Poll Tax demo: 31 March 1990

Chapter Thirty-Eight


WITH 1990 only weeks old, Militant carried a front-page headline “Smash the poll tax” with the call of the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation for, “a mass demo on 31 March” (1) 

Thirty-five million people were to receive their poll tax bills in England and Wales on 1 April. The campaign was given a big boost by the Tory Economist magazine which stated: “Imagine a country where more than one in ten of the adult population is refusing to pay a tax. Welcome to Scotland 1990.” 

In fact this organ of big business grossly underestimated the true level of non-payment in Scotland which was as high as one in three in Glasgow alone. The Economist went on: “Today’s drama in Glasgow may be repeated tomorrow in Liverpool. How long before the Tories start to pine nostalgically for the much derided rates?” (2)

Threatened by a mass revolt Tory “unity” began to crack as a backbench revolt seemed imminent. While the Tory poll tax minister Chris Patten had declared that bills would on average be no more than £278 per person, in many areas the bills were £400 or more, and in the London Borough of Haringey the average bill was £579! Pointing to Scotland Tommy Sheridan declared:

In Scotland the size of the rebellion has exceeded all our expectations. Strathclyde Region has just sent out 250,000 summary warrants against people who haven’t paid. 107,000 of these are in Glasgow alone. How can a handful of sheriff officers – the Scottish bailiffs – possibly deal with this number of cases?

He went on:

We wrote to the TUC suggesting they call an anti-poll tax demonstration on 1 April – but they refused. So we are appealing to trade unionists from every factory and workplace to join the demonstration. (3)

Shires revolt

In Tory Berkshire also, in the town of Maidenhead, on a freezing cold Saturday night in January, 2,000 people attended a meeting on the poll tax. 

The local Tory MP was denounced as the “Ceausescu of Maidenhead”. The local Labour representative did not distinguish himself either as he called for people at the meeting to pay the poll tax and was roundly jeered. The majority of the meeting were in favour of a mass campaign of non-payment and the secretary of the Reading Anti-Poll Tax Federation was cheered when he called for a campaign along the lines of Scotland. 

These were just two of the seismic tremors of the poll tax earthquake that would shake the government to its foundations and topple Thatcher before the year was out. 

Even the Daily Telegraph, staunchly pro-Thatcher, was compelled to write in February: “To say that preparations for the poll tax are in a shambolic state would be unfair to shambles and the honest slaughtermen who work in them.” (4)

Debbie Clark and John Ewers wrote in Militant on 2 March:

A huge crowd of 1,000 had gathered outside under the floodlights. A massive police and security operation costing £10,000 allowed only ticket holders to get inside. It was like a scene from the Romanian Revolution – except this was taking place in the Gloucestershire town of Stroud. 

And what had sparked this mass protest? Stroud council was meeting to set its poll tax, eventually agreed at £380 for each adult. 500 tickets for the ‘hottest show in town’ had been snapped up. Even badly forged tickets were on sale.

The meeting had to be held in the town’s leisure centre because the council chambers could only hold 60 members. 

Steve Nally, secretary of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, congratulated the crowd: “This lobby is the biggest yet in Britain. What is happening in Stroud in an indication of the mood at grassroots level.” (5) 

A big roar went up. Inside the chamber a huge roar errupted when the council voted by 40 to eight to campaign against the poll tax to get it scrapped as soon as possible and to organise a lobby of Parliament. The council leader, an independent, had declared that she wanted to take “the whole town with me” to lobby Parliament.

This meeting and mass pressure on the council arose from the work of the anti-poll tax federation in the town. Moreover, the anger and hatred towards the poll tax was as evident in Windsor, and other Tory heartlands in the area. This was followed by a massive demonstration of 15,500 in Plymouth. It had been initiated by a housewife, Hilda Biles, who told Militant: “I’ve never done anything like this before but somebody’s got to do it.” (6)

Demonstrations and meetings of thousands were beginning to sweep England and Wales as councils began to meet to set their poll tax rates. The biggest were in the South, with ex-Tory voters declaring that they had been “betrayed”. In West Oxfordshire Tory district councillors resigned in protest at their own party’s tax and rent increases. Carlisle council refused to set a poll tax rate.

