Tax strike! Recalling the Poll Tax Revolt
With the idea of “debt strike” campaigns gaining momentum, James Drummond recalls the “poll tax strike” of 1988 to 1991 when 18 million people refused to pay Thatcher’s crippling tax
Whenever the left looks back on the Thatcher years the picture painted is often a heroic one, but ultimately a very bleak one. Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and inaugurated the first years of the neoliberal experiment in Britain. Within a few years, old industries lay crumbling, millions were living on the breadline, the inner cities had erupted in riots, Irish political prisoners were dying in British jails, and the Cold War against the Soviet Union was significantly ratcheted up. By 1981 Thatcher was the most unpopular British prime minister ever. As if on cue, the Argentinean junta invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, and Thatcher was swept back to power on a wave of jingoistic fervour. This gave the Conservative government the mandate it needed to carry on the work of finishing off the trade unions, culminating in the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.
By the late 1980s, it seemed as if the Thatcher ‘revolution’ was showing signs of success. The beginnings of an expansion of credit saw spending power in some parts of the country soar, whilst young and old in the traditional industrial heartlands rotted on the dole.
The council house sell-off began in earnest. Left Labour councils were rate-capped and forced to kowtow to Thatcher. Rather than fight back, the Labour Party and unions adopted the ‘new realism’ which would eventually culminate in the New Labour election victory of 1997. The first prong in this lurch to the right was the witch-hunt of socialists within the party, and especially the Militant Tendency, forerunner of today’s Socialist Party.
Yet Thatcher made a fatal mistake. Along with the influential hard-right neo-liberal coterie around her, in 1987 she announced the introduction of the Community Charge, or Poll Tax, as it became popularly known. It was to ultimately prove her undoing, even if neoliberalism survived her own regime.
Before looking at the reasons why, it is worth pointing out the significance of this, and what it means for all of us fighting against cuts and austerity today. Firstly, this was a struggle which united the left. Secondly, not only did it unite the left, but it mobilised millions of working class people to take direct action and break the law in their own interests, in open defiance of the Labour Party and trade union leaders. Thirdly, it was a campaign which sank real roots into working class communities. Finally, after years of defeat both before and since, it was a victory for our class. The campaign brought down Thatcher and forced the abolition of the tax. For this reason, and this reason alone, we need to seriously examine the reasons why we were able to build such a successful struggle then, and why the struggle against austerity in the present day is proving to be much more difficult.
Poll Tax: a ruling class offensive against the poor
The Poll Tax was to replace the local rates with a flat-rate charge with only very minor concessions to the poorest in society. One explanation straight out of a neo-liberal Economics textbook is that, just as you would pay a flat rate for a loaf of bread, the same principle should apply for local services. However, it was clear to virtually everyone – including the right – that this was an assault on the working class, the aim of which was to transfer social wealth from the poor to the rich, to atomise the working class, to discipline ‘free-spending’ Labour councils, and to stigmatise socialist ideas of redistribution. As the Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley argued, “Why should a duke pay more than a dustman? It is only because we have been subjected to socialist ideas for the last fifty years that people think this is fair”.
Of course, the main reason why it was not fair for a dustman to pay the same as a duke was because it was simply not affordable for millions of people. Those on the lowest incomes were faced with their local tax bills doubling or tripling whilst the rich paid the exactly the same. Even those on Income Support still had to pay 20%, whilst student nurses (unlike other students) had to pay 100% of the tax. Pensioners were extremely hard hit. The Tories hoped that people would vote in droves for Conservative councils which would slash spending to keep the rates down.
Even more blatantly, Thatcher chose Scotland to be the guinea pig for the new tax a year before England and Wales, where the tax began to be levied on 1st April 1989. The Tories had little to lose in Scotland, and it was there that the battle against the Poll Tax began.
After the first bills started falling on Scottish doorsteps, and as it became clear that Labour Party councillors would collect the tax, resistance grew in England and Wales, too. Non-payment in Scotland grew into a mass phenomenon which inspired campaigning south of the border. This culminated in a 250,000 strong march through London on 31st March 1990, the day before the tax came into force. It became known as the Battle of Trafalgar Square, scene of a vicious and co-ordinated police assault and some inspiring working class resistance.
Alan Clarke, hard-right Tory diarist, commented in the aftermath of the Trafalgar Square riot that “in the corridors and tea rooms people are now talking openly of ditching Thatcher to save their skins.” Later on that year, Thatcher was forced out of Downing Street, and her successor, John Major, announced the abolition of the Poll Tax less than a year later.
A successful working class community struggle
A full and objective history of the anti poll-tax struggle remains to be written, and there is no space in an article of this length to examine the history of this struggle in any detail. Yet it is unquestionably the single biggest campaign of civil disobedience in British history, and as such, contains some important lessons for new generations coming into political activity today.
Firstly, this was a struggle which united the left, although not without controversy. Right from the outset, local activists organised anti-poll tax unions (APTUs) in virtually every town, city and village in the country. The anti-poll tax unions emerged organically for the most part, from the bottom up, rather than being a top-down party front initiated by a single political group. These often federated on a local and regional basis, and only late in 1989 was the All Britain Federation established.
Such was the groundswell of initiative from below that any sectarian antics on the part of the left were only partially successful. Militant Tendency groups, for example, often tried to set up anti-poll tax groups and elect a ‘leadership’ there and then, with the intention of getting their own members into leadership positions. This was often successful, but not to the extent that it would split the movement.
Despite the fact that Militant had a bureaucratic stranglehold over the All Britain Federation, local groups were not answerable to them, but ran their own affairs. As the struggle progressed, the All Britain Federation lost credibility amongst many activists, not least because some its leaders, including Tommy Sheridan, condemned those defending themselves against police violence at Trafalgar Square and threatened to “name names”. This undoubtedly contributed to the demise of Militant in the years following the defeat of the Poll Tax. But they never controlled the movement.
Secondly, this was a struggle which mobilised millions in defiance of the law. When the Scottish Federation committed itself to mass non-payment in 1988, the Labour Party and TUC claimed that this would cause chaos, and initiated a lacklustre campaign of polite petitioning. Yet it was not the case that people were just refusing to pay, they couldn’t afford to pay. In the end, 18 million people broke the law and refused to pay the poll tax. Local government was in chaos as a result. It was precisely ‘chaos’ on this scale which was needed.
Thirdly, this campaign sank real roots into working class communities – in fact, it was an organic part of, and came from within, these communities. In order to do this, activists from various political traditions and none organised local Anti Poll Tax Unions (APTUs). These were not mere vehicles for the left to pick up recruits; at their best, the APTUs genuinely mobilised working class people to an extent we can only dream about today. Hundreds of thousands attended political meetings for the first time, on council estates, in church halls and in working men’s clubs.
Regular stalls were set up in town centres, houses and flats leafleted, and marches organised. Town Halls were besieged during council meetings. Ritual ‘poll tax burning’ demonstrations were organised to encourage people to come and burn their bills.
When councils started taking people to court for non-payment, activists organised ‘Mackenzie Friend’ legal defence volunteers, and demonstrated both inside and outside the courtroom. As people eventually went to prison, hundreds lobbied councillors on their doorsteps.
Similarly, when bailiffs started to seize people’s goods, telephone trees of activists ensured that within minutes, hundreds of local residents would turn up and beat back the bailiffs. In many working class communities, bailiffs were treated with a derision only usually reserved for scabs.
All of these activities meant a steady flow of working class recruits and activists into the APTUs. Many of these ‘raw’ activists dropped out, but many stayed the course and were politicised. This was done on a massive scale right across the country, even in parts of the Tory heartlands of south east England. When Tory-voters in places like Tunbridge Wells began burning their bills and besieging their Town Halls, the Tories knew their tax was unworkable.
Finally, we won. Whilst the campaign did not bring down the Tory government, it sank Thatcher’s flagship, and sank her with it. Hatred for Thatcher and all that she stood for ran deep, and the euphoria which greeted her demise was very real. The Tories mounted attacks after the Poll Tax was defeated, but they never dared quite such an all out attack on people’s living standards again – until they were reelected in 2010 of course.
Lessons for today
In thinking about how to go forward today we need to look back at previous victories as well as defeats. The anti-poll tax movement was a united movement bringing together people from very diverse political backgrounds. Contrast this with the anti-cuts party fronts in existence today.
Equally, it sprang up from within working class communities, although the organised left played a leading role. If the fight against austerity today is going to mobilise millions, it must similarly root itself within working class communities.
There is no shortcut around this, and it is arguably much more difficult today than it was in 1990. Not only do we face an onslaught on many fronts, but they don’t immediately hit everyone in their pockets in the same way as the Poll Tax did.
Nevertheless, there is massive anger today at growing inequality and declining living standards as great as any seen in the 1980s. Every opportunity to open a front in the war against austerity should be seen as a way of rekindling mass resistance on the scale of the Poll Tax revolt. This is not as unrealistic as it sounds. There are signs of impressive resistance over single-issue local campaigns, such as the campaign to defend Lewisham Hospital, which can mobilise 15,000 local people on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late November. With around 80% of cuts still to be implemented over the course of this parliament, at some point, the Con-Dem government will go too far. Well before it does, anti-cuts campaigners and the left will need to break out of our activist circles, start talking to people without using politico shorthand, and seriously relate to ordinary people.
This was possible during the Poll Tax struggle. Since then, successive betrayals at the hands of the Labour Party and the TUC, as well as structural and cultural changes within the working class, have led to cynicism, apathy, and a retreat away from politics.
We need to think hard about how we can overcome this. In doing this, the Poll Tax struggle is rich in lessons within the memory of many of those active today, yet we seem to have partially forgotten it. It’s high time we learnt these lessons for the battles still to come.