Into Top Gear

Chapter Thirty-Six


MILITANT’S VIEW of the future was expressed in the first issue of 1990. The main headline: “Revolution in Eastern Europe”, and next to the masthead: “1990 – The year we’ll beat the poll tax”. (1)

The previous year had witnessed the gathering storm on this issue. At the beginning of 1989 the words of Glasgow councillor Chic Stevenson, Vice-Chair of the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation, became the watchword for the struggle in Scotland in the next year.

I’m having nothing to do with Thatcher’s poll tax. I am voting against Glasgow district council setting its part of the tax at £92 per person, along with five other councillors… A mass non-payment campaign will still have to be organised. It has the support of local Labour Parties and the mass of people in the housing schemes. With that support, Labour councils could make the poll tax inoperable if they called on people to refuse to pay. It is not the job of Labour councils to do the Tories’ dirty work. I was elected to fight Thatcher, not to bow the knee to her poll tax. (2)

Backing words with action plans proceeded for the March mass demonstration in Glasgow against the poll tax. The demonstration had to be built for without the involvement of the official labour and trade union leadership, indeed in the face of their open and bitter attempts to scupper it. But they had discounted the depth of feeling throughout Britain on this issue. Workers outside of Scotland were determined that the maximum assistance would be given to Scottish workers in this crucial battle.

Red Train – Poll Tax Express

In London they raised the finances for a “Red Train” to speed to the “front-line”. We described the atmosphere:

“The Anti-Poll Tax Express”, said Euston Station’s huge illuminated train information board… All 600 seats are taken – the train is packed. Many are school students, a good number of black youth; three women from an estate in Deptford who had decided to go just the night before; trade unionists and Young Socialists… singing and chanting lasts the whole journey: no chance of any sleep!… I can hear bagpipes. What’s the time? 4.20 am – we’re there! The piper passes the window flanked by two comrades with red flags. It’s our early morning call!… The Scottish comrades welcome us – we’re having a rally right here in the station. (3)

There was a phenomenal turn out from Merseyside as 1,000 travelled from the area to this demonstration.

20,000 took to the streets of Glasgow against Thatcher’s iniquitous tax. The determination to defeat the poll tax was shown by a Welsh worker who gave up two tickets for the Wales v England rugby match: “The match is only for 80 minutes but the poll tax could last the rest of my life.”4 Weather-wise, it was a terrible day in Glasgow, with the rain lashing down from early morning till well after the demonstration finished. But with banners waving the spirit was greater than on a blisteringly hot sunny day. Rallying in Alexandra Park, Tommy Sheridan, chair of the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation, told thousands:

A lot of people said we couldn’t deliver this demonstration…we’ve proved them a thousand times wrong. We have caused a tremor which will turn into an earthquake of mass non-payment… But it will be not enough to go to demos. We need you to go back to your housing schemes and unions and get active. If every trade unionist puts pressure on their leaders, then Maggie Thatcher will not be able to collect any poll tax because the unions will stop it being implemented… We are building a new Red Clydeside in Scotland that will not pay the poll tax.

Ron Brown, Labour MP for Edinburgh Leith, declared:

We cannot afford to wait for three years for the next Labour government, because we need a mass campaign against the poll tax to make sure we get that Labour government.

Hannah Sell, who was still the youth representative on Labour’s NEC, declared:

I’ll make sure the NEC hear about it. They want a million new party members. We must ensure that they are a million working-class people prepared to fight against the poll tax. (5)

Terry Fields, brought solidarity on behalf of the workers of Liverpool. His courageous stand on the poll tax, including his preparedness to go to prison, was to earn him the abiding hatred of the right wing of the labour movement and a deep regard and affection by ordinary workers.

