The Socialist 7 April 2010 |
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The real lessons of the poll tax
The centre page article about the massive anti-poll tax demonstration of 1990 by Steve Glennon (issue 617) was excellent, mainly because as chief steward, Steve had a very good overview of events.
Rob Windsor, Socialist Party councillor, Coventry
There are a number of people and groups on the left who pitch the riot following this demonstration, and indeed the preceding angry demonstrations at town and city hall poll tax-setting meetings, as the main cause of the demise of Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax.
I would ask one question: why was the tax not abolished, or concessions introduced, in the spring and summer of 1990? Why was the fountainhead of British capitalism, Thatcher, not removed by her own government until November 1990, roughly the same time as massive reductions to the poll tax were proposed, eight months after the demonstration?
A reporter at Trafalgar Square hinted at the reason when commenting that mass non-payment in Scotland was a reality and that: "organisers hope that this will become ten million who do not pay in England and Wales - this remains to be seen".
This hinted at what really beat the tax. In 1991, when it was finally scrapped, Tory Minister Michael Heseltine made a mealy-mouthed statement that the tax was being abolished because: "The public had not been persuaded that it was fair". With over 17 million people in England and Wales having either paid nothing or having serious arrears, this was an understatement, but also showed that it took more than big demonstrations to defeat the Thatcher government.
It was clear that prior to the demonstration forces were at work to precipitate violence as a means of trying to discredit the movement in the eyes of the millions. The state's plans backfired as a lot of people blamed the riot, not on the anti-poll tax campaign, but on the Thatcher government.
But the demonstration was only the first massive step in the three-year battle to disrupt the courts, picket the homes of non-payers against bailiffs and ultimately, fight to stop the penalty of imprisonment.
There were many important scenes in this battle. Blows were struck against the tax with the collapse of the first 'poll tax court day' on the Isle of Wight; the first time bailiffs were turned away by 'bailiff busters' in Northampton; the ludicrous attempt by a council of pro-poll tax zealots to pick on an ex-World War 2 paratrooper and Arnhem veteran as the first person to be threatened with jail.
This battle of intense attrition took planning, stamina and perseverance after the spectacular scenes of March 1990 had long gone. In this key part of a vital battle, the determination and imagination of working class people shone. This movement of millions over years of the various phases dealt Thatcher and her tax a death blow.
Perhaps at the time some may have thought that angry demonstrations were a substitute for the painstaking building of over 1,500 anti-poll tax groups.
Perhaps they somehow thought that the angrier the demonstrations got, the need for a mass campaign following them would somehow be 'short-circuited'. But the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) knew that Thatcher had faced down other demonstrations. She and her government, while surprised there was such strong opposition given the capitulation of the Labour leaders, clearly wanted to see if resistance would carry on. The leadership of Militant ensured that organised resistance continued. Militant was key in building that movement, arming it with a strategy and sustaining it.
The worst aspect of this piece of history however, was that often the worst enforcers, in terms of bailiffs and moves to jail people, were Labour councils.