Walton – first moves

Meanwhile, in Walton in Liverpool a drama was being played out which was to have important consequences for the labour movement in Liverpool and was to lead to a decisive event in the history of Militant. 

The Labour right’s hitman, Peter Kilfoyle, full-time party ‘disorganiser’ and hatchetman, had been selected as Labour Party candidate for Liverpool Walton at the next general election. The MP for the area, Eric Heffer, was seriously ill and had therefore announced his retirement.

The main opponent of Kilfoyle was Lesley Mahmoud, who received majority support, 92 delegates out of 140 present at the selection conference. But Kilfoyle received 19.9 per cent of the union votes to Mahmoud’s 17.4 per cent. 

Many of the branches who voted for Kilfoyle had never met and had ballot papers completed by full-time officials or branch secretaries. Moreover, GMB branch 48 and T&G branch 6/523, both of which had nominated Lesley Mahmoud, found in the shortlisting meetings that the delegates were being ruled out from the ballot. The Ford branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union had four per cent of the electoral college vote. 

But at a meeting where the left had a clear majority delegates were told that the branch committee had already posted the ballot paper, with the branch votes cast for the right-wing union official, Mike Carr, and with second preference for Kilfoyle.

Eric Heffer, from his hospital bed, demanded a National Executive Committee ban to stop Kilfoyle from standing. He pointed out that as a former regional official in the same region, Kilfoyle had an unfair advantage, with access to membership records of party members and affiliated organisations. 

There were also many complaints about the way the supporters of Kilfoyle had been selected. Desperate to capture the seat, Kilfoyle sought to ingratiate himself with the left, by attempting to dress himself in Militant colours. In his election address he declared:

This constituency proclaimed (over 35 years ago) the need to take over the commanding heights of the economy and called for the nationalisation, at that time, of over 500 monopolies. In my youth I was always impressed by the material produced by Walton and circulated throughout the party. (7)

His selection outraged the majority of activists within the Labour Party and unions on Merseyside, not all of them on the left. Thus the ground was laid for a bruising battle between right and left in Walton in the near future.

Poll tax rebellion rumbles on

More immediately, the month of March witnessed a dramatic escalation in the struggle against the poll tax. In one month, Stroud was joined by Maidenhead, Bath, Taunton, Oxfordshire and Brighton, areas across the South, not previously touched, for decades, by demonstrations or protests. 

One after another the populations in these towns rose to denounce the poll tax. Alongside of them were thousands who beseiged town halls in London: in Hackney, 2,000 gathered outside the town hall. Hundreds lobbied Southwark council. 2,000 gathered outside Lambeth Town Hall, hundreds outside Waltham Forest and Haringey councils. Practically every area of the South was affected in one way or another by poll tax demonstrations and protests in February and March.

In some areas, the mood turned ugly when protestors were excluded from town halls. In some places, the police turned on protesters. In Southampton the police started attacking 400 demonstrators outside the town hall, and dragged young men and women downstairs by the hair and arms. Twenty-seven people were arrested in Southampton.

In Lambeth, BBC Newsnight showed people being arrested. One person was arrested by two plain-clothed policemen, one of whom had a copy of Militant in his back pocket. “What was his role on the lobby? Was he carrying Militant so demonstrators would not suspect him in their midst?” (8) These were questions asked by TV commentators and protesters alike.

Faced with these convulsions, the Tories’ and their newspapers’ only reply was to drag up the hoary old myth of “outside troublemakers”. A ferocious barrage of slander and lies once more rained down on us in the first two weeks of March. Every Tory minister and every gutter newspaper, seized on Militant as the “enemy within”. Murdoch’s Times and Sun really plumbed the depths. The Sun compared us to football hooligans: “The Militant tendency is Labour’s own Inter-City Firm.” (9)

To his eternal shame, Neil Kinnock repeated some of the wilder Tory claims. Tony Benn concluded: “The Labour Party is more frightened of the anti-poll tax campaign than of the poll tax itself.” (10) 

The Tory press conjured up the ludicrous spectacle of an itinerant band of professional protestors moving around Britain: in one night they were present in Bristol, Norwich, Maidenhead, Weston-Super-Mare, Exeter, Gillingham and Birmingham, to whip up poll tax protests. In Bath, the council meeting which set the poll tax was delayed for three hours by angry protesters. According to local Tory dignitaries, including the local MP, poll tax minister Chris Patten, they were all “rent-a-crowd outsiders, bussed in from Militant places like Stroud!” (11)

How to explain then, that in Bridgewater, 450 had met and agreed to set up an anti-poll tax union. The same in Glastonbury, where 350 assembled, with 200 people at Gatcombe Park (an abode of the royals). In fact the capitalist press was prepared to slander and throw mud at any organisation or individual who was prepared to organise resistance to Tory measures.

Attacks on Arthur Scargill

At the same time as we were once more being pilloried, the gutter press also turned its fire on Arthur Scargill. He was attacked by the Sun, Mirror and the rest of Fleet Street. Following the defeat of the miners they still set out to rubbish the idea of struggle and were determined to rub the miners’ noses in it. 

They insinuated that Scargill and other NUM leaders used hardship money for themselves when the miners went hungry during the strike. The self-proclaimed “socialist”, multi-millionaire Maxwell, had talked in one interview about the Mirror’s role in defeating the NUM strike. The NUM was “accused of getting money from Russia”. But Russian miners willingly gave up a days pay to show their solidarity. The most nauseating aspect of this attack was that former lefts jumped on the bandwagon, attacking Scargill as a means of attacking the idea of militant class struggle.

Thus Scottish NUM president George Bolton (a member of the Communist Party) said that he would oppose the union paying for any legal action, claiming that financial transactions under question were nothing to do with the union. we asked: “How can measures to protect the union’s assets from Tory sequestrators be of no concern to the union?” (12)

Press fail to stop poll tax revolt

In March and afterwards, the cry of “violence from the left” was to become a constant and overworked theme. It had been seen before in the Liverpool and miners’ struggles. The same tactic had been resorted to in the Wapping and Warrington disputes. 

The ruling class have enormous means in their hands to mould “pubic opinion”. A campaign of slander can have an effect in temporarily disorientating workers. However, when great social issues are at stake, their effect is at best peripheral and very temporary, sometimes as ineffective as a snowdrop on a hot stove.

The Tory strongholds of the South were rising up against their “own” government. And it was not just in the South. The Morecambe Conservative Club threatened to disaffiliate from the Tory Party in protest against the poll tax.

A quarter of backbenchers had indicated that they wanted “her” to step down before the next general election. One of her closest confidantes, Ian Gow, who pioneered Thatcher’s rise to the party leadership warned her: “There is a clear need to do something.” Tory MP, Tony Marlow told a shell-shocked Tory 1922 Committee:

There is a risk that we will be seen to have declared war on the people and, with the levels of the community charge now being fixed, we risk being confronted by a massive and unchallengeable campaign of civil disobedience.13

Baker attacks Militant

Tory Party Chairman, Kenneth Baker, attempting to cover up the cracks, put the boot into Militant for allegedly “orchestrating violence”, using “bully-boy” tactics and manipulating the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. 

The Times echoed him, in an attempt to divert attention from the huge wave of protests that was sweeping from one end of Britain to the other. A desperate, and duly appreciative Thatcher congratulated The Times in Parliament for its “excellent article which blamed the ‘militant left’ for organising ‘violence’ and ‘intimidatory demonstrations’.” (14)

On 9 March, it printed a blatant lie: 

“Mrs Hilda Biles from Plymouth was angry about a front-page interview in this week’s Militant newspaper which she says she never gave. ‘It looks as if they have lifted an interview from one of the local papers in Plymouth’.” (15) 

Mrs Biles had actually given the interview to Militant and she subequently confirmed this. With her agreement, it was recorded and we had possession of the tape. The Times had not phoned us to check out the serious allegations that we had concocted an interview, nor did it publish the correction we had requested. On 10 March, the smears continued with wild allegations that

Trotskyist agitators… closely associated with the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation… may already have planted computer viruses to disrupt the software of two Scottish boroughs. (16)

However, the ineffectiveness of this “black propaganda” was highlighted in the sister paper of The Times, the Sunday Times, with columnist Robert Harris commenting:

I doubt whether the ordinary voter, watching the violence on television, says: ‘Look at those horrible communists, Mabel. We must vote for Mrs Thatcher as the only person who can deliver us from these ruffians.’ The voter is more likely to say: ‘Look at the latest bloody mess that woman has landed us in.’ (17)

Fans against the poll tax

Even at football matches, fans on opposite sides chanted together: “We’re not paying the poll tax.” Credit for this initiative must go to John Viner of the Acton anti-poll tax union, who wrote:

I was going to the Arsenal v Forest match and on the ‘spur’ of the moment decided to take a few hundred national demo leaflets to give out. When Arsenal ran out on to the pitch I hurled them all into the air and watched them rain down on to the fans around me. I started singing ‘We’re not paying the poll tax!’ and several hundred joined in. Try it at your next game! (18)

This example was emulated at Portsmouth, Spurs, Southampton, Newcastle and Watford.

The campaign of vilification had no effect on preparations for the 31 March demonstration. But the press outdid itself with “bullying, intimidatory tactics” in pursuing Federation spokespersons, like Steve Nally. He was hounded and persecuted by the jackals of Fleet Street. His family, neighbours, friends and past acquaintances were all approached for information on his personal life, where his mother used to work, where his father worked, etc. The neighbours rallied around Steve Nally and turned a deaf ear to the approaches of the press. Some articles were complete fabrications, as Steve Nally recounted:

The worst was the Independent on Sunday. They had a photograph with the caption: 

“Steve Nally, Militant supporter who says that it is not the group’s policy to incite violence, at the Hackney protest that turned into a riot.” 

That is an absolute lie. That very morning I gave an Independent reporter my itinerary for the week. I made it quite clear that I wasn’t going to Hackney but speaking at a lobby in Hillingdon that evening and going on to Sky TV. I never went to Hackney. (19)

Kinnock weighs in

However, it was not just the Tories and their hirelings who were putting the knife in. The Labour leadership could not resist joining in. Kinnock condemned the advocates of mass non-payment of the poll tax as “Toytown revolutionaries”, a phrase inspired by the Sun.

In contrast, Tony Benn put himself behind the campaign against the poll tax: “If enough people stand firm against the poll tax we can compel the government to withdraw it.” (20) He demanded that the next Labour government grant an amnesty to all who had refused to pay.

This was roundly condemned by Kinnock and John Cunningham as condoning “law breaking”. The implication was quite clear – Kinnock, the Labour leadership and Labour councils would be urged not only not to support mass non-payment but to pursue non-payers through the courts. Even some ostensibly on the left, like Diane Abbott and Brian Sedgemore, Hackney’s two Labour MPs, were less than resolute. 

While declaring how necessary a united campaign was, at the same time they were not prepared to support thousands who could not afford to pay by not paying the poll tax themselves. The audience at a meeting in Hackney interrupted the two MPs to ask why they were not supporting the campaign. A heckler shouted at Brian Sedgemore: “We elected you and we can unelect you, unless you stand with us who are not paying.” A show of hands was called for and everyone in the room voted that they would not be paying with the exception of the two MPs on the platform. (21)

As the tide of opposition grew, there were many, including the majority of Labour MPs, who began to distance themselves from our programme of mass non-payment.

Wobbles at Westminster

One of these was Harry Barnes, Labour MP for North-East Derbyshire, who at least tried to argue a case against non-payment. In a letter to Labour MPs, which called for support for a mass Labour Party and TUC organised demonstration against the poll tax in London on May Day, he also attacked the policy of mass non-payment:

Anger against the tax has started to take off. But much of it is disorganised and directionless and prey to the mis-leadership of groups such as Militant… They have moved into the vacuum and assumed, often with the worse sort of manipulation, the political leadership of the campaign… 

If Labour were to take a more vigorous stance on the poll tax it could help shift debate away from the debilitating notion that the only effective way to oppose the poll tax is through mass non-payment. 22

I wrote to Harry Barnes and invited him to elaborate his views in our pages. He responded, explaining his differences:

Given that non-payment isn’t the official programme of the labour movement and following a whole series of industrial and political defeats of the working class during the Thatcher years, I can’t see a supposed mass non-payment campaign fulfilling Militant’s dreams… 

Non-payment can, however, be a legitimate part of the campaign, providing those who embark on it are made aware of the draconian measures that can be used against them, plus the limits of the financial back-up that is available to them. 

