Defeating the poll tax
An activist’s story
The Battle to defeat the poll tax, photo Steve Gardiner
Despite being “too young to remember the anti-poll tax battle”, Bob Severn (The Socialist issue 578) rightly criticises the middle-class editors of a middle-class paper, the Independent. They seem to have some kind of fetish, seeing riots as the common expression of working-class struggle that get instant results.
Rob Windsor, Socialist councillor and former anti-poll tax federation secretary, Coventry
If this was the case, how come the abolition of the poll tax was not announced by the then Tory Government until a year after the 1990 anti-poll tax demonstration and subsequent riot and not finally implemented until 1993?
The middle-class media seem to love the idea that riots are the common expression of working-class anger. They seem ‘sexy’ and ‘subversive’ to various reporters.
But they fail to realise that the magnificent 200,000-strong anti-poll tax demonstration was a result of the painstaking work of building anti-poll tax unions in Scotland, England and Wales from 1987 onwards. Also, the continuation of this campaign beyond 31 March 1990 defeated the tax by swamping it with mass non-payment.
At the 1990 demonstration Tommy Sheridan, the then secretary of the all-Britain anti-poll tax federation, made a speech. He said that the already assembled army of a million non-payers in Scotland “salutes the army of ten million non-payers in England and Wales”. Various TV reporters seemed to think this impossible, yet a year later some 18 million people in England and Wales had either paid nothing or were in serious arrears with the poll tax.
The canvas, of often quiet but ongoing drama, was painted with the halting of hundreds of poll tax court hearings on the Isle of Wight. Alongside East Midlands activists, my local federation had success in preventing bailiffs from seizing a non-payer’s goods in Northampton, where bailiffs were deployed for the first time in England and Wales.
Thanks to one Coventry non-payer and a member of Lower Stoke anti-poll tax union taking the council to court, 500,000 poll tax ‘liability order’ hearings were halted. There was anger and sadness when Bob Phelan, an anti-poll tax activist, died of a heart attack after he was dragged from court by police having heckled magistrates for viciously prosecuting non-payers. There were 4am alarm calls to stop bailiffs in towns across the West Midlands.
There was a feeling akin to having won a cup final when within 30 minutes we had mobilised a solicitor and 18 federation members at tea-time on a Friday to stop a non-payer being jailed.
The poll tax was defeated by a tremendous war of attrition. I have given a brief flavour of the battles in just one area, but others can, and will no doubt, give theirs.
At a time when being utterly selfish was proclaimed as the way to be, people really gave their all. This was a momentous struggle and there were no easy solutions, only painstaking work in local communities really beat the poll tax. The demonstrations were a foundation stone for this, not the finished building.