“For the first time a government had declared that anyone who could reasonably afford to do so should at least pay something towards the upkeep of the facilities and the provision of the services from which they benefited.
A whole class of people – an ‘underclass’ if you will – had been dragged back into the ranks of responsible society and asked to become not just dependants but citizens. The violent riots of 31 March in and around Trafalgar Square was their and the Left’s response.
And the eventual abandonment of the charge represented one of the greatest victories for these people ever conceded by a Conservative Government.”
(Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years: page 661)
JUST ONE month after the Tory victory, on 17 July, Militant carried the front-page headline “Tory Poll Tax Robbery”. One result of the general election was to reduce the Scottish Tory representation at Westminster to such an extent that they could now get into two taxis. Thatcher planned to take revenge by first of all introducing the poll tax in Scotland. We pointed out: “the Thatcher family in Dulwich will save £2,300 per year… an average family in Suffolk will pay an extra £640.” Addressing the Labour leaders, Militant stated:
We don’t just want concessions or amendments, we want this legislation chucked out. The labour movement throughout Britain must campaign around this issue. It is just the kind of extra-parliamentary campaign that can build the Labour Party and the unions… the movement must mobilise and fight back, drawing up plans for non-co-operation and non-implementation of this legislation. (1)
We prepared very early on for a fightback against this measure, above all in Scotland where the poll tax was first introduced. The Scots had voted massively against the Tories but because of the votes of England the Tories were once more in power in Westminster. This stoked up national indignation at the prospect of a further period of Tory arrogance towards Scotland.
Support began to grow for a Scottish assembly:
“Opinion Polls show that four out of every five Scots are in favour of some sort of devolution.” (2)
As shown earlier, we had long favoured the establishment of a Scottish Assembly. But now given the enormous support amongst the Scottish people for an Assembly, Labour had began, for the first time since the 1970s, to take the national question in Scotland seriously. However, this was accompanied by the bending of the knee to the Tories on other issues. After initially adopting a policy of “non-compliance”, i.e. non-co-operation or non-implementation with the poll tax, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), in September 1987, decided to resume talks with the Scottish Office. Moreover, some Labour authorities, like Strathclyde and Lothian region, were agreeing to massive cut-backs totalling £10 million under the pressure of the government.
Militant pointed out that one of the fears of the government of an Assembly was precisely how it could be used, particularly by the left, and the Marxists:
A left-wing administration in Edinburgh coming into conflict with a Tory government in London would pose a potentially more explosive situation than in Liverpool in 1984/85… the possibility of a left-wing Scottish Assembly, perhaps influenced by the ideas of Marxism, sends shock waves through the ranks of the British establishment. (3)
Lessons of Liverpool
While the lessons of the Liverpool struggle were still fresh, Militant decided to produce a book Liverpool, a City That Dared to Fight, written by myself and Tony Mulhearn, chronicling the main events between 1983 and 1987.
One of the most welcome reviews appeared in Militant itself from Eric Heffer, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton. The very fact that Eric wrote this after the expulsions of the main Liverpool Militants had taken place was both an indication of his principled stand and also that it was not possible even then for the right to just trample on the left. Eric correctly saw the Liverpool struggle as an inspiration for future generations of socialists, which
will be studied and followed as was the popular struggle of the early 1920s when George Lansbury, one time Labour leader, was the leader of Poplar council…
Whilst not agreeing with all that is said, I do feel it is an important book.
Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn have produced a document that all future writers about the struggle will need to delve into for basic source material…
The Liverpool struggle, like the miners’ strike of 1984-85, was an important part of the class struggle taking place against the Thatcher government.
It was ‘politics put to the test’ and contrary to what some would say, it was a test that the Liverpool councillors and party members passed.
Yes, they made mistakes, but only those who do nothing and sit back in their armchairs pontificating about those who do, never make mistakes. (4)
Fighting the poll tax
As one chapter closed on an epic struggle in which Militant supporters played a key role, another one opened up. The poll tax was a key issue, in a sense the most decisive, which faced the labour movement in Thatcher’s third term of office.
Many sections of the movement opposed the poll tax, mostly verbally, but Militant gave it prominence and at an early stage pointing to the consequences for the government and Thatcher herself if the poll tax was introduced.
