The Battle that brought down Thatcher

Ten years on from The Demo, the 200,000 strong march which represented the pinnacle of the mass movement which defeated the poll tax, Steve Nally, Socialist Party member And Secretary of the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation in 1990, looks back at how the battle was won.

“NO POLL tax, no poll tax, no poll tax” echoed around Trafalgar Square as over 200,000 anti-poll tax demonstrators flooded the streets of central London. It was a carnival atmosphere.

People had come from virtually every town and city across the country to protest against Thatcher and her hated poll tax. They said as one: “We’re not paying.”

On the same day, 50,000 were marching in Glasgow and, incredibly, 10,000 were protesting in Hastings.

31 March 1990 was a decisive moment in the battle to beat the poll tax. ‘The Demo’, as it became known, was living proof that the Tory tax was on the rocks.

In 1987 the Conservatives had been re-elected with a promise to introduce the poll tax – a deliberate move to shift even more wealth from the poor to the rich and further cut local authority spending. They were confident but within three years the tables were turned.

First in Scotland and then across England and Wales, a mass campaign pledged to non-payment of the poll tax was built – a campaign organised and led by the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation , known as The Fed.

It was clear that millions just could not afford to pay the poll tax. But pleading poverty would not defeat it. A mass movement had to be organised and built and, above all, effective support given to all those who refused to pay.

The Fed played the key role in this task and, at its height, had over 2,000 anti-poll tax unions, trade union bodies and community groups affiliated under its banner.

In the run-up to 31 March, tens of thousands lobbied local councils, marched and attended meetings as councils, including Labour councils, rolled over and began to implement the poll tax.

Politicians from all parties, journalists and academics, some on the Left including the Socialist Workers Party who later wrongly tried to claim credit for beating the poll tax, all said that non-payment would be a non-starter but by 1990 there were 18 million non-payers.

The tax was first introduced in Scotland in 1989 to test the water but by March 1990 the campaign north of the border had reduced councils and the poll tax to their knees. The Tories were on the run – even their supporters in Middle England had begun to march against the tax.

This was the background to The Demo of 31 March.

The day began peacefully as thousands gathered in Kennington to hear speakers from an open-topped double-decker bus. A myriad of banners and placards could be seen, many home made. Young, old, black, white, families and pets created a sea of humanity – a scene reminiscent of the great Chartist protests of Victorian times which themselves started in Kennington.

Those assembling were to represent the pinnacle of a mass movement painstakingly built over a year or so. The Fed had helped to build a campaign involving thousands of working-class activists who filled the 1,000 or more coaches that came to London that day.

Londoners also turned out – over 100,000 – with significant impact on the turn out at key London football matches that day. Working-class youth were to the forefront of the non-payment campaign and were even prepared to sacrifice their ‘footie’ to have their say. The roots of the anti-poll tax movement had sunk deep.

The mood was electric. People marched to Trafalgar Square to join the thousands already waiting. As we walked slowly through the streets, chanting, singing and laughing, people waved from their windows and joined us from the housing estates, determined to show their solidarity.

By mid-afternoon, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and Westminster were jam-packed. Labour MPs Tony Benn, Dave Nellist and George Galloway spoke damningly of the Tory government and gave full support to the campaign.

Fed leaders pledged to fight the poll tax in the courts, against the bailiffs and to defend all non-payers threatened with jail. This was perceived as ‘peoples power’ on a grand scale, something which the Conservative government and Metropolitan police could not tolerate.

Over 200,000 people had joined a mass, peaceful and good humoured demonstration in London, yet the police saw fit to attack and attempt to break up the day’s proceedings.

A decade of Thatcherism had not just made poverty commonplace but also made brutal police attacks on demonstrations another regular feature of life in Britain.

Miners, printers, students and other workers had seen many peaceful protests broken up by vicious police assaults. The Metropolitan police has a record second to none in employing such tactics and for them 31 March was to be no different as they unleashed an unprovoked attack around 4pm.

There are many versions as to how it all started but only one unalterable truth. The police attacked a mass, peaceful demonstration.

Horses trampled protesters under foot, cars and vans drove at high speed into the packed crowds, while riot police drew blood with indiscriminate use of truncheons. Hemmed in on all sides, many demonstrators tried to defend themselves, their friends and others.

Yet another glorious day of working-class solidarity had been marred by the actions of the police.

This time there could be no easy cover up. The media attempted its usual distortions but tens of thousands had seen the brutality of the police first hand. Millions more watched the events in horror on television. Particularly telling was the terrible sight of a woman being mown down by charging police horses and her rescue by courageous demonstrators.

The police attacks and disturbances carried on well into the night and in the process many shops were looted. Given the opulence of the West End and the large number of dispossessed youth on the march, such acts were understandable.

While the new rich of the 1980s flaunted their wealth, thousands of youth had been forced to live and beg on the streets. The looting reflected their anger and despair.

The Fed had never advocated rioting or looting as a means of defeating the poll tax – only mass non-payment would achieve this – but its Militant (now Socialist Party) leadership fully understood that people’s frustration with Thatcher, the poll tax and the police would sometimes boil over.

Within hours, Thatcher, Labour MPs and the media attempted to use the riot to attack the anti-poll tax movement. But this time their tactics backfired. Too many people had seen what had really happened and this strengthened the resolve of the campaign.

Twelve months later, the Met issued a report publicly admitting that their tactics on the day had caused the riot.

Meanwhile the Fed had to practically respond to the aftermath of The Demo. The police set up ‘Operation Carnaby’ to arrest and imprison the maximum number of demonstrators, whose defence became a priority.

Over 500 people were arrested on and after the march. All needed help, which involved attending courts, liasing with lawyers and raising finance.

It was a mammoth task that required professional expertise. The Fed pooled its resources and information with the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign and its lawyers, so that all defendants would receive professional legal assistance.

At the same time, the Fed continued to highlight the injustices of the harsh sentences handed out by vengeful judges.

The success of The Demo strengthened the battle against the poll tax. Mass non-payment was firmly on the agenda but it still had to be maintained.

On 1 June 1990 over 2,000 local people from the Isle of Wight attended the very first poll tax courts. The proceedings were mayhem and over 1,800 cases were dismissed that day – a scene that was to be repeated at courts throughout England and Wales as tens of thousands of non-payers clogged up the courts.

Within weeks, anti-poll tax unions were chasing bailiffs off wherever these low-life raised their heads. “Bailiffs have no legal right of entry” were the watch words.

Every attempt to jail a non-payer was fought tooth and nail by the Fed whose sterling work kept thousands out of jail. Many a local councillor regretted the day they took public office, especially when campaigners invaded their council chambers, surgeries and even barbecues!

The final victory came on Thursday 22 November as Margaret Thatcher ran crying from the steps of 10 Downing Street to a waiting car – a fitting end to an individual whose policies had caused working-class people and their families to shed an ocean of tears.

Less than eight months after the poll tax had become law in England and Wales, the Militant-led Federation and its campaign of mass non-payment had finally toppled one of the most hated prime ministers in British history. Within months the Tories finally abolished the poll tax.

Ten years on and there are many lessons to be learnt, the most important one being that mass struggles can be built and can take on governments. New Labour will ignore this at its peril.

The Demo was a launch pad for mass non-payment and a movement that became a focal point for all the grievances and discontent in Thatcher’s Britain.

The All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation gave a voice and direction to working-class people. They had suffered enough and were ready to fight Thatcher’s government and win.

That is the real significance of 31 March 1990.