Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Fight to Stop the Poll Tax

29 July 2020

Bernie McAdam reviews Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Fight to Stop the Poll Tax by Simon Hannah, Pluto, 2020, 192pp, £18.99

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Trafalgar Square Poll Tax demo-turned-riot, Simon Hannah has produced an excellent and enthralling account of the epic struggle that helped seal the fate of Margaret Thatcher’s flagship policy and indeed her own demise as well. The Poll Tax rebellion was the Iron Lady’s last stand against the working class, coming on the back of three terms of office which had seen her defeat section after section of workers most notably against the vanguard of the labour movement in the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.

The opening chapter reminds us of the last time such a Poll Tax had been introduced here in 1377-81, which provoked mass uprisings among the peasantry as well as the beheading of the king’s Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Brutal repression followed but the idea of a Poll Tax didn’t emerge again until Thatcher 600 years later! Of course she preferred the less historically loaded label of Community Charge rather than Poll Tax.

Simon goes on to accurately paint the Poll Tax as ‘designed to be the triumphant final nail in the coffin of local government as any kind of progressive instrument of wealth redistribution’. Opposition from left wing councils fighting against rate capping had punctuated Thatcher’s reign and she had been determined through Tory legislation to attack the financial and political autonomy of local government.

So the existing rates system, based on the nominal rental value of property, was to be replaced by a ‘charge’ on all individuals over the age of 18 for the services the council would provide irrespective of ability to pay. Simon demonstrates how this tax, essentially a regressive form of taxation, was a clear piece of class legislation putting the burden of paying for welfare services on working class people undermining the principle that tax should be based on income, wealth and ability to pay. As Dave Nellist Labour MP put it, ‘Robin Hood in reverse – a wealth transfusion from the poor to the rich’.

In short the Poll Tax was a massive attack on workers’ living standards. The low paid, pensioners and the unemployed would be hit the hardest. All households with more than two adults would be hammered including many black families living in large households and on lower pay. Similarly women would suffer either as low paid workers or due to their caring role for a relative who will also have to pay some or all of the Poll Tax.

Thatcher decided to roll out the Poll Tax in Scotland first of all, as a testing ground for its wider implementation in Britain. Scotland would never forgive the Tories for this. Of course the Poll Tax was a class attack but Thatcher managed to give it a national dimension in Scotland by her treatment of the Scots as guinea pigs. The Scottish National Party, nowhere near as strong as they are now and playing second fiddle to Labour then, certainly accepted this ‘gift from heaven’ with open arms.

The SNP surprise victory at the Govan by election in 1988 confirmed this nascent trend. It also shone a light on Labour’s record on the Poll Tax in Scotland. In a sign of things to come the SNP found it immensely productive to tack to the left of Labour. They didn’t have to try too hard. Labour opposed the tax but reflecting their rightward moving national leadership under Kinnock would countenance no effective action to sabotage its implementation. No change from Kinnock’s betrayal of the miners and so begins the decline of Labour in Scotland.

The Scottish Labour Party conference in 1988 voted down a non-payment motion, mainly as a result of the bloc vote from the trade unions. The majority of CLPs were in favour. The conference backed the right of individuals not to pay but steered clear of an immediate campaign of mass defiance, courtesy again of the Scottish TUC. They opted for a ‘committee of 100’ non-paying public figures, only matched by the equally redundant SNP’s and Morning Star’s scheme of 100,000 well off non-paying Scots.

Labour’s support (and the CPGB’s) for the Stop It campaign correlated with their style of ineffective protest politics alongside the hope that legal action might pay off but no support for direct action. The SNP conference supported non-payment, outflanking Labour and the trade union leaders.

To the left of both came Tommy Sheridan’s Militant (still within the Labour Party) and many other activists that eventually built the Anti Poll Tax Unions (APTUs) with a simple but popular message ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’. Indeed when Sheridan and dozens of Pollock APTU members applied to join Labour, the local CLP turned them away, precipitating Militant’s move to set up the Scottish Socialist Party.

Early resistance

The resistance began in Scotland and was soon to be followed by the rolling out of the Poll Tax in England and Wales. Northern Ireland was unaffected and continued with the rates system.

Initially there were attempts to refuse to register for the tax and Simon reminds us that one left group Socialist Organiser argued against this, but so did the more influential Militant, saying they should register and concentrate exclusively on non-payment. But there were hundreds of thousands in Scotland in 1988 and later in the rest of Britain who refused to register. Very few were prosecuted for this and a well-organised mass campaign of non-registration could have caused chaos to Tory and Labour run authorities trying to prosecute masses of people. It could have struck an early blow to the Tories.

Of course the key action of non-payment followed and we are treated to a comprehensive if not thrilling account of the mounting mass character of the non-payment campaign. Also we have a grim exposition of the failings and the obstacles that the Labour Party placed in the way of the movement including suspending recalcitrant Labour councillors. Trade union leaders were just as bad and stymied any efforts to push for industrial action against the implementation of the tax; they even called on union members not to attend APTU demonstrations!

Don’t pay

The ease with which APTUs could be established reflected the deep-seated revulsion that working class people felt. At their height meetings, even at a local ward level, could attract hundreds of working class residents. Apart from organising non-payment, demonstrations and protests were held that clashed with police and stopped bailiffs on the estates. A national Federation was formed to coordinate the mushrooming APTUs. Militant became the dominant political voice in the “Fed”, as it became known.
It is noted with justification that Militant exerted a top-heavy bureaucratic grip on the Fed. They refused on occasions to work with APTUs that were not focussed on non-payment as a winning strategy or were led by other political voices not under their control. Despite this the mass character of the campaign ensured a certain degree of autonomy and initiative for lots of local groups.

There is no doubting Militant’s single-minded determination to build the non-payment campaign but there were serious political problems with their approach not just organisational. This certainly was reflected in their attitude to the events at the huge Trafalgar Square Poll Tax demo of 200,000 that ended in a full-scale riot in March 1990. Militant should have seen this coming, as the month before local Town Hall demonstrations up and down the country (most notably in Hackney) had descended into police-provoked angry clashes.

The Demo

The demo was a huge mobilisation of working class anger at the Poll Tax. It came under ferocious attack from the police, using cavalry charges and heavily armed riot squads. Many activists resisted and the Home Secretary reported that 374 police had been injured alongside 86 members of the public, with 339 arrests and 250 reports of damage to property. There was a howl of outrage from the government and the media and of course Labour regarding the violence of the ‘mob’ and anarchists. Labour’s Roy Hattersley even called on the state to crack down on the SWP!

Amazingly Militant, as the leadership of the Federation, joined in as well and condemned the violence of the marchers. They absolved the police from blame and witch-hunted anarchists and the rest of the left for their part in defending the march against the police onslaught. This is no exaggeration; Steve Nally, national secretary of the Fed, went on TV that very evening, promising to ‘name names’, which could only be taken to mean pointing out activists to the police.

Clearly the police tactics of clearing Trafalgar Square by force set the scene for the looting later on in the West End as marchers were chased in all directions. Certainly looting cannot be condoned but the responsibility for the violence rested with the police. Red Flag’s precursor Workers Power, in its statement a day later, correctly put the blame on the state arguing:

‘We should campaign for the APTUs to set up their own organised and disciplined workers’ defence squads for all future demonstrations as well as to conduct the fight against warrant sales. Militant’s refusal to do this did disarm thousands of people on the demo and will disarm thousands more in the months ahead when they face up to the reality of bailiffs raiding their homes and seizing their possessions.’

Indeed the immediate task after the demo was to build a defence campaign for the 339 arrested, some of whom were to languish in jail for some time, rather than excuse state violence.

Poll Tax poleaxed

Clearly the non-payment struggle was massive. Between 1990 and 1991 there were 4.7 million summonses and 3.3 liability orders; many were jailed. In total between 14 and 18 million people refused to pay the Poll Tax, i.e. more than any party has ever won in votes at a general election! It was becoming apparent even to a number of Tories that Thatcher’s Tax was ‘uncollectable’. The battle of Trafalgar Square was the culmination of a number of clashes between protestors and police inside and outside of Council Chambers across Britain.

Despite the mass revulsion trade unions, though opposed to the Poll Tax, had remained inactive. Individual trade union branches had stepped up to the mark as with Greenwich NALGO housing workers who walked out when sackings resulted from a refusal to collect the Tax. Workers Power built a number of workplace-based APTUs in the face of management threats. There were other actions as well but this was the exception rather than the rule.

Only a small number of revolutionary socialists put mass workers’ strike action at the centre of their campaigning. Mass strike action, up to and including a general strike, should have been an integral part of the campaign, alongside non-payment to stop the tax. Workers Power adopted this approach calling for Councils of Action, which could draw on the anger of local community groups in an alliance with the organised working class.

At the second conference of the Fed, our Birmingham supporter Anthony Adshead likened the non-payment campaign to a guerrilla war, necessary but insufficient for decisive victory, and called for the ‘Howitzer of the general strike to be rolled onto the field’. Despite tremendous applause, we lost the vote due to Militant’s opposition.

Simon correctly assesses Militant’s role of ‘single-minded focus on the non-payment strategy’ as having limitations in that the campaign never unleashed wider social forces. This was because the lack of workers taking action ‘ensured that the flows of power, profit and wealth that are the lifeblood of capitalism were never really threatened’. Although the Tax was ditched without industrial action in the end, the manner of its demise saw no stemming of the ‘overall long-term decline of the British workers’ movement or of the socialist left’, not even Militant!

Crucially though the Poll Tax campaign was the main factor that got rid Thatcher, it failed to get rid of the Tories. The tragedy was that it was an inner circle of Tories that sealed her fate and not the mass of workers. This was set against a background of a recession, deep divisions over Europe within the Cabinet, the loss of support in vital marginals in the Midlands as well as the unpopularity of the Poll Tax.

John Major became the new Tory prime minister and months later Heseltine announced the withdrawal of the hated tax for two years later in 1993. Poll Tax bills still had to be paid and for several years after courts were still imprisoning people for non-payment. ‘It was not until 1999 in England and Wales that the billions in uncollected Poll Tax were finally written off.’

For Workers Power at the time the key lesson was that if the potential for workers’ action as displayed by the marathon Greenwich housing workers’ strike had been exploited on a national scale then it might have been possible to turn the Tories’ orderly retreat into a rout. Instead they won the next election! If the Fed had fought for strike action to protect non-payers, strike action against collection and workers self-defence against the bailiffs then a fight to turn passive non-payment into active resistance in the workplaces could have driven the Tories from office in a massive class battle.

For Militant it exposed their centrism, i.e. their vacillation between revolutionary and reformist politics. Unlike the SWP, who initially denounced the non-payment even as a tactic due to their mistaken ‘downturn’ theory, they took a bold initiative to advocate breaking the law. But when faced with the responsibility of leading a mass movement, they swiftly accommodated to pacifism in the face of the police and to the bureaucracy in the trade unions.

If they had placed their faith in the working class, they could have defeated both – and caused a massive political crisis, causing both the Tories and Kinnock’s Labour Party to have to face the ire of a mobilised mass movement. If they had allowed the movement to breathe, instead of bureaucratically smothering it, they would have found creativity and courage in abundance. The telephone trees used to mobilise neighbours to defy the bailiffs could have formed the basis of workers’ defence corps, workplace APTUs the basis for a rank and file movement in the unions.

But that was unfortunately the path not taken. However, do buy and read Simon Hannah’s most worthy account of this popular rebellion. The book serves as a timely reminder that if the working class is to defend itself it cannot afford to wait for Labour. It must rely on its own power and independent organisation as much as holding its leaders to account.

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