At the London launch of the Liverpool book, attended by all the main newspapers, radio and television, I commented:
The vast majority are opposed to this tax, but the Labour leaders have made it clear that the struggle is to be restricted to Parliament.
But the history of this government is that they do not listen to parliamentary speeches. Only when a mass struggle is mobilised, as it was in Liverpool, can the labour movement force the ‘Iron Lady’ to retreat. Scottish councils have the same choice as in Liverpool. Either they can get the odium of implementing the poll tax or, like Liverpool, say no, refuse to collect it and call a one-day general strike.
Otherwise they might as well resign their positions. There is an explosive situation developing on the housing estates. The government has made a big error. The poll tax will involve tenants and owner-occupiers, old and young. The whole position of the government could become untenable if Labour takes a stand on this issue. (5)
Later in the year we drew some general conclusions, which we used to underline Militant’s approach in the next five years of intense struggle on this issue. The paper commented:
In the afterglow of her re-election in 1987, Thatcher confidently declared that the poll tax was to be the ‘flagship’ of her government. The Titanic was the flagship of the British Merchant Navy and considered unsinkable until it hit an Atlantic iceberg!
Now the Tories are on a collision course with a far more formidable obstacle – the embittered and mobilised Scottish working class, and only just behind them their English and Welsh counterparts! With clear leadership the labour movement can sink the Tory flagship without trace. When the flagship goes down, the Admiral either goes down with it or is sacked. (6)
Through the poll tax Thatcher achieved what the Labour and trade union leaders had failed to do in the previous nine years – she had united and generalised the struggles of the working class against her government. Previously, she had been very careful not to take on the whole of the working class or to open up an offensive on two fronts. But the poll tax affected young and old, employed and unemployed, the sick and disabled, council tenants and house owners, as well as the black and Asian populations. Thus all except the upper middle class and rich were to be hit by the poll tax.
The fatal error which she and her ministers made was to mistake the stand of the Labour leaders as an accurate reflection of the mood on the ground.
A labour movement campaign against the poll tax was launched in Edinburgh in December 1987, initiated by Militant supporters. Soon after this, steps were taken in the West of Scotland, particularly in areas like Pollok, to organise anti-poll tax unions. This led to the idea, promoted by Militant, for a West of Scotland Anti-Poll Tax Federation. But before this step had been taken there had been serious discussion both in Scotland and nationally in Militant’s ranks, about the programme and the organisational steps to be taken to maximise the greatest possible mass resistance to this measure.
In April 1988 I visited Glasgow for a one-day conference with delegates from every area of Scotland where Militant had support and influence. This meeting clarified important tactical issues and gave the green light to Militant supporters in Scotland to concentrate on the poll tax as the key issue and to link the struggle with the battle that was likely to develop on an all-British scale later. Militant’s attitude was summed up in a centre-page article of the paper:
This is the biggest single general attack on the living standards of the working class not just from this Tory government, but probably this century… The Thatcher juggernaut is at the gates of Glasgow and Edinburgh. She intends to roll it over the ‘whitened bones’ of the Scottish labour movement and then trample over the English and Welsh working class. (7)
The April Scottish conference of Militant took the decision to organise anti-poll tax unions throughout Scotland and to systematically press for the adoption of a programme whose central demand would be “non-payment” of the tax. At each stage, the fighting approach of Militant contrasted sharply with that of the leadership of the Scottish labour movement.
At the Labour Party Scottish conference in March 1988 the delegates had responded enthusiastically to a parade of speakers, including Militant supporters, who passionately argued the case for defiance of the poll tax. Dick Douglas, then a Labour MP and who stood on the right of the party, declared: “There is an army waiting to be led down the road of non-payment.” He compared Neil Kinnock to “a general leading his troops into battle carrying a white flag.” (8)
On the day that the conference had opened, a poll showed that 42 per cent in Scotland favoured an illegal non-payment campaign against the poll tax. Amongst Labour voters the figure was as high as 57 per cent. Yet the speech to the conference by Neil Kinnock was so poor that the Labour loyalist Glasgow Herald wrote that it was “universally rated as a disaster”. (9)
The conference voted by two to one for a resolution opposing “illegality”. It was at total variance with the mood of the vast majority of delegates, particularly from the constituencies. But the trade union tops cast their block votes in favour of the Labour Party’s Scottish leadership.