Those who go down this road deserve whatever moral and political support we can give them. It will be pursued by a good number of people, including myself. But I won’t encourage people to place themselves in personal danger. (23)

He was replied to in the same by Kath Dunn and Rachel McRoy, secretary and chair respectively of the Clay Cross Anti-Poll Tax Union in his constituency. They wrote that Harry had

criticised the lack of fight from the Labour leaders but unfortunately he has no real strategy himself. Harry is suggesting that the campaign should include non-payers and those who will pay and he refers to the All-Britain Anti-poll Tax Federation as a narrow campaign. 

This is the opposite of the truth. The mass non-payment campaign has drawn more people into action than any other struggle against the Tory government. For instance in Clay Cross, part of Harry’s own constituency, our anti-poll tax union has drawn hundreds of people into activity. (24)

On this issue, right-wing Labour MPs, as well as some on the left, shared common ground. The SWP, for instance, had moved from a lukewarm and passive support for the anti-poll tax campaign to opposition to the strategy of “non-payment”. Just prior to the 31 March demonstration, they declared in Socialist Worker:

The government calculates that a passive non-payment campaign can be whittled down eventually to a level it can manage… Activists should recognise a majority of workers are likely to feel they have no choice but to pay. Many will fear the consequences of court proceedings and falling into debt. Some will fear the loss of their jobs if they are fined. (25)

Some capitalist commentators, like Guardian writer Victor Keegan, were to the left of the SWP on this issue:

Judging by experience of Scotland and opinion polls in England and Wales the number refusing to pay will run into millions. Since enforcement on such a scale is impossible, this will not only bring the law into disrepute, but will generate a fresh backlash against the tax by those who are currently paying up.  (26)

Socialist Worker was reinforcing the arguments of Labour’s right-wing. They had disparaged the non-payment campaign in Scotland, downplaying its significance, and consistently underestimated the numbers who were not paying. 

They claimed that: “A similar pattern is likely in England and Wales.” At the 4 March Scottish Unity conference, where all the regions of the anti-poll tax campaign came together, the SWP opposed mass non-payment and argued that without the backing of the trade union leadership the campaign could not succeed!

The attacks on the movement and on Militant were mere pin pricks as the build up to the 31 March demonstration took shape. In the weeks leading up to this event there was much speculation in the ranks of the Federation and also in our national offices as to the expected size of the London demonstration.

Estimates of those attending ranged from 20,000 to 50,000. No one, even those on the ground who were predicting a big turnout, fully anticipated the scale and size of the demonstration which assembled on 31 March.

Anti-poll tax army

The front page of the Militant for the demonstration declared: “Join the anti-poll tax army” and “Don’t pay, drive the Tories out”. (27) In the same issue, sold widely on the demonstration, details were given of how the sheriff officers were being defeated in Scotland. A report also appeared showing how the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) had voted overwhelmingly for a resolution in favour of mass non-payment of the poll tax.

In a by-election in Mid-Staffordshire held just before the demonstration, a Tory majority of 14,654 in 1987, had been turned into a 9,449 Labour majority. One phrase was heard again and again during the campaign: “She’s gone too far!” 

This was the feeling in particular about the poll tax. A TV company asked voters who deserted the Tories, in a special poll, why they did it. All of them except one said that it was the poll tax which was responsible. Pundits found that people were more interested in the poll tax than in the by-election itself. Two huge anti-poll tax federation public meetings were held in Mid-Staffordshire on consecutive evenings, attended by 350 in Lichfield, and 450 in Rugeley.

These were easily the biggest of the election campaign. Many more would have attended but for the Tory scare stories and the police horses gathered outside the meetings implying that anybody who attended was walking into a riot. 

Over 20 newspapers and four TV stations attended the Lichfield anti-poll tax meeting. The Labour Party wrote all its members urging them to stay away. Yet, the opinion poll carried in the Independent on Sunday, which put Labour 28 points ahead was conducted on the two mornings after these anti-poll tax meetings. They obviously had a profound effect. Yet the response by the Labour officialdom to those who had organised them, which had clearly boosted Labour’s support was greater attacks and more repression.

In Liverpool, Labour’s regional policeman, Peter Kilfoyle, and national organiser, Joyce Gould, attended the Labour group meeting to make sure that they didn’t vote the “wrong way” on the poll tax issue. 27 right-wingers voted for a £448 poll tax, with 21 Broad Left councillors opposed.

The anti-poll tax movement in fact had electorally rebounded to the benefit of Labour. Even Tories like John Biffen recognised this: “The poll tax has been a lightning conductor for the discontent and it explains much of the Mid-Staffordshire debacle.”33

This discontent was prepared, in the main, and organised by the anti-poll tax federation, with Militant supporters and members playing the decisive role.

The demo

Their reward was the magnificent sight of 200,000 mass demonstrations in London and 50,000 in Glasgow on the 31 March. The London march, said Tony Benn, was the biggest demonstration since those of the Chartists, 150 years ago. 

Wave after wave of protesters flooded from buses, cars, coaches, and trains into Kennington Park, the starting point. Many people were forced to get out of buses and walk the last mile as the drivers tried to escape from traffic jams. The vast majority of those who attended had never been involved in a demonstration before. The old, the young, disillusioned ex-Tories, even a retired and bemedalled old soldier from Bournemouth, assembled for this mighty demonstration of working-class power.

In the park, speakers invoked the traditions of the past to vindicate what was being proposed today. Phil Maxwell, then leader of Tower Hamlets Labour group, said that they would not prosecute non-payers if a Labour council were elected in May. He reminded the crowd of the Poplar councillors in the 1920s:

They did not say ‘We would like to give this money to the poor but we would be breaking the law and Ramsay MacDonald would turn around and call us Toytown revolutionaries’… Our struggle is greater than any Tory law. We base ourselves on the struggles of the miners and ambulance workers and all the others who have resisted Tory laws. I have already had my poll tax bill from the council. (28)

He then proceeded to rip it up, to great acclaim and scattered it into the crowd. Margi Clarke, star of Letter to Brezhnev, told us that the poll tax was an evil privatisation of the vote.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to pay the poll tax but I’m here on behalf of everyone who can’t. It is brilliant that Militant has organised this. I’ve supported many causes, like Greenpeace. But this campaign needs a cutting edge and that is Militant. (29)

Forty Kent anti-poll tax protesters retraced the route of the peasant revolt, beginning in Faversham and marching 75 miles through Sittingbourne, Maidstone and Gillingham. They participated on the march as did demonstrators who had marched all the way from Tory Maidenhead to Trafalgar Square. A packed train arrived from Cornwall. 

Militant sellers did a roaring trade on the day, with 8,000 papers sold in London and a further 1,500 in Glasgow. Such was the anticipation of the organisers of the demonstration that they had requested from the Environment Department permission for the final rally to be diverted from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park. 

Also, on the eve of the demonstration, the Federation had issued a call for a peaceful demonstration. And the great bulk of the marchers adhered to this advice. 

Ian Aitken, of the Guardian, no friend of the left, described the march as 

“one of the biggest peaceful demonstrations ever staged in the nation’s capital”. 

It represented a triumph for the anti-poll tax movement, above all the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation.

In Glasgow, 50,000 marched in scenes reminiscent of the days of Red Clydeside. There was participation from all sections of the working class and it seemed from all areas of Scotland. Tommy Sheridan declared to the crowd, prior to catching a plane to address the Trafalgar Square demonstration:

Over one million haven’t paid. There hasn’t been one warrant sale. Over ten million in England and Wales are joining us now. We’re on our way to victory! (30)