in Britain must be brought together into a united force to stop the Tory bully boys. The level of resistance must be continually built up by the establishment of anti-poll tax unions covering every area, every estate, every block, every street and every workplace. “Telephone trees” must be in place to repel any actions from councils.
Whilst wringing their hands, the Labour Party nationally has urged Labour authorities to proceed extremely cautiously over penalties for arrears. It is therefore the responsibility of the anti-poll tax movement to exert the maximum possible pressure through lobbies, demonstrations, protests to the trade unions and Labour upon local councillors, asking them not to take any legal action against non-payers. “Non-prosecution” can be skilfully carried out by careful tactics to avoid unnecessary government surcharge.
The employers must know that attempts to arrest wages or intimidate workers will lead to petitions, pickets and boycotts organised by the anti-poll tax movement. Mass action on the doorsteps, as well as occupations, can stop the bailiffs. Benefit arrestment from the poorest sections will be met by industrial action and occupations.
We must build the biggest campaign of civil disobedience that this country has ever seen! The millions that are brought into the struggle, using the best traditions of the labour movement, will make this tax inoperable.
The campaign must be taken into the unions with anti-poll tax unions built In every workplace. Action by civil servants and wage clerks can make it impossible to arrest benefits and wages. The employers must be told that matters will not be left to individual workers to handle by themselves and that they are all under the scrutiny of the anti-poll tax movement – a mass movement of ordinary people in every industry and in every town and city. This movement will not sit idly by while employers intimidate non-payers or collaborate with poll tax collectors.
Militant is proud of its leading role in the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation.
With correct tactics and strategy we have provided the backbone in the struggle at each crucial stage. Our task has been to take the standpoint of our class and to draw all the necessary practical conclusions.
The Labour and trade union leaders have stood not only aside from the struggle to smash the poll tax. They have, unfortunately, deliberately acted as a brake, denouncing those engaged in the struggle from the side-lines. Militant, on the contrary, will not step aside. For more than two years it has put forward a clear strategy and tactics to defeat the tax. Now, such is the scale of the anti-poll tax movement, that it threatens not just the tax but the very existence of the hated Tory government itself.
For millions – who have never before been involved in struggle – their eyes have been opened to what is possible by their own united strength and action. They have gained inspiration and confidence from the mass uprisings in Eastern Europe. The poll tax is but one of the anti-working-class measures introduced by the Tories over the last decade. It is without question the most brutal, the most savage, but it arises from the standpoint of the Thatcher government and the interest of big business that it represents.
Is it right that the National Health Service should be starved of funds, while £20,000 million is dished out in tax handouts to the rich? Is it right that hundreds of thousands of building workers remain unemployed when millions are homeless or living in rat-infested slums? Is it right that over £21,000 million is spent on weapons of destruction at the same time as tens of thousands of old people die of cold and hunger each winter? Why is it that billions are made by city spivs on the Stock Exchange, while more and more are driven into poverty and despair? What kind of rotten society is this?
Militant is fighting for the end of the Tories and the election of a Labour government that will represent the working class with as much determination as Thatcher represents the rich. We want a Labour government that will immediately repeal the poll tax – not wait two years as has been stated by party leaders! – and restore the £46 billion stolen from local councils over the last eleven years. Such actions would reduce rates dramatically and boost local services. We want a Labour government to declare an amnesty for all non-payers of Thatcher’s hated poll tax. If the Tories can write off debts for big business, why can’t a Labour government write off those for non-payment of the poll tax? After all £640 million worth of debt was cancelled by the Tories for the Rover company when it was given away to British Aerospace. When Rolls Royce was privatised £670 million in debts were cancelled. The water authorities’ debts of £5,000 million have been written off and in the privatisation of electricity, £4.4 billion was cancelled by the Tory government.
Above all we want a Labour government that is committed to real socialist policies and is not prepared to bow to the bankers and big business interests as in the past. We don’t want a repeat of the Labour government of 1974-9 which introduced watered-down Tory policies, which disillusioned Labour supporters and prepared the way for the victory of Thatcher.
The greed and profiteering of big business has brought society into a blind alley. We have the hideous perversions of child prostitution, drug abuse, suicide and social decay, amid the wonders of space flight and the miracles of modern science.
We want a decent life for all. An end to the miseries of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. This can only be achieved by ending the role of big business and the profit motive as the driving force of society.
Labour will come to power facing the biggest economic crisis in history. Already the failure of British capitalism has meant a massive £22 billion trade deficit, with a new world recession on the horizon. The prospects under capitalism are extremely bleak.
Labour must take the socialist road out of the crisis by introducing an emergency bill to take into public ownership the top 200 companies, banks and insurance companies, under workers’ control and management, with compensation to be paid on the basis of proven need.
A national plan of production should be drawn up, democratically involving every section of society, to utilise fully the colossal talent and resources squandered at present.
The idle hands and idle factories which are a permanent feature of capitalism could rapidly be eliminated. The ending of unemployment alone could generate over £50 billion in extra production and save £15 billion in benefits and lost taxes. These resources, which could only be realised under a socialist plan of production, could begin the transformation of everyday life. For example, the £46 billion that the Tories took from local councils could immediately be restored. This would enable the provision of proper local services. £25 billion could build well over one million new council houses.
A socialist plan could utilise micro-technology, robotics, etc to drastically shorten the working week whilst increasing wages. This would enable workers the time to run industry and government, as well as develop their talents to the full. This is the first and only road to real democracy.
Such a future will not fall from the skies. The emancipation of the working class from the horrors of capitalism is the task of working people themselves. As individuals, we can do very little, but organised together we can, as the workers of Eastern Europe have proved, bring down governments.
We appeal to you: don’t stand on the sidelines. Don’t let the Tories and their agents walk all over us! Join with Militant and help build an invincible force that will not simply defeat the poll tax, nor simply bring down the Thatcher government, but will put an end to the very system that produces a nightmare existence for our people. Previous generations have dreamed of a future of peace, prosperity and super-abundance. It is down to us to make that a living reality. What is at stake is our future, our life. Join us and fight for it.