Nevertheless it was decided to reconvene the conference in the autumn to reconsider the non-payment option. This gave an opportunity to the advocates of non-payment to mobilise working people in action in favour of this demand. We reported in April that massive meetings on Scottish housing estates had shown that workers expected the Labour leaders to take a lead. In Pollok, Glasgow,
400 people packed into a public meeting to establish an anti-poll tax union in the area. “What are we going to do? How can we fight this?” they asked. A shop steward from Govan shipbuilders asked the local Labour regional councillor, “If the regional council is so against this tax then why have they got people running around harassing tenants and intimidating old age pensioners with post cards and registration forms?”
Tommy Sheridan, then a little known Militant supporter, declared to thunderous applause:
We need councillors who are prepared to fight, to stand up now against this tax and lead us into battle. Seventy-five per cent of Scots oppose the tax. One-and-a-half million are willing to defy the law. We need Labour representatives who are also willing to defy the law.
He was elected secretary of the anti-poll tax union in Pollok and reminded the meeting of the 47 Liverpool councillors who were prepared to stand firm and defy Tory law. “We need them here in Pollok”, was the audience’s response. (10)
In July 350 delegates representing thousands of workers in 105 anti-poll tax groups, mostly from community councils and tenants’ associations, agreed to set up the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation. This conference called unanimously for a mass campaign of non-payment and for Labour councillors to refuse to pursue non-payers. It also called for the Scottish TUC to step up their campaign and organise a 24-hour general strike. Tommy Sheridan was elected unopposed as secretary of the Federation and promised vigorous leadership from the newly elected committee.
How to fight the poll tax
Just before this conference Militant had produced a pamphlet How to Fight the Poll Tax, written by Alan McCombes. It pointed out:
already, a full year before the poll tax is due to be collected, a huge groundswell of resistance is developing in towns and cities throughout Scotland.
But it was “still fragmented and lacking in co-ordination”. Alan called for the mobilisation of the widest layers of the working class and for
public meetings in every town and village, and housing scheme; and above all by a mass campaign of door-to-door canvassing in every locality with the aim of achieving at least a million pledges to refuse to pay the poll tax. (11)
We also reported that at
a meeting of 180 at Cowglen, a comrade of the late Red Clydesider, Harry McShane, summed up the stage we have now reached; “these Labour councillors don’t seem to know anything about our history. We have always had to struggle… The only why to break the poll tax is to break the law.” (12)
Speeches like this and written material disseminated through hundreds and thousands of working-class channels, familiarising working people with the reality and the details of the poll tax, created the basis for the greatest mass movement of civil disobedience seen this century. Even at the national Labour Party conference in October, to the horror of the leadership, Militant supporters called for defiance of the poll tax. Glasgow councillor Jim McVicar was cheered when he called for the party to back non-payment.
We can’t just wait for a Labour government. A mass campaign is the only way to guarantee a Labour victory. The choice is between the red flag of socialism and the white flag of surrender. (13)
Alec Thraves, a delegate from Swansea, recalling Neil Kinnock’s 1985 conference attack on Liverpool councillors, said that if Labour did not organise a successful campaign of non-payment “we will see the grotesque chaos of Labour councils, yes Labour councils, scuttling round in taxis handing out eviction notices to people who can’t afford the poll tax.” Donald Dewar shadow Scottish secretary condemned non-payment as “tactically naive and wrong in principle”.
The advice of one Labour right winger to a woman who could not afford to pay the tax was: “If you can’t pay I am sure the courts will be lenient with you!” (14) The Labour leadership at this stage were putting forward as an alternative to the poll tax the idea of “two taxes”. The cowardly refusal to support non-payment was a gift to the Scottish National Party (SNP), which, under the impact of the radicalisation of the Scottish population, had evolved from “Tartan Tories” into an increasingly radical nationalist party. At Labour’s special Scottish conference, Militant warned:
The SNP are praying that Neil Kinnock’s policy of blind subservience to Thatcher’s law will prevail at the conference. This would give the nationalists the biggest boost since the discovery of North Sea oil. (15)
Predictably, the conference rejected the “non-payment option”. And retribution was not long in coming: on 10 November Labour lost the Govan by-election. At the general election there had been a Labour majority of 19,500 in the 15th safest Labour seat in Britain. Jim Sillars, the SNP candidate, won the by-election with a 33 per cent swing from Labour. Sillars, who had formerly been a left Labour MP, consistently outflanked Labour in radicalism:
“I concentrated on the fact that Donald Dewar is telling people to pay the poll tax while the SNP is organising a campaign against it.” (16)
Some of the areas with the most oppressed workers, were festooned with SNP posters during the election. There was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for Labour. The dispirited comment of one worker seemed to sum up the mood in the Labour ranks: “The SNP have got the Proclaimers; we have Wet Wet Wet.” (17)
Govan was a test bed for the filofax-Kinnockite Labour Party. The headquarters had more computers than the Starship Enterprise! An army of full-time organisers were drafted in to operate them, run the campaign and ensure victory. The new moderate image secured the blessing of the Daily Record and Evening Times. So everything seemed set fair. Except that no computer or newspaper editor knocked on a door. (18)
Following this debacle the Labour establishment tried to blame Bob Gillespie, the defeated Labour candidate. He had been imprisoned in a political straitjacket, with MPs Donald Dewar and Brian Wilson writing his speeches and watching his every word. The right had preferred Anne McGuire, a long-standing anti-devolutionist and advocate of paying the poll tax, as their candidate. (19)
There was no question that a fighting socialist campaign would have cut across the rise of the SNP. Yet the right wing and the press actually hinted that Militant was to blame for Bob Gillespie’s defeat. We answered:
On the contrary, if Militant’s socialist policies had been adopted and fought for by the Labour Party in Scotland, there would have been as spectacular a victory in Govan as in Liverpool in the 1987 general election. (20)
Two months before, at the special Labour Party conference, one delegate had warned:
If we go into Govan and tell people they are to go without essential food and clothing to pay the poll tax, we will not receive a warm welcome. (21)
The Govan result sent shock waves through the labour movement in Scotland. It indicated the danger posed to Labour by the SNP and more important, in a sense, the anger that existed at the denial of the Scottish people’s national aspirations.
Already in 1988 it was clear that the poll tax was the key issue confronting the Scottish working class. But in the rest of Britain it did not loom as large as in Scotland at that stage.
The attack on the National Health Service was more to the fore. The vulnerability of the government on this issue was shown by Thatcher’s statement during the 1987 general election that “the National Health Service is safe in the hands of the Tories”. This was sheer hypocrisy, as was demonstrated soon after the election. The resources devoted to the NHS and particularly the conditions of health workers were undermined.
In the first months of 1988 the anger of health workers exploded. The trigger for what became a powerful national movement did not come from the tops of the health service unions. The strike by 38 nurses at North Manchester General Hospital and the threatened action of the blood transfusion workers brought into the open all the accumulated anger and resentment of NHS staff.
It was not the TUC general council, with nine million workers behind them, nor the leadership of NUPE or COHSE, the health unions, who forced the Thatcher government into a humiliating reverse, but 38 nurses. Twice in two days the “unbending” Tory government was forced to give way to striking health workers. It first capitulated when the Manchester nurses struck over their unsocial hours payments. It then gave in to the blood transfusion workers over meal allowances.
One of the leaders of the Manchester nurses, Joan Foster, revealed why they had not told the NUPE and other health union leaders, let alone the Labour Party leaders, that they were to go on strike: “We didn’t want to be told that we couldn’t go out on strike.” (22)
There was as much suspicion of the ‘left’ NUPE leaders as of those on the right. Even The Independent had a headline: “Strikes by health workers have Cabinet on the run” (23): The movement completely confounded the advocates of the ‘New Realism’, which held such sway over the trade union leadership. In the wake of the 1987 general election they had become obsessed with the idea that strikes and the unions were “unpopular”. We declared:
Health workers have every right to strike, but they need the full, active support of other trade unionists… At the moment nurses’ action has been limited to 24-hour strikes, and correctly with carefully organised emergency cover. (24)
We favoured 24-hour strikes in areas where the nurses had moved into action, for regional strikes as a step towards national action. But the trade union leaders were singing a different song. We reported:
at the London co-ordinating committee of COHSE, the general secretary, Hector McKenzie, told assembled stewards from striking hospitals that they did not have the open backing of the national union. (25)
Contrast this with the stand of John Macreadie, at the 27 January 1988, TUC general council meeting. He called for a one-day general strike in defence of the NHS.
