The Poll Tax is Beaten

Chapter Forty-Three


ANOTHER “WAR” of kinds was taking place in Britain, within the labour movement. 

On 13 August, only a few days after Pat Wall’s funeral, two right-wing Labour Party councillors had entered the constituency office of Pat Wall. They insisted that the two assistants of Pat Wall gather their personal belongings and leave. 

This was just one example of the mean-spirited and petty approach of the Labour Party right wing which was developing on a national scale.

In Basildon, three Militant supporters, John McKay, Eleanor Donne and Dave Murray were referred to Labour’s National Constitutional Committee. Amongst the charges laid against them was that they were on a rally in support of the ambulance workers on 30 January, 1990.

Even in Dover and Folkestone, sacked P&O workers Sue Haynes and Andre Bradford, who joined Labour during the 1988-89 strike, were amongst seven party members under “investigation” along with Eric and Robbie Segal, both members of the Labour Party for 15 years. They were being accused of being “full-time Militants”. 

One of the complaints against them came from an ex-Tory councillor who had joined Labour in the previous year. At the same time, Socialist Organiser , had been banned by the leadership. Militant defended the right of Socialist Organiser to put forward its ideas and sell its journal in the Labour Party, despite the many sharp differences of opinion with them and their supporters.


In Liverpool, the right-wing Labour Group was putting through rent increases of £4 a week with more and more Labour Party wards coming into opposition. There was opposition even from wards that had not supported the left in the past. The council acted in an unprecedented fashion in serving an injunction on Nalgo strikers.

This injunction failed to stop a half-day strike supported by up to 6,000 Nalgo members. The strikers assembled at the town hall and cheered the 29 Broad Left councillors suspended from the Labour Group for opposing the poll tax and rent rises.

People’s March

In contrast to the slavish tail-ending of the Tories, the People’s March Against the Poll Tax was about to descend on London on 20 October

The marchers had taken the non-payment message to every part of the country. The incredible effect of this march was chronicled in a pamphlet Diary of a People’s Marcher by Sally Brown. 

The highlight of the march, according to most marchers, were the events in Northampton around Cyril Mundin, a 75-year-old pensioner who had been taken to court and threatened with imprisonment for non-payment. 

The marchers occupied the council treasurer’s offices and barricaded the reception area. The police outside were in force all around the building with dogs but phoned the occupiers to negotiate. The marchers explained:

We demanded to see a council official to get Cyril Mundin’s case dropped. The police said the council were terrified – they aren’t used to getting their offices occupied. Well, they’d better get used to it.

Eventually, several marchers were arrested. Cyril Mundin still refused to pay the poll tax. He actually marched with the people’s marchers out of Northampton and “wished he was young enough to come with us to London but he’ll be down for the demonstration on 20 October.” (1) Cyril was eventually taken out of the firing line when the News of the World’s ‘Captain Cash’ paid his poll tax!

London demo greets marchers

There was a tremendous welcome for the marchers on 20 October, 1990, with tens of thousands from London and thousands of others from as far afield as Glasgow and Liverpool. 35,000 in total greeted the marchers in London. A union representative from Beta, the entertainment union, declared:

I’ve never been so proud of my union membership as when I saw our banner carried on the 31 March demonstration. 

I saw I wasn’t alone, that other Beta members were committed to ending the poll tax and fighting for socialism. I feel supported in not paying, knowing my union is backing me. That is what a union should be. (2)

Tony Benn declared at the rally that a Channel 4 film about The Battle of Trafalgar Square demonstration which had recently been broadcast “showed there was a police attack on marchers to try to intimidate people into stopping the campaign.”

Brixton Prison

The demonstration, while being enormously successful in highlighting the level of resistance to the poll tax, nevertheless ended with clashes when a separate demonstration organised by the “Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign” decided to march out of the park and picket Brixton Prison. 

Prior to this, the anarchist ‘Class War’ group had behaved in a fashion that was totally alien to all the traditions of the working-class movement. 

They had taken up positions at the front of the rally at the end of the march and began organised barracking of virtually every speaker. They tried to shout down Tony Benn and a couple of them followed Terry Fields MP as he left the rostrum, throwing insults at him. 

They had shouted at the elected leaders of the anti-poll tax federation and even those stalwarts who had marched all the way on the peoples’ march. 

They threw beer cans at Federation secretary Steve Nally and filthy racist abuse was shouted at a black South African BTR striker who spoke at the rally. There were even chants on the demonstration of “Better dead than red,” particularly aimed at the march organisers. We declared:

Small groups like Class War and those they attract are an open door for provocateurs to enter. If the state forces wanted a group to use to incite trouble they would not have to look much further. (3)

We conceded that there were some young people totally alienated from society who could be won to a fighting socialist programme and the class outlook that Militant is based on. But at the same time, we pointed out that

No-one has the right to abuse the democracy of the working class. All demonstrations must be well stewarded and disciplined. Deliberately provocative actions must be kept in check and attempts to disrupt meetings prevented. (4)

An interesting event occurred at the rally when

one Scottish lad lost his temper with the heckling and pulled at a heckler’s long black mane. The hair came off, exposing a short-cropped scalp, its owner too shocked to do anything. Who was he? Who was he working with? And what, apart from short hair, was he trying to hide? (5)

The march to Brixton Prison was peaceful and largely composed of young people “shouting impolite references to Thatcher”. But when it reached the prison, the police would not let the demonstrators cross the road to stand outside the prison gates. As the demonstration arrived, Militant described the situation:

We were getting crushed at the front. There were some minor incidents – a policeman tried to grab a banner and got some abuse. A few empty beer cans were thrown. 

Then somebody threw a traffic cone. It hit a car. The situation rapidly became violent when a squad of police charged into the crowd to arrest people. This provoked a hail of sticks and bottles into the police lines. The police charged again. 

People at the front were being indescriminantly hit by police even though they hadn’t thrown anything… A man was shouting “calm down!” to both demonstrators and police – he got a baton over the head. (6)

A Federation activist commenting on the actions of the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign (TSDC), wrote: “In the weeks running up to the demos we repeatedly heard rumours of policemen talking of a ‘rematch’ for 31 March.”

Some police chiefs had even told stewards that this was the attitude of some police. And undoubtedly some police saw the march to Brixton Prison as an opportunity to take revenge. At the meetings with the TSDC and Federation stewards the police chief in charge had warned that he would not permit demonstrators to assemble in large numbers outside the prison. The writer went on:

The demonstrators arrested after the 31 March demo need an active campaign of defence, so the Federation has always co-operated with the TSDC. But the TSDC ignored the feelings of the Federation that their feeder march would complicate matters, overstretch our resources and deprive the Federation of finances.

At a meeting, just before the demonstration, a Federation organiser warned the TSDC: “If I were you I’d be having a sleepless night about Brixton. You’re in a very vulnerable position. I hope you’ve got your act together.” (7)

The only response was a smile and a shrug of the shoulders. There was no stewarding of the picket and there was no clear line of communication of what should happen in the event of trouble breaking out. The actions of the TSDC were just one example of the splitting methods employed by groups with little real support on the ground.

Operation Cheetah

At the same time, the bourgeois press launched another smear campaign against Militant. The Sunday Times alleged that we were receiving funds from secret land deals in Liverpool. 

They had dredged the backstreets of Liverpool, vainly searching for one shred of evidence to link Militant with corruption. They had been given the opportunity to launch another vile slander campaign by “Operation Cheetah” involving an army of 280 police officers and the expenditure of millions of pounds. 

This was aimed against Derek Hatton who after years of persecution was found completely innocent of all the charges laid against him.

Thatcher out!

These events took place on the eve of dramatic developments within the Tory Party. Following the humiliation of the Eastbourne by-election and after coming third in Bradford North, Tory MPs were terrified that even the safest of seats would be lost if Thatcher remained as leader. “The Iron Lady must go” became a behind-the-scenes theme. The crucial shots in the Tory anti-Thatcher campaign were delivered by Geoffrey Howe in the House of Commons in November which led to Michael Heseltine challenging Thatcher for the Tory leadership.

Our banner headline on the 23 November issue said: “Get out! – General election now!” The first part of this demand was fulfilled within hours; Thatcher had failed to get a decisive majority in the leadership elections in the Tory parliamentary party. 

She resigned on Thursday morning and Militant changed its front page to reflect this. The mood was ecstatic amongst working people. A supporter walking through London Bridge railway station said that when the announcement came over the tannoy “they were dancing down the escalators! There was spontaneous cheering, women screaming, and nearly a party on the platform.” (8)

Glasgow students walked out at dinner time to hold a party outside the local Tory Party HQ. Press commentators speculated that it was Europe and any other number of issues which toppled Thatcher. But Thatcher and her entourage were clear: It was the poll tax in the main which led to her downfall. In her account of her years in power, she writes:

Cranley Onslow then gave his assessment. He… did not believe that Europe was the main [issue]: it would not be crucial in a general election. 

Most people were worried about the community charge and he hoped that something substantial could be done about that. I intervened to say that I could not pull rabbits out of a hat in five days. John MacGregor supported me: I could not now credibly promise a radical overhaul of the community charge, no matter how convenient it seemed. (9)

It was the 18 million non-payers of the poll tax who were decisive in her downfall. Facing electoral massacre if she remained, Tory MPs brought her down after eleven years in power.

The Youth Rights Campaign had organised a champagne party outside Tory HQ the day after Thatcher resigned. And in the week that she resigned, the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation held their third annual conference with 2,000 in attendance. 

The Federation conference addressed the crucial issue of how to defeat the bailiffs if they were used in England and Wales as the Sheriff officers had been used in Scotland. Naturally there was rejoicing at the end of Thatcher and of Thatcherism, but a determination to continue the fight until the poll tax was dead and buried.

Bryan Wright jailed

This vigilant approach was vindicated when on Friday 7 December the first non-payer was jailed. This was the first person in 600 years, since the Middle Ages, to be jailed for not paying his poll tax. In prison, Bryan Wright, from Grantham, the poll tax prisoner, was given royal treatment by the inmates: “He’s a hero to the lads in prison, even the warders. The prisoners say: “Good for you, Bryan, good on you. You stick it out.”  (10)

After vigorous protests he was released 14 days later. The implacable mass oppostion to the poll tax and the determination to see the struggle through to the end contrasted sharply with the mood of the Labour leadership. Kinnock was reputed to have been “down in the dumps” because his best bet for winning the next general election, Thatcher, had been removed from power!

In an open letter printed in Militant over the headline “Force Tories out”, the Editorial Board addressed Kinnock:

You have moved a vote of no confidence in the government and called for a general election, as Militant has done over the last few weeks. If you are serious about this demand, however, it is not enough just to raise it in Parliament… 

If you need advice on how to organise a mass demonstration, speak to the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. In spring, they organised the biggest march since the Chartists.

It went on:

You are so obsessed about opposing non-payment of the poll tax that you hardly mention it at all. You are still planning to expel Liverpool councillors who voted against implementing this hated tax. Instead you should be proclaiming that it will be abolished as soon as Labour is elected and promising an amnesty from the courts and bailiffs for all those who haven’t paid. (11)

We did not, in truth, expect a reply from Neil Kinnock. And in the ‘no confidence’ debate, in the House of Commons, he was quite pathetic. He actually paid tribute to Thatcher, which must have gone down really well with the 900,000 people waiting for operations or the millions out on the stones who believed that Thatcher and the system she represented was responsible.