Defending Poll Tax Non-Payers

Chapter Forty


INEXPERIENCED AND somewhat naïve at the beginning of the struggle, anti-poll tax activists became experts in the task of fighting the bailiffs and in England and Wales (where the enforcement law was different from Scotland) in appearing and defeating council representatives in courts. 

Legal precedents were set, creating mayhem in courts throughout Britain and reinforcing the clamour for the repeal of the poll tax. Some councils had made block bookings in the courts, indicating the massive strength of the non-payment movement. We advised early on:

The more non-payers go to court, the more chaos the system will be thrown into. If one out of every 37 people eligible to pay did this, the courts would be clogged up for 17 years. (1)

At the same time, an appeal for industrial action, particularly by those asked to collect the tax, was made by the Federation. There was a reponse to this call in May from workers in Glasgow and London.

At Glasgow’s Cranston Hill Social Security office, civil servants struck for a day against deducting the tax from benefits. The strike followed an occupation of the Provan DSS office by the anti-poll tax federation . The Federation had won an assurance that claimants would have the right to appeal against any action taken against them.

In Greenwich, strikers in the council’s housing department told us: 

“We don’t want to pay it, we don’t want to collect it and we wouldn’t be having this dispute if it wasn’t for it.” (2)

The first serious flashpoint in the poll tax courts came in the Isle of Wight. Medina council was the first in England and Wales to issue summonses. In response to this, two meetings were organised by the anti-poll tax federation, with Steve Nally and Alan Murdie (a barrister from the Poll Tax Legal Group) speaking. 

Hundreds who received summonses came to the court. This did not just happen happen “spontaneously”. As soon as summonses were issued, the anti-poll tax union hit the press. This emboldened workers to turn up to court. The huge anti-poll tax meetings prior to the court appearance also had their effect.

The anti-poll tax union had drawn in legal experts who were invaluable in convincing people to appear and represent themselves. Inside the court, booing and hissing at the council’s witnesses, only met with mild rebukes so people became bolder. The first batch, which were expected to be dealt with summarily, took one and a half hours. 

The delaying tactics completely clogged up the courts and people became bolder with more elaborate speeches, points of legal procedure, etc. Eventually, the council accepted that insufficient time had been given between the final reminder and the summonses. All summonses were dismissed and therefore the proceedings were abandoned for the day. Commenting on these events, Steve Nally stated:

I felt like we had scored at a Wembley Cup Final when the court on the Isle of Wight threw out the 1,800 summonses for non-payment of the poll tax. (3)

A vivid account of these events by Alison Hill concluded:

based on this experience, I cannot see how successful court hearings can be held anywhere, particularly in the major cities. Such is the angry mood that completely unmanageable situations would arise. The granting of liability orders is not a foregone conclusion if we fight tooth and nail in the courts. (4)

Events similar to those in the Isle of Wight were played out in hundreds of councils throughout Britain. In some areas, the magistrates were forced to concede the right of defendants to challenge the council on procedural grounds in quite an extensive way. In other areas, “hanging judges”, stipendary magistrates, ruled with an iron fist and stamped on the democratic rights of non-payers and the principles of “natural justice” which are supposed to apply in the courts.

Graham Lewis from Lambeth, with no legal experience became a local hero and legal whizz-kid. He holds the “world record”; responsible for something like five thousand summonses being overturned.

Non-payment climbs

By mid-June, Militant was reporting that the Guardian had admitted that non-payment was “running at 40-50 per cent in several large towns and cities”. (5)

In London, it was quite clear that it was much higher than this and in Birmingham, 300,000 warning letters were sent out to non-payers. A correspondent commented: 

“I knew Thatcher was done for when I read that according to official figures a third of the people of Tunbridge Wells aren’t paying!” (6) 

Jeffrey Archer ruminated in public: 

“If we could go back I don’t suppose many of us would have brought in the Community Charge. It was a bad mistake.” (7)

Trade unions against the poll tax

The conference for trade union action against the poll tax took place in Liverpool on 23 June. It had been held in the teeth of the union leaders’ opposition but had assembled 1,287 delegates, from 651 organisations, representing 870,000 workers. The conference was extremely successful and showed the degree of support for the struggle at the base of the trade unions. 

However, effective trade union action did not take off, mainly because of the sabotage of the union tops, but also because of the successful non-payment campaign which proved in time to be the most effective means of shattering the poll tax.

At the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference, a Militant supporter recounted that he “was only allowed to speak to one harmless sentence of my poll tax resolution – the NEC ruled the rest out of order because it called for non-payment.” (8)

The fact that Militant was the backbone of the non-payment campaign was of course an additional reason for opposing this motion. The conference had actually voted in favour of strike action against redundancies. Jobs were threatened by the implementation of the local management of schools policy (LMS) and by poll tax capping. 

The NUT right-wing general secretary, Doug McAvoy, had been trying to make the union give up the strike weapon. He therefore reacted to the resolution by trying to frighten delegates and the membership at large by claiming that the resolution for strike action was “a Militant plot”. Anita Dickinson, NEC member-elect, answered McAvoy’s charges point by point. 

At the same time, the Federation announced: “Their biggest venture yet – a peoples’ march against the poll tax, from Glasgow, the capital city of non-payment, to London.” (9)

Police raids

The police, through “Operation Carnaby”, initiated after the 31 March demonstration, began to arrest and initmidate those they thought were responsible for the “riot” on that day. In Hackney in June, 60 police officers smashed down doors with sledgehammers, destroyed furniture and fittings, let off a gas cylinder and arrested eleven people on “suspicion”. 

The use of sledgehammers was invoked because of a police claim that they were dealing with barricades, which was nonsense. This raid on the homes of ordinary people took place at six o’clock in the morning. It was a blatant attempt to intimidate anti-poll tax activists. It did not succeed.

Youth Rights Campaign

While resistance to the poll tax grew, the right-wing NEC of the Labour Party busied itself by disassociating the party from the campaign and then took steps to disassociate itself from the newly-formed Youth Rights Campaign (YRC). With the paralysis and effective closing down of the LPYS this organisation had been formed to harness the energy of the youth who were now by-passing the Labour Party. 

It held a national conference on 15 April in York Hall, London, usually associated with boxing matches, rather than labour movement conferences. The platform was actually in the middle of the boxing ring. A young Tory councillor, Martin Callaghan ventured into the ‘ring’ to ‘spar’ with Paula Hanford of the YRC on the record of the Tory government. 

The 400 ‘judges’ present considered that he was knocked out in the first round! This contrasted with the attitude of the increasingly rightward moving Labour Party leadership who were more concerned with expulsions than winning the youth who had been raised to their feet by the anti-poll tax campaign.

In Memory: Pat Wall

The right were also strengthened by the untimely and tragic death of Pat Wall, a lifelong fighter for socialism, a revolutionary, a founder of Militant, and a firm friend of all militants. He had been the youngest ever councillor in Liverpool in the 1950s, an executive member of the united Trades Council and Labour Party in which he helped to lead the fight of the left against the old established right wing. 

Through his job he was able to travel abroad and once canvassed for a socialist parliamentary candidate in Sri Lanka. He championed the cause of a persecuted black youth in the USA and made a lasting impression on the Bradford labour movement.Under his leadership, the Bradford trades council became renowned for its consistent effort to combat racism and to unite all workers against their common oppressors. He was a brilliant speaker, one of the greatest popularisers of socialist ideas the labour movement has ever seen:

A buzz of anticipation would fill a room when Pat was about to speak. He had a gift for relating the general ideas of Marxism to the day-to-day experiences of ordinary workers and for bringing out the essential humanity of Marxism. (10)

His warm personality and his refusal to descend to personal abuse was acknowledged even by his opponents. However, this had not prevented an avalanche of venom and personal attacks against Pat once he was selected to fight as the Labour candidate in the Bradford North constituency. In 1983, at the height of the election campaign, in an unprecedented outburst he was denounced in Bradford’s St George’s Hall by the then leader of the Labour Party, Michael Foot.

On Friday, 10 August, 700 attended a memorial meeting, chaired by Clare Doyle of the from our Editorial Board. From far and wide they had come to pay tribute to Pat Wall – labour movement leaders like Arthur Scargill and Dennis Skinner MP but also the rank-and-file activists. 

Terry Fields MP said: “We mourn his passing and we celebrate his life. Sleep well, comrade, in the knowledge you gave your best. No one could give more.”11 Not only was Pat Wall’s death a sad personal loss to many comrades, but it was also a blow to the left. His replacement as an MP stood on the right.