This was referred to the TUC Health Services Committee, because the “health unions themselves had still not met to formulate any form of action.” (26)
Yet there is no doubt that John Macreadie reflected the mood from below. Such was the pressure that the TUC health committee was compelled to call a national demonstration on 5 March. Immediately this was announced a head of steam in favour of action began to build up. Workers in different regions took part in demonstrations and called on the union leaders to take action.
In the midst of this movement Arthur Scargill was re-elected as the President of the National Union of Mineworkers with 54 per cent of the votes cast, a clear eight points ahead of right-wing candidate, John Walsh.
As the battle lines were drawn in the health service, our supporters threw themselves squarely behind the health workers. John Macreadie pointed out:
At the recent general council meetings [of the TUC], just five minutes was spent discussing the health dispute. I warned that without a co-ordinated lead, individual groups of workers taking solidarity action could be singled out for victimisation. Now civil servants have also been threatened. If any workers are picked on for striking for the NHS, the trade unions must organise the fullest action to defend them. (27)
In answer to the foot-dragging of the national leaders, we devoted two pages to outline the case for a one-day strike. Rodney Bickerstaffe, leader of the National Union of Public Employers (NUPE) had been approached on a demonstration to sign a petition organised by BLOC calling for a one-day general strike. His answer was “never”! His deputy, Tom Sawyer, who with Kinnock had been as much responsible as anyone for the 1987 general election debacle, also pitched in:
In the NHS unions we have got the power of patient care, the power of love and the power of compassion. This power is bigger than the power of force. The people selling papers on the demo calling for a one-day general strike are wrong.
There are many ways to win. The power of restraint is better than the power of force. With the power of restraint we will win… A one-day general strike would lose support. It is a battle between the forces of good – the health workers and the public – and the forces of evil – Moore (the then Health Secretary), Currie and Thatcher. (28)
Militant responded that it would take more than “love” to shift Thatcher, her government and their implacable hostility to the nurses and the health service.
There was overwhelming support for the nurses, as shown by the strikes of Merseyside Vauxhall workers and Frickley miners who came out in solidarity action. Yet, the Thatcher government was prepared to ride out any movement unless the full power of the labour movement was mobilised.
Even the Daily Telegraph, which kneeled at the shrine of Thatcher, pointed out that 80 per cent of the population supported the nurses, and, more significantly, 66 per cent of Tories polled supported them. In its stand against Thatcher Liverpool city council reaped huge political dividends for Labour in the 1987 general election: 57 per cent supported Labour.
At the end of the miners’ strike Labour’s support had risen by more than ten per cent compared to the previous general election in 1983. Kinnock had dissipated this support with witch-hunts and his move towards the right.
For the tops of the trade union movement limited action and demonstrations were merely a means of workers letting off steam. However, for workers in Britain a one-day general strike would be seen entirely differently. It would fuse working people together and trigger a political earthquake.
Demands, slogans for struggle, must take into account the real level of the workers’ movement, including that of the leadership.
Recognising the changes which had taken place in the upper echelons of the trade unions, Militant declared:
only when the movement reaches fever-pitch will the TUC general council ratify a 24-hour general strike. The workers movement, not just in Britain but internationally, must develop from below before the trade union and labour leaders give support. Even then it will usually be lukewarm, with the purpose of derailing the movement at the first opportunity. (29)
Many workers asked Militant supporters whether a 24-hour general strike would be sufficient to force the government to retreat. After all in Italy, Spain and France 24-hour general strikes were quite common. But in Britain the situation was different. If properly prepared it would completely undermine the Tory government. “It could be an occasion not just for parades, but for mass meetings to reach to every corner of British society.” (30)
Once having felt their power, the working class would be eager to show it again. A number of one-day general strikes could unfold. This would mobilise and rouse new layers of the working class, particularly those outside the trade unions who had not been affected by previous action. However:
the Marxists would oppose general strikes on the pattern of Italy over the past 15 years. There the one-day general strike has been used as a safety valve to dissipate the anger and opposition of the working class to the various capitalist coalitions…
At a certain stage, even an all-out general strike will be posed in Britain. However we are not at that stage. A general strike is an ‘either/or’ situation. Two forces, two states, are established which vie for supremacy, as the 1926 general strike indicated. (31)
The call for decisive action was vindicated in the massive TUC health march through London on 5 March, which was a “marvellous confirmation of the undiminished strength of organised labour”. (32)
Even the general secretary of TUC, Norman Willis, said that the march of 100,000 to Hyde Park was: “one of the biggest marches in the history of this country”.
A call for a one-day general strike on 14 March, Budget Day, was taken up by the demonstrators.
However, the great enthusiasm on the march was dissipated at what was probably the most uninspiring rally ever staged at the end of a mass demonstration of British workers. There were just four speakers: Norman Willis, pensioners’ leader Jack Jones, “Agony Aunt” Clare Rayner, and Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone. Willis was the only union speaker – actually a singer, as he did a Karaoke! – and incredibly there were no speakers from the health workers’ unions.
However, following this massive display of working-class power there was determination to support the action planned for the eve of the Budget. Miners, dockers, bus crews, shipyard and aircraft workers joined thousands of health workers on that day. In London in relentless drizzle, 3,000 health workers and other workers marched from the South Bank to a rally in Friends’ Meeting House. The meeting prior to the demo was everything the rally and march on the 5th was not, with chants, cheering and the singing of “We’re going to strike for the NHS”.
Militant supporters played a key role, particularly in areas like Sheffield in organising a movement which resulted in 5,000 marching in a lively and enthusiastic demonstration to defend the health service. The movement of health workers in the months of January, February and March 1988 – if built on – could have stopped the Thatcher government in its tracks.
However the contrast between the attitude of ordinary health workers and the trade union leaders was evident at each stage. The fact that Thatcher as well as Major were given the opportunity to systematically dismantle the health service is in no small measure down to the inaction of the national trade union leaders.
At the same time another bitter conflict with all the same ingredients as in the health dispute, broke out between seafarers and shipping line P&O. This company attempted to sack all its Dover ferry workers because of their refusal to accept a cut in manning levels which, apart from anything else, were a threat to passenger safety. The sacking of the 2,300 seafarers at Dover was an attack on all seafarers and a mood for national action developed.
Early indications showed that there was likely to be a decisive two to one majority for action. But then the ferry owners scurried to the court and the judges obliged by declaring that the dispute only affected P&O Dover workers. Yet it was quite clear that if P&O got away with significant reductions in the workforce others would follow. Therefore, all seafarers were keen to come to the assistance of the Dover workers. But once again the union leaders trembled before the Tory judges. A ballot for national action was called off midway through the procedure which angered the mass of seafarers, particularly the P&O workers, who were left isolated.
Militant supporters made an impressive intervention in the strike, with Tony Mulhearn speaking in Dover to a packed meeting of P&O workers. Militant supporters clashed even with those “on the left” of the NUS executive. The latter had decided that the best strategy was to restrict the Dover dispute to a local level. Some of them argued that if other ferry workers, such as Sealink workers, came out on strike, “this strike would be lost”. However, support for our ideas on how to conduct the strike grew with the strike itself. All initiatives in effect came from below with the rank-and-file seafarers raising the cash, organising support groups and mounting a campaign for national industrial action.
What added to the bitterness of the seafarers was that their employers P&O had given a £100,000 hand-out to the Tories. Pressure from below had compelled the NUS leadership to sanction national action, which then had resulted in sequestration of union assets. Following sequestration the union leaders backed away.
In February they wound down the national strike, which was gaining momentum in solidarity with the Isle of Man Steam Packet workers. Decisive leadership then would have struck a blow for all NUS members. After weeks of fighting alone, a minority of seafarers began to loose heart. Small breaches in the strike were then utilised by P&O and some sailings were restarted. McCluskie, leader of the NUS and so effective in expelling Liverpool Militants from the Labour Party, was totally incapable of giving a decisive lead to seafarers at a critical hour. The consequence was that the P&O workers in Dover were isolated and ultimately defeated.
Out of this dispute were won some key workers to Militant who played an important role both in the industry and the wider struggles of the labour movement in Dover and other areas.