This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
On 31 March 1990, a massive demonstration surged into central London. It was the culmination of months of organisation and defiance of the Tory government’s hated poll tax by millions of overwhelmingly working-class people.
The peaceful start to the march became a ‘riot’ in Trafalgar Square and the surrounding streets when baton-wielding riot police tried to forcibly break up the rally. Images and film footage of protesters being beaten, but also of protesters fighting back, were beamed around the globe.
Many capitalist media commentators in retrospect said the demo itself led to the Tory Thatcher government abandoning the poll tax. This is echoed by some on the left. However, while the demo undoubtedly shook the government, months of mass non-payment involving millions of people had effectively killed off the tax. This is borne out in the memoirs of Tory ministers at the time.
The fine detail of how anti-poll tax unions were built on working-class estates in virtually every city, town and even in villages, is the real story of how the tax was defeated.
This critical tactic of mass non-payment was the key demand that Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, campaigned for in the months preceding the demo.
The following article by Elaine Brunskill beautifully captures the mood and exhausting legwork of how mass non-payment was built in working-class communities. In a companion piece, Steve Nally – who was secretary of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation – relates what happened on that fateful day, 31 March 1990.
Working-class warriors who took on Thatcher’s hated poll tax – and won!
Four of us sat around a table in our local pub. This was the first time in my life I’d been involved in any campaign. We were young, working-class and angry at Thatcher’s proposal for a poll tax. This was an arrogant Tory prime minister attempting to push us further into poverty.
I was a mam with two young children, and about to become one of an army of millions who would fight this rotten tax – and we would win! But sitting in the pub that night, with a Militant member in our midst telling us our task was to build a mass campaign of non-payment, I liked his enthusiasm, strongly felt something had to be done but wasn’t immediately convinced it was possible. However, nobody else was showing a lead, so I made the decision to get stuck in.
Everything began to snowball quickly. We booked a hall in our local school, printed off thousands of leaflets, talked to our families, friends and neighbours.
Everyone agreed something had to be done. All the while the Militant members were stepping up to the challenge – I was watching them and was impressed.
Our first public meeting was phenomenal. I was in the audience, and it was standing-room-only. One of the local councillors spoke. He was politely received when he talked about the pernicious role of Thatcher.
However, the most applause came for Militant’s stance of mass non-payment.
The councillor retorted that we’d be sent to jail. Then the call went out – who was prepared to go to jail? Everyone, including me, put their hand up. That night our local Anti-Poll Tax Union (APTU) was forged. We all signed up.
Each stage of the struggle threw up challenges, but we faced up to them. One of our first hurdles was to ensure the courts were tied up dealing with non-payers. However, instead of the usual town centre court being used, non-payers were summonsed to another, which was far harder to get to.
To make sure everyone got along we put on coaches from the local housing estates. These buses were always crammed with local residents and their kids – there was always a carnival atmosphere.
Crèches were organised in the court’s car park. To this day my son is still mates with one of the kids he met in the crèche!
Sandwiches and soft drinks were sold at the court entