25 years since the poll tax battle
How we defeated Thatcher’s poll tax
Steve Nally, Former secretary, All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation
The battle against the so-called ‘poll tax’ was one of the biggest movements of working people against a modern British government. Millions refused to pay; many millions more simply could not afford to pay. Mass non-payment beat the tax and finally removed Margaret Thatcher from office.
Uniting this struggle was the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, led by members of the Militant (now the Socialist Party). The Federation brought together 1,500 affiliated anti-poll tax unions and labour movement bodies.
The poll tax, officially called the Community Charge, was a flat-rate levy on all adults to pay for local council services. With some partial exceptions, the poor were to pay the same as the rich. It was proposed by Thatcher’s Conservatives to replace the more progressive ‘domestic rates’.
The Tories first imposed it in Scotland in 1989. A major campaign developed – not just to oppose the tax, but to organise non-payment by building local anti-poll tax unions. These genuine grassroots organisations would be critical to maintaining mass non-payment and defending those the authorities dared to pick on. Without anti-poll tax unions and their policy of mass non-payment, we might not have defeated Thatcher and her hated tax.
The tax was imposed across England and Wales in 1990. In the build-up, mass lobbies of councils were held involving tens of thousands. In Brixton over 6,000 protested outside the town hall. In early 1990 many councillors felt the hot breath of protest, with some joining the movement. However, not one council refused to implement the tax.
These mass lobbies built more anti-poll tax unions, and consolidated the slogan “can’t pay, won’t pay”. Unfortunately, this did not become the mantra of Labour’s leaders. Instead they urged people not to break the law while openly attacking leaders of the anti-poll tax movement.
The Federation called a national demonstration for 31 March 1990. It will go down in history as one of the biggest and most important ever to hit the capital. Well over 200,000 flooded the streets of central London in a celebration of mass non-payment. On the same day, 50,000 marched in Glasgow.
The London mobilisation was peaceful and good humoured, but was brutally attacked by police. Thatcher’s Tory government had used violent tactics on numerous previous occasions, including against the heroic 1984-5 miners’ strike and 1986 London printers’ strike.
As demonstrators defended themselves, rioting broke out – but the vicious police assault backfired. Too many people on the spot and watching on television had seen a peaceful, mass demonstration broken up by police brutality. The rioting itself was a reflection of the discontent that existed in Thatcher’s Britain.
In some quarters the demo, and in particular the ensuing riot, are mistakenly seen as the single event that defeated Thatcher and her tax. But this mass demonstration, while important, was just one part of an ongoing and well-organised campaign. What was decisive was mass non-payment and defence of non-payers.
By the summer of 1990, over 18 million had refused to pay. The Tory government and colluding local councils made their move. First up were the court cases in Newport on the Isle of Wight, led by the reactionary landed gentry who made up the Tory council.
Summonsing non-payers to court was intended to scare people into paying – but the Federation turned it into its opposite. Thousands turned up to contest cases in Newport, clogging the courts and forcing magistrates to dismiss all cases and pay expenses to those summonsed!
This tactic of mass turnouts at court was replicated by other local anti-poll tax unions. Many tens of thousands of cases were dismissed or never heard. Our legal campaign also resurrected the tradition of ‘McKenzie friends’, where non-lawyers could assist, and sometimes represent, defendants in court. Within a short time the Federation had such representatives at most court hearings.
Bailiffs were the next weapon used against us, but again the Federation came out fighting. Militant argued for community defence groups, and the anti-poll tax unions were crucial in organising them across the UK. Taunton Deane in Somerset was the first test. In late July 1990, hundreds protected the village of Bishops Lydeard from bailiffs trying to enter.
Bailiffs (and in Scotland, sheriffs) were sent packing across the land. Millions quickly learnt that in addition to rarely having the legal right to entry, bailiffs never have an appetite to take on a mass, peaceful blockade! Anti-poll tax unions also took the fight to the bailiffs. We invaded their offices giving them a taste of their own cruel medicine.
The last resort for the Tories, and compliant councils of all political colours, was to try and jail those who had beaten off the courts and bailiffs. Grantham, Thatcher’s home town, led the way by jailing a young building worker just before Christmas 1990. There was uproar.
After a big local demonstration, the governor at HM Prison Lincoln fast-tracked his release! The last thing many prison governors wanted was poll tax non-payers stirring things up inside. Jailings continued, including that of MP and Militant supporter Terry Fields. Shamefully, the leaders of the Labour Party refused to back non-payment. But Militant said: ‘it’s better to break the law than break the poor’. In any case, the Federation, local anti-poll tax unions and supporting lawyers ensured jailings were kept to a few hundred. Many thousands avoided imprisonment.
By the autumn of 1990, millions were still refusing to pay. In many areas the collection system had ground to a halt. The Tories were in crisis, and having all the loyalty of hyenas they turned on Thatcher, removing her from office.
Their arrogance in pushing through the poll tax had exploded in their faces. Mass self-organising had won out. Thatcher left Downing Street in tears, but this was nothing to the ocean of tears her policies had created.
A short while later, in what must be one of the understatements of all time, Tory MP Michael Heseltine stood in parliament and said of the poll tax: “The public have not been persuaded that the scheme is fair.”
The lessons of the battle against the poll tax are many, but what was critical was correct strategy and tactics. Mass non-payment, put forward by Militant. was essential. But to build that required a serious level of organisation that could take on councils, courts and above all Thatcher and the government.
Local anti-poll tax unions were the bedrock of our resistance. They gave people information, protection and above all the confidence to stand firm against the onslaught they faced.
This is how the poll tax was beaten, and how a prime minister was humiliated. This is how the working class will have to plan and build for the future battles we face.
As the bold Chartists so long before
They engulfed the sweet scented park
A beautiful scene of strength and awe
The radiant sunshine before the dark
With raucous laughter, speech and song
In wait, the backfiring, horse ridden attack
Youth and age forged as one
As molten lava past fresh spring trees
A mass of two hundred thousand strong
All defiantly imbued with one belief
A deafening chorus of “No Poll Tax”
Voiceless folk now raised off their knees
Families waved from the Kennington flats
Bright home made banners flourished high
To smother and still Thatcher’s brutal axe
The melting pot march never a penny to pay
Flowed proudly into a sunlit Trafalgar Square
A bloodily remembered victory foray
A final riposte to her Downing Street prayer
The Rise of Militant: The First 30 Years
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