Lessons of the Poll Tax

Can’t pay! Won’t pay!

‘Thatcherism represents the ruling class solution to the most severe crisis of capitalism since the 1930s. Thatcher has ensured that the poor will bear the brunt of the crisis. The Poll Tax will mean that the poor pay for the poor. With two fingers raised to the working class, as much money as possible is to be transferred to the rich and privileged whilst introducing the maximum amount of repressive machinery in order to contain the inevitable protest and resistance.’

Poll Tax: paying to be poor, Lorna Reid, Larkin Publications 1990

The Poll Tax – the ‘jewel in Thatcher’s crown’

The Poll Tax was the brainchild of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980s. A punitive local tax, it was designed as a political attack on the working class – appeasing the middle class view that the old rating system let the working class off from paying its due share of local taxes – and on left Labour local councils, which charged high rates in order to provide better local services. Unlike the old rates system or the current council tax, the Poll Tax was not linked to the value or size of property. Instead, each local area set a single rate to be levied from all adults, regardless of their ability to pay.

As the current campaign against the Bedroom Tax develops, comparisons are being made with the struggle against the Poll Tax. Clearly there are significant differences, especially as the Poll Tax affected the whole population, whereas the Bedroom Tax only has an impact on social housing tenants in receipt of housing benefit. Furthermore, the entire political landscape has changed considerably in the intervening years, as the neo-liberal programme begun by the Thatcher government has been developed and extended by successive governments of all parties. However, there certainly are lessons to be learned from the anti-Poll Tax campaign: in particular lessons about campaigning tactics, about building solidarity and about exposing false friends.

Fighting the Poll Tax

Registration for the Poll Tax began in Scotland in 1988 and in England and Wales in 1989, with implementation and collection starting a year later in each case. (With the lengthy history of resistance in the north of Ireland, Thatcher’s government didn’t even try to introduce the Poll Tax there!)

Almost immediately, the Labour Party made it clear that, although in theory it opposed the Poll Tax (as today it ‘opposes’ the Bedroom Tax), it would not back a campaign of non-payment or support any form of direct action or effective resistance. Indeed, Labour councils would collaborate with and collect the Poll Tax, and would join in the attack on anyone who challenged it. At the Local Government Conference in Edinburgh in February 1988, Labour leader Neil Kinnock publicly refused to lead a campaign of non-payment, describing such a campaign as a ‘counsel of despair, fruitless’.

The people living in Scotland, who were first to be targeted, roundly ignored this betrayal and, by the time of the big anti-Poll Tax demonstrations in London and Glasgow on 31 March 1990, the non-payment movement had already been firmly established:

‘Tenants arranged to be out of their houses when registration officers called, and held mass meetings in the street while officers knocked fruitlessly on one door after another. Appointed street stewards alerted the community to approaching officers, using megaphones. Registration officers were chased out of many estates, eventually only able to work accompanied by the police. Tenants returned registration forms collectively. MPs and councillors opposed to the Poll Tax joined local people in the burning of registration forms. Local meetings attracted up to 200 people. Glasgow’s Pollokshields Anti-Poll Tax Union held a 200-strong local residents’ demonstration, the first ever political demonstration in the area.

‘Sheriff’s officers who attempted to enter houses in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow to assess household effects … with a view to selling them to pay off the fines for failure to register have been blocked by anti-Poll Tax protesters. Rallies were held outside ... homes … and the Sheriff’s officers had to leave empty-handed. The first warrant sale in Scotland was to recover a fine from Carole Hosey, a single parent, for failing to register for the Poll Tax. It was scheduled for 27 November 1989 but was called off after the Lothian Anti-Poll Tax Federation threatened to physically prevent the warrant sale by mobilising hundreds of people to be present at the time of the attempted sale.

‘A “virus” appeared on the computer system used by Lothian Regional Council to store the Poll Tax register. Every 10 minutes a name disappeared from the register.

‘The Poll Tax registration officer in Strathclyde reports that there are 1,997 ‘Donald Ducks’ resident in his region.’ (Poll Tax: paying to be poor)

Holding back the movement

On 25 November 1989 the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF) was launched at a meeting with 2,000 delegates from local groups. In the January 1990 issue of FRFI we reported that: ‘On paper this should have been the basis of a dynamic movement against the Poll Tax. In reality it achieved nothing.’

The article described the two political trends holding back the movement: firstly, Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party), which had ‘correctly recognised that the strength of such a campaign can only arise from within the communities, amongst the people who can’t pay’ but was hamstrung by trying to win an unwinnable battle within the Labour Party to which everything else was subservient; secondly, the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Power and other Trotskyist groups, which considered community campaigns of no significance and only ‘workers’ action’ through the trade unions capable of confronting the Poll Tax. As we wrote at the time: ‘Precisely because the trade unions have refused to mount a challenge to the Poll Tax and have joined Kinnock in denouncing non-payment the position of these organisations comes over as abstract and irrelevant.’

