Remembering the Poll Tax

In 2010, as the British state mercilessly imprisons people who demonstrated last year against the Zionist onslaught on Gaza or the G8 rich countries’ domination of the world, we remember the massive demonstration 20 years ago this week against the Poll Tax. On Saturday 31 March 1990, London erupted as 200,000 demonstrators defended themselves against a brutal attack by mounted police.

The Poll Tax was the brainchild of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. A punitive local tax, it was introduced in 1989 in Scotland and 1990 in England and Wales, replacing the previous ‘rates’ system. It was designed as a political attack on left Labour local councils which charged high rates in order to provide better local services.  Unlike the rates or current council tax, the Poll Tax was not linked to income or the value of property.  Instead, each local area would set a single rate for all adults, regardless of ability to pay.

This blatant attack on the working class and poor sparked off massive grass-roots resistance over several years.  Every area of the country had an anti-Poll Tax group; demands for payment were publicly burned; there were massive demonstrations inside and outside town halls where the Poll Tax rate was being set and widespread refusal to register or pay, with non-payers summonsed to court in their thousands.  Despite the Poll Tax’s immense unpopularity, the Labour Party, who were in opposition in Parliament, refused to support the campaign.  Their disdain for the poor was echoed by sections of the left.  At the 1988 Socialist Conference, Chris Harman of the SWP argued for the campaign to focus on the council workers whose job it would be to implement the tax, stating that a community-based campaign could not succeed as: ‘On council estates are drug peddlers, junkies and people claiming houses under false names.  These people will complete the registration forms to avoid attention from the council.’

The demonstration on 31 March 1990 was called by the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF). As the second half of the march passed Downing Street on its way to the Trafalgar Square, mounted police attacked 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, with shops 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 Roy Hattersley said ‘I hope that there have been substantial numbers of arrests and the sentencing is severe…exemplary’. And the leaders of ABAPTF, members of Militant Tendency (the forerunner of the Socialist Party – at that time still a faction in the Labour Party) betrayed the people it 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, obtaining court orders to seize photos and footage from journalists, publishing pictures of ‘wanted’ protesters in tabloid newspapers and staging dawn raids on the homes of suspects.  The Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign was set up to defend all those who were arrested and support people sent to prison, both for demonstrating and for non-payment.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! supporters in England and Scotland were involved in the resistance to the Poll Tax from the start.  We participated in the non-registration and non-payment campaigns, were part of local organisation for court hearings and against bailiffs, demonstrated at town halls, published a campaigning pamphlet called Poll Tax: Paying to be poor, joined all the demonstrations and were active in the campaign after 31 March 1990 in support of the prisoners.


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