To register or not

In the period running up to 1 April, the issue of whether people should register or not was a hotly debated issue both within the ranks of Militant and in the anti-poll tax movement. Registration was due to take place for the poll tax in England and Wales in May, but had been a big issue in Scotland in the whole preceding period. There were those like Tommy Sheriden who consistently refused to register and there were many others who joined him. However, we considered that

non-registration is not an effective way of fighting the poll tax. Whether people register or not, they will still be put on the registers. Yet anyone deliberately refusing to register will be liable to a £50 fine. We therefore do not advocate a policy of non-registration. But that does not mean that we just sit back while registration takes place. The issuing of the forms should be the signal to step up the campaign against the poll tax and lay the basis for a mass movement of non-payment – the only policy which can effectively defeat it. (6)

Militant sought to emulate what was done in Scotland. We advocated that in the rest of Britain a campaign should be adopted involving sending back the forms demanding more information before filling them in, lobbies, demonstrations and mass gathering-in of forms and collectively sending them back.

There was considerable feeling against Labour councillors who were complying with the poll tax and energetically pursuing the issue of registration. In the Labour-controlled Central Region of Scotland the bank accounts of those not registering were frozen and the £50 fines deducted. We recognised that resistance would continue but that to go the whole way on non-registration would be ineffective and would rebound on the movement. At the same time the anti-poll tax unions were pledged to defend all of those who refused to register and to fight the fines or any other victimisation imposed by councils.

On the issue of the alternatives to the poll tax we demanded the restoration of government grants stolen from local councils by the Tories. In 1989 this had accumulated to over £29 billion. With this cash restored it would then be possible to improve services and even lower rates. The alternative of the Labour leaders, which very few could understand, of a local income tax, which would raise about 20 per cent of the councils’ revenue, and a property tax alongside of it, was completely inoperable and was soon dropped.

24 June Glasgow demo

The introduction of the tax in Scotland widened the circle of protest. The March and April Scottish demonstrations were followed by a confident, lively, and a youthful, demonstration on 24 June in Glasgow. Hillhead MP George Galloway called it a “great river of a demonstration”.

Thousands of people gathered, a sea of red and gold and red and white banners, flags and placards. Neighbours at their windows waved happily at the march, banners hanging from the windows. Galloway declared: “This is indeed part of the army of one million people who have refused to pay.” He was followed by Dick Douglas, one of the few MPs still supporting mass non-payment who declared: “This is a remarkable grass roots rally. It’s a disgrace that the leaders of the labour movement aren’t here.” (7)

On the march in July

That second front was opened in July in the mass TUC demonstration in Manchester and in Walthamstow, the first London demonstration against the poll tax took place. In Manchester 30,000 rank-and-file trade unionists from every part of Britain showed their hostility to the poll tax. It had been officially called by the TUC but no real preparation had been undertaken. The most that any national union did was to send out one leaflet to shop stewards. It was a sea of banners and demonstrators with Militant supporters finding a great response in the demonstration.

The only discordant note struck on this day was from a carefully selected “shop steward” from Scotland who opened the rally with an attack on the poll tax but then went down like a lead balloon when she declared that “non-payment was not an option”. There was uproar which did not abate when Norman Willis, general secretary of the TUC spoke. He restricted himself to appeals to family values and decent standards. David Blunkett, MP, and others attacked non-payment or avoided any mention of how to fight the tax. When the Manchester Red Choir came on to close the rally they announced that they had been forbidden to sing one of their songs because a line in it called for non-payment. The audience clamoured for them to sing it but the TUC effectively censored them by pulling the plugs on the PA.

However, by this time the crowd had dwindled to about 200 as a significant section of the march streamed towards a special Militant meeting that was packed out to hear Tommy Sheridan and others who called for the campaign in Scotland to be spread to the rest of Britain. The temper of the opposition to the poll tax was shown by a magnificent turn-out on the demonstration by Alum Rock (in Birmingham) Anti-Poll Tax Union, made up predominantly of Asian workers who chanted, “no poll tax, no poll tax”. (8)

The Walthamstow demonstration, although only 200 strong, was typical of the hundreds of such events organised and was significent in attracting workers and youth who “normally” would never participate on a demonstration. There was even a contingent of Leyton Orient football fans. A man actually came up to the anti-poll tax stall and asked: “Are you prepared to break the law?” Before anyone could reply he added, “My grandfather went to prison rather than comply with Tory laws.” He was the grandson of one of the Poplar councillors whose slogan: “Better to break the law, than break the poor” was carried on the placards of the march. (9)