Such groups have tended to caricature the RCG’s stance, implying that we go to the opposite extreme and write off all possible contribution to the struggle by trade unions. In reality, this has never been our position. As we wrote in Poll Tax: paying to be poor:

‘To argue that only industrial action can defeat the Poll Tax at a time when there is no pressure on the trade union movement to take any action on anything is tantamount to doing nothing and, further, demobilises the action within the communities which already exists. Community resistance involves trade unionists and, if developed, can create a movement which allows rank and file trade unionists to take the fight into the trade union movement with the real pressure of the community behind them. The action taken by CPSA members in October 1989 to oppose DSS collaboration with the Poll Tax is an example of the kind of action that it is possible for trade unionists to take. The successful development of this is only possible when trade unionists draw confidence from resistance being built in the communities. Effective trade union action will only arise as the result of active and organised resistance within the communities.’

The ‘Poll Tax riot’

On 31 March 1990, 200,000 people marched through central London on a demonstration called by the ABAPTF, the TUC having refused to hold such a protest. As the second half of the march passed Downing Street on its way to Trafalgar Square, police on horseback charged at the demonstrators. About 1,000 people staged a sit-down. Meanwhile police on foot blocked off the end of Whitehall so demonstrators could not get into the square. Determined to get to the rally, protesters pushed through police lines and regrouped outside the South African Embassy, which itself was the target of angry anti-racist protest. The police attacked again. Protesters fought back and the protest spilled over into Covent Garden and the West End where shops were trashed. There were 300 arrests and dozens of injuries.

Politicians of all parties immediately condemned the violence – not of the police, but of the demonstrators. Labour’s deputy leader Roy Hattersley said: ‘I hope that there have been substantial numbers of arrests and the sentencing is severe [and] exemplary’. And leading Militant Tendency members Tommy Sheridan and Steve Nally betrayed the very people they had mobilised and who had taken a principled stance against the Poll Tax and against police violence, claiming that ‘the violence…was the work of 200-250 mindless people’.

In the weeks that followed, there were more arrests, as the police mounted Operation Carnaby (at the time the most highly resourced police operation ever), obtaining court orders to seize photos and footage from journalists, publishing rogues’ galleries of ‘wanted’ protesters in tabloid newspapers and staging dawn raids on suspects’ homes. With no support from the ABAPTF, the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign (TSDC) was set up, mainly by anarchist activists, to take on the vital task of defending all those who had been arrested and of supporting the growing number of people being sent to prison, both for demonstrating and for non-payment. The RCG supported this initiative and worked with TSDC throughout its existence, attending court hearings and demonstrations, and providing solidarity to prisoners.

Can’t pay – won’t pay

Unlike the two million march against the war on Iraq in 2003, or the various relatively large-scale anti-cuts demonstrations which have taken place in recent years (some of which have also culminated in mass arrests), the March 1990 demonstration was not just an isolated set-piece event. Instead, it expressed and united a movement that had been growing over the previous years, with non-payment already firmly on the agenda in Scotland, and demonstrations taking place outside town halls across Britain as councillors set the local rates for the Poll Tax. Despite the repression against both protesters and non-payers which followed the demo, the movement grew in strength. Mass court hearings, at which councils hoped that summary judgments would be passed and they could move to deduct payment from wages or benefits, or send in bailiffs to take the possessions of non-payers, were rendered unworkable by streams of defendants, many helped by ‘McKenzie Friend’ lay advisers, insisting on putting their individual cases to magistrates and refusing to accept liability for payment, as angry demos took place outside and inside the court buildings.

A battle won – a war still to win

By September 1990 one in three people had not paid any Poll Tax. The centrepiece of Thatcher’s attack on the working class was in ruins. That, together with in-fighting within the Tory cabinet, mainly over Britain’s relationship with Europe, led to her resignation in November 1990, leaving John Major to preside over the dismantling of the scheme.

By 1991, despite legal action and imprisonment, and with no support at all from the Labour Party, whose councils collected the tax, enforced payment, and joined in the criminalisation of those who resisted, 18 million people were still not paying the Poll Tax. By the time of the 1992 general election legislation had been passed to replace it with the current Council Tax from the start of the 1993/4 financial year.

The overthrow of the Poll Tax was a victory for the working class, and shows what united resistance can achieve. However, since 1990 the overall war being waged by Thatcher and the ruling class has continued under the successive governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, and a lot of ground has been lost. In 2013, RCG branches in England and Scotland are involved in building campaigns against the Bedroom Tax, and will incorporate the vital lessons of the Poll Tax struggle in this work. These lessons are that campaigns must be open, democratic and led by the people affected in their own interests, not subservient to the interests of the trade union leadership or any other elite.

Nicki Jameson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 233 June/July 2013


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