The “poll tax” — a flat rate system of taxation designed to replace local government rates — was introduced by Margaret Thatcher's government in Scotland in April 1989, a year before its introduction in England and Wales. By the election of 1992 the Tories had withdrawn the tax. Because thousands of working-class people could not, or would not pay the tax, some going to jail because of that refusal, the Tories were forced to back down. One important turning point in the anti-poll tax movement was a clash between demonstrators and police in London on Saturday 31 March 1990.
The poll tax had been a “flagship” policy for Thatcher, introduced alongside cuts in local government spending, reform of local services (privatisation and contracting-out), and undermining of local democracy. During this period, Labour-controlled councils mostly implemented the cuts and made thousands of workers redundant. Most Labour councils (though not all sections of the Labour Party) went along with the implementation of the poll tax.
Yet the poll tax policy failed and its failure was one of the factors behind the ousting of Thatcher from the Tory leadership in November 1990.
The text we print here, which tells part of the story, consists of excerpts from an unpublished document from our archives, and from a pamphlet produced by us in March 1990. We also print, a commentary on the “poll tax riot”. This is taken from Solidarity’s forerunner, Socialist Organiser, 5 April 1990.
The poll tax system demanded a payment from every adult, and bore equally heavily on the lowest paid as on the highest paid. Nicholas Ridley, the Minister responsible for bringing in the tax, summed up the brutal “logic” behind it when he asked, “Why should a Duke pay more than a dustman?”
Unemployed people had to pay 20% of the poll tax with little compensation in their benefits.
In other words, many, many people could not afford to pay the poll tax. The slogan, “can’t pay, won’t pay” reflected the situation for hundreds of thousands of people.
The poll tax was introduced in Scotland in April 1989, a year before its introduction in England and Wales. The “Stop It” campaign was set up by the Scottish Trade Union Congress and involved the Labour Party, Scottish Nationalist Party, Liberal Democrats and the Communist Party. It also involved those Labour council leaders who were overseeing the compilation of the poll tax register!
The campaign lacked structure, democracy and politics and was based solely on the frustration of the registration process. However, in a few places the left was able to take it over and make something of it (e.g., in Edinburgh).
A “Committee of One Hundred” was also set up in September 1988 — the idea was to get 100 to pledge not to pay. But the campaign, in itself not a bad idea, was backed by George Galloway and his then political friends in the Labour Party.
The first big debate in the movement was over whether or not to call for “non-registration”, that is to get individuals to refuse to put themselves on a poll tax register then being compiled.
We were in favour of maximum frustration and obstruction of the registration process and to use that as a way to build a campaign. But we were explicitly against the call for “non-registration” because it wouldn’t (and didn’t) work — people were registered on the basis of information already held by councils. Secondly we thought this would leave people open to being taken to court and being fined. In the event that did not happen.
In Scotland the SWP, anarchists and others called for non-registration. Pretty soon the campaign had to be dropped — registration simply happened.
The first anti-poll tax conference outside Scotland was held in Oxford on 27 November 1988, but was attended by only 28 local groups, mainly from southern England, and did not come to much. The second conference was 200 strong and held in Newcastle on 10 December 1988. It was sponsored, among others, by the Socialist Movement (an initiative set up by Tony Benn and others after Labour’s general election defeat in 1987). Its aim was to use a variety of tactics: “… to unify and co-ordinate the various tactics of resistance and civil disobedience, from disruption of the register and payment, including mass non-payment, to public, trade union and civic non-cooperation.”
Unfortunately no concrete initiatives came out of the event. A political and organisational vacuum was left to be filled by the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party).
In August 1989 the Militant went all out to take complete control of existing poll tax groups as well as setting up local and regional federations in counterposition to long-standing existing broad ones. They then set up a national organisation under their control, gazumping the efforts of the Newcastle organisation to do the same.
But the Newcastle people, now called the “3D network” (no payment, no collection, no implementation) agreed (rightly in our view) to support the new Militant-dominated organisation, the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation.
The Federation agreed to call a national demonstration on 31 March 1990. The demonstration — around half a million strong — was built by all the different and various groups on the ground. It did not, however, have the support of the official labour movement.
Virtually all of the media coverage of the event was focussed on the violence sparked off by the police attacking the demonstration.
Labour MP George Galloway …said …“these lunatics, anarchists and other extremists, principally from the Socialist Workers’ Party, were out for a rumble the whole time, and now they’ve got it. If they didn’t exist, the Tories would need to invent them.” [Sunday Times, 1 April 1990]
The anti-poll tax movement was appalled by statements made by Militant officers of the ABAPTF, chiming in with media and politicians, condemning the violence, promising to hold their own “investigation” and even to “name names”.
It was this stance that led to the second biggest national anti-poll tax campaign being formed — the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign.
In 1991 cuts that stemmed from the poll tax really started to bite, with numerous councils slashing services. The ABAPTF, despite a high level of activity on the ground, failed to broaden out the national campaign. There was no attempt to get a mass labour movement mobilisation to fight the poll tax and the cuts. The problem was a lop-sided emphasis on non-payment.
The SWP which had initially called for non-payment, dropped that call to switch to the non-registration demand. When non-registration looked unworkable they redefined the policy:
“Every workplace and local community should have a collection point for these forms to be sent back via Labour Party HQ”.
In the summer of 1988 the SWP produced a pamphlet in which they argued against non-payment in the community as “even large numbers organised on a community rather than workplace basis do not themselves possess the strength to win…” This was combined with calls on the STUC and Labour Party to organise industrial action and for Labour controlled councils to halt the registration process.
By arguing against non-payment and counterposing it to non-collection and non-implementation they actually aided the right wing in the Labour Party and unions who wanted to collect the tax.
What we called for
Mass community-based action around obstruction of the register and non-payment will be essential for building up the overall campaign. But we must be clear: mass non-payment alone will not beat the poll tax. Community action must be used to turn the campaign into the labour movement and demand non-implementation by councils and non-cooperation from the unions.
At the moment (March 1990) the official Labour Party and TUC position is pathetic. They haven’t even organised a national demonstration on the issue. The national Labour Party, the Labour-controlled Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the entire trade union leadership have urged compliance with the law.
This can be changed. Lothian NALGO [forerunner of Unison] has pledged non-cooperation with attempts to recover fines for non-payment. CPSA [forerunner of PCS] branches have pledged that their members will not deduct money from claimants’ giros to pay the poll tax.
In every town and city anti-poll tax coordinating committees must be formed, bringing together delegates from the local groups, union branches, trade councils and local Labour Parties. Women’s organisations, tenants’ associations, pensioners and black groups should also be encouraged to participate.
Dissident Labour councillors, MPs and union leaders willing to pledge themselves to non-payment can be used to build support…
Thatcher reaps what she sows
This article, describing the big anti-Poll Tax demonstration on 31 March 1990, appeared in Socialist Organiser, 5 April 1990.
Despite all their hypocritical talk about conspiracies by anarchists and Trotskyists, the police and politicians know that much of the violence that spread through central London last Saturday was a spontaneous outburst of rebellion against the poll tax and other aspects of Thatcher’s Britain.
They know, too, that it was the police who started the violence when they charged down Whitehall into some hundreds of demonstrators who had sat down in peaceful protest opposite Downing Street.
The wonder of it is that such outbreaks have not happened before in a capital city where upwards of 75,000 people are homeless, and many of them sheltering in squats, hostels, or bed and breakfast places must now find the money to pay poll tax for the privilege of breathing London air…
Not to distinguish between foolish anarchists and people driven to spontaneous revolt is not to be able to understand what happened and why.
The main responsibility for what happened on Saturday lies with the leaders of the labour movement. No wonder people feel desperate and hopeless enough to lash out blindly when the leaders of the Labour Party and the TUC confine themselves to verbal fireworks and fencing displays with Mrs Thatcher and her ministers…
As Tony Benn has said, had the Labour Party and the TUC backed Saturday’s demonstration, then it could have been a million or more strong. Proper stewarding could have controlled the unruly…
Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley vie with the Tories to demand exemplary punishment of those arrested…
It has hard to imagine anything more disgusting, or more scandalous, than the Labour leaders… appealing to the Tories not to blame them but instead to form a common front against “the enemies of democracy”. To unite with Thatcher against the enemies of democracy is to unite with the Devil to fight sin!
The ramming through of the poll tax by Thatcher’s minority-elected government against the manifest opposition of a big majority of the electorate… is the very opposite of democracy.
If Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley are interested in democracy then they should cut the cackle and the cant about the democratic nature of Mrs Thatcher’s tyranny and fight for the democratic rights of the British people now but campaigning for an immediate general election.
Not only Labour MPs like Hattersley and Galloway have gone in for “fingering” sections of the left and acting, or promising to act, as “felon-setters” for the police by trying to identify left-wingers as being responsible.
The officers of the All-Britain Anti-Poll-Tax Federation — [Militant members] Steve Nally and Tommy Sheridan — have promised to hold their own “investigation” and then “go public naming names” (Nally). To whom?
To the police? To go public is to go to the police.
The left has a right to defend itself against anarchist disorganisers and against outbreaks of wild hooliganism, including the right to throw disrupters off marches. Nally and Sheridan had a right to dissociate themselves from the violence last Saturday.
But nobody on the left has the right to felon-set people on our side who act against Thatcher and her poll tax according to their best lights.
Nally and Sheridan are Militant people, and the All-Britain Anti-Poll-Tax Federation is completely (and very bureaucratically) controlled by Militant. Those who run Militant should call them to order at once; if they don’t, the activists in the anti-poll-tax movement should.
The Militant-controlled All-Britain Anti-Poll-Tax Federation also bears responsibility for the chaos which engulfed the demonstration last Saturday, a responsibility second only to that of the leaders of the Labour and trade union movement.
They have a one-sided, exclusively “direct action” strategy for beating the poll tax — don’t pay.
They talk for the record about not collecting, and call for a general election now to “bring down the Government”, but in practice they pay no attention at all to the fight to line up Labour councils to refuse to implement the poll tax, or trade unions to refuse to cooperate.
This is surprising, but true. Militant burned its fingers too much in Liverpool.
And Militant is in considerable disarray politically. People in Scotland like Tommy Sheridan looked set early this year to stand as candidates against Labour in the local government elections. They seem to have been dissuaded.
It is right to advocate non-payment, and Socialist Organiser does advocate it. But Militant makes it into a one-sided panacea and foolishly ignores its limitations and difficulties while at the same time channelling the anti-poll-tax movement away from concern with the trade unions or with local government, which is the interface between the Tories, the labour movement, and the working class.
These politics — or lack of politics — help push young people new to politics and not part of the labour movement into anarchist attitudes.
More than that. Militant was in charge last Saturday. The Anti-Poll-Tax Federation is tightly controlled by them and patrolled in their usual ultra-sectarian spirit. Most of the stewards on Saturday were Militant (many of them full-time) or controlled and selected by Militant, and Militant had an airtight grip on the overall organisation.
There can be no certainty that better stewarding would have made a decisive difference, but it is a matter of fact that the stewarding failed completely at the end. Since Militant has a jealously-guarded near monopoly on the Anti-Poll-Tax Federation, the responsibility is Militant’s when things go wrong.
To cap this inept performance with a public promise to investigate and publish a list of names of allegedly violent people there on Saturday — that is, in effect, to hand them over to the police — is to reduce things to a nasty and unpleasant farce.