At the begining of the resistance in England and Wales there was a certain scepticism as to whether non-payment could be successful. However, in this battle the struggle in Scotland and its growing success was a priceless weapon. Anti-poll tax activists were able to point to the million or more who were refusing to pay the tax. Not a whisper of this campaign appeared in the press outside of Scotland. But by a thousand different channels the information seeped through, particularly through the leaflets and information supplied by the anti-poll tax unions. This played a crucial role in building up and increasing the confidence of workers in the rest of Britain to resist the introduction of the tax.

Dave Nellist supports non-payment

Lone voices in Parliament, like those of Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, sought to warn the government of what was coming. Together with a number of other MPs just before the Commons rose in July Dave Nellist declared,

I give a clear warning to the Secretary of State that millions of people in England and Wales will not be able to pay the poll tax and that millions more will be unwilling to… Just under two years ago the Tory Reform Group described the poll tax as Ôfair only in the sense that the Black Death was fair, striking at young and old, rich and poor, employed and unemployed alike.’… That description was wrong in one basic respect. At least the rich catch the plague – the rich will not catch the poll tax.

As to Scotland he declared that “Scotland on Sunday had estimated that 800,000 Scots are not paying out of 3.9 million who should.” (10)

Even in the summer months of July, August and September the campaign against the poll tax was relentless. The third Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation conference took place in August on a high note as mass resistance to the implementation of the tax was detailed. Even in far-flung Orkney the number of non-payers was estimated at 43 per cent and in the Shetlands 48 per cent. A highlight of the conference was a speech by Janette McGinn, widow of legendary Scottish songwriter Matt McGinn, who refused to register and had been fined £50. On 4 July some of her possessions were to be poinded (valued) as a first step to a warrant sale. Within hours of contacting the Federation thousands of people were preparing to descend on her home. In the face of this mass hostility the council postponed the poinding. Janette McGinn declared: “the Federation has shown in action what the words Ôunity is strength’ really mean”. (11)

At this conference the Strathclyde Federation newspaper Pay No Poll Tax News was launched.

A no less intense conflict was taking place in the East of Scotland where the first anti-poll tax unions had been set up. The Lothian regional council met on 29 August. The usual council business was disrupted by the eruption of fury against Labour councillors who were implementing the poll tax. Councillors sheltered under a bombardment of poll tax payment books thrown from every available part of the public gallery by the angry protesters. The clear message was “return to sender”. But the Labour council leader, John Mulvey, refused to issue a clear statement that the council would not prosecute non-payers, who now totalled 160,000 in the Lothians.

The Fed

Capitalising on the success of Scotland it was decided, with Militant supporters giving the lead, to prepare for the coming battle by launching the all-British campaign. A call was therefore made for a conference in the Manchester Free Trade Hall on 25 November. In preparation for this Tommy Sheridan declared: “We believe that we will create such a political crisis for Mrs Thatcher’s government that the poll tax will be repealed.” (12)

Fifteen Labour MPs backed the new campaign and representatives of 20 regional anti-poll tax federations met to set up the steering committee of the all-British campaign. Tommy Sheridan was elected as Chair.

One of the most vital tasks of the Federation was to counter the misinformation campaign of the government about how many were refusing to pay.

The poll tax struggle undoubtedly redounded to the electoral benefit of Labour. Its position in the polls soared as the battle against the poll tax, to which Labour contributed little or nothing, systemically undermined support for the government. The Labour leaders repaid those who were responsible for this, the anti-poll tax leaders, with persecution.

Labour expels Sheridan

After a protracted struggle Tommy Sheridan was eventually expelled from the Labour Party in September. 250 supporters gathered at a lobby of the meeting of the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) which had been convened by the national executive committee of the Labour Party to consider his expulsion. It was more like a Star Chamber. The only connection with socialism on the day of the hearing was the singing of the Red Flag and the Internationale by Militant supporters, anti-poll tax activists and others outside the enquiry. Tommy Sheridan declared defiantly to the crowd, from a second-floor window, that no matter what happened on that day a mass non-payment campaign would continue throughout the length and breath of Scotland.

Tommy Sheridan was expelled for being a member of Militant at the very same time that Labour’s NEC were re-admitting members of the Social Democratic Party.

Fed established

On 25 November at Manchester Free Trade Hall Tommy greeted 2,000 delegates, from every region of Britain, as “an army on the march”.13 This conference established the powerful All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. This body was to play a decisive role in the history of the working-class movement and indeed in British history as events in 1990 were to demonstrate. The officers elected were: Tommy Sheridan as the chair, Maureen Reynolds (from Manchester) as Treasurer, and Steve Nally (from Lambeth) as Secretary, (with Kevin Miles from Wallsend becoming “communications officer” the following year).

Much discussion had taken place in our ranks on what proposals it would put forward at the conference on the structure of the Federation and the composition of the national committee. Such was the decisive influence of Militant in the anti-poll tax unions that it would have been entirely possible for us to gain a “clean sweep”, and take all positions on the national committee. We decided against this, in order to give the movement as broad a base as possible, to facilitate the drawing in of all genuine forces who were prepared to struggle in action against the tax. Therefore in some areas it was agreed that we would not oppose these non-Militants. This was the case in Yorkshire, London and in the South West. Within months of its formation this body was to be catapulted to national prominence as the resistance to Thatcher’s tax grew to hurricane proportions.

ID cards and Hillsborough

But it was not the only policy of Thatcher which aroused ferocious opposition at this time. She had proposed at the beginning of the year a system of identity cards for football supporters, with the aim allegedly of stamping out football hooliganism. Simon Donovan, a young supporter, suggested we organise a campaign on the issue.

The campaign was very successful, involving fans and players alike. Mike Suter – a supporter of ours – was one of the leaders of the campaign, appearing on BBC Breakfast Time to argue our case. Leading professional footballers, such as Paul Davis of Arsenal, publicly backed the campaign. This culminated in a rally of 300 fans at Westminster’s Central Hall in May, chaired by Dave Webb and addressed by Terry Fields. The Hillsborough tragedy had taken place only a few weeks before. This gave added weight to the campaign because, as Terry Fields commented:

I had two sons and a nephew at Hillsborough. I shudder to think what would have happened if my sons went having to produce ID cards. We need a workers’ inquiry into Hillsborough. People are saying: “We won’t get anything out of this police inquiry. What has happened since the Herald of Free Enterprise or the Kings Cross fire?”

Criticising conditions at football grounds, he commented: “Sanitation is non-existent, refreshment is unobtainable – then you look up and see directors in their box sipping champagne.” (14)

50,000 signatures on petitions were delivered by Terry Fields and others from Liverpool to Downing Street protesting against The Sun’s vile reporting of the Hillsborough disaster. The gutter reporting of The Sun led to a boycott in Liverpool, and to this day its sales have still not recovered. The city of Liverpool was traumatised by the dreadful Hillsborough disaster. Commenting on the numbers who perished, Militant said:

They died because of a system that puts greed before safety. The working class of Liverpool and Britain demand: “Never again”. There must be no cover up. Those responsible must be made to take the blame. Tory minsters try to deflect criticism by hypocritically joining the mourning. Disgustingly, an anonymous police officer tried to blame the fans… Football is a profitable business. 

Millions are being taken out by the big clubs and pools companies. Now that money must be put back in to bring every ground up to a safe standard. Football clubs should be taken over by local authorities and run for the benefit of the local community. The supporters, the players and the local working-class movement should be in charge. They would ensure safety and comfort and the fullest use of sporting facilities. (15)

One of our best selling pamphlets – Reclaim the Game – written by John Reid was produced at this time. It has gone into three editions and has won support from fans home and abroad.


At the same time a television programme First Tuesday, confirmed what everyone had suspected that the Secret Service, in the form of MI5, had systemically spied on Militant. This programme revealed that a freelance spy was used to bug our Liverpool offices. Some of the dirty methods of military dictatorships were used by Thatcher and her government against those who dared to oppose them, particularly during the Liverpool battle.

Bugging, which is officially banned in many countries, was still taking place in “democratic Britain”. It was reported that a certain Coghlan was hired by MI5 to carry out this work. He claimed that MI5 had tried but failed, to infiltrate agents into our meetings, so they had turned to him. At night he installed a spike mike in the wall and window frames of Liverpool Militant’s offices. This transmitted discussions in the office to an MI5 agent parked 300 yards away. According to Coghlan, MI5 were “worried at Militant’s growth and influence over the city council.” (16)

Showing their bile against Militant, the Liverpool Echo, in an outragous editorial supported, the MI5 bugging of Militant:

If the avowed aims of an organisation are to overthrow the democracy in which it operates, then that democracy has the right to keep it under surveillance. Militant MP Terry Fields is to ask the government if the bugging is still going on. The Echo could add another question: if not, why not? (17)

We replied to the Echo:

Militant defends the democratic freedom to meet, speak and vote – freedoms threatened by Thatcher. It has nothing to hide. If the government wanted to know what we were saying, they should buy Militant or listen to our socialist policies at open democratic meetings. (18)

It was noticeable that we were not given the opportunity, on the programme or in the press which featured these revelations, to rebut allegations made against us. There were further revelations concerning spying on Militant later. Brian Crozier, right-wing activist and former speech writer for Thatcher, produced a book, in 1994, called Free Agent. In this book he admits to “infiltrating” a mole into our ranks in 1979. He concluded we were very effective!

Ambulance strike

In October the ambulance workers came out on strike. The Tories had once more conducted a desperate lying campaign in an attempt to discredit these workers. They even tried to frame workers with lies about “unanswered calls”. But this failed once more as the workers remained united and won massive public support. The usual response to ambulance workers collecting on the streets was “you are fighting for all of us”. Ninety per cent of the public were backing the ambulance workers’ pay claim, with massive collections on the streets; well over £100,000 was collected in Liverpool alone. But such was the frustration of ambulance workers that some, such as in Glasgow, decided to strike even without “emergency cover”.

The feeling also grew for all-out strike action in other areas. Under pressure the general council of the TUC decided to call a national demonstration in support of ambulance workers on Saturday 13 January. Their perception of a demonstration was to merely “let off steam”. We noted how the 1988 dispute had been “left directionless and fizzled out; history must not repeat itself”. (19)

What incensed ambulance workers and others was that while Tory MPs had awarded themselves a ten per cent increase in salary they were standing firm against ambulance workers who demanded a 6.5 per cent increase. Moreover, the government were using troops in a deliberate provocation against the unions.

This dispute dragged on for six months, one of the longest since 1945. But victory was there for the taking, if effective action had been organised.

The ambulance workers’ union convened just one national stewards’ conference, and that in the last weeks of the dispute. This conference did have an immediate impact, resulting in the army being drafted as crews were suspended. The critical issue, as in other previous major disputes since Thatcher had come to power, was the question of serious solidarity action. The TUC were never requested to organise solidarity action, other than the 15-minute protest on 30 January, 1990. However, that showed the potential. 20,000 workers marched through the centre of Liverpool on that day. 30,000 took to the streets in Glasgow; millions of workers were with the ambulance workers on that day. In its aftermath Tommy McLaughlin, Merseyside Ambulance shop steward declared: “Let’s have a nationwide stoppage for a day, not just the official 15 minutes.” (20) Unfortunately the unions’ leaders were once more running scared.

The deal agreed in March 1990 gave 17.6 per cent over two years but in cash terms was only worth about 13 per cent because of the way it had been phased in. Roger Poole, the chief union negotiator, claimed that the union had driven a coach and horses through the government’s pay policy. However, the majority of ambulance workers did not believe it was a good deal. They had a greater awareness of the government’s difficulties, with the poll tax and other pressing issues, and believed that effective action would have shattered the government. Eighty-one per cent voted for the deal but only because they saw no way forward after six months of struggle. Nevertheless this battle served to steel and harden a section of the working class who had not been involved in action of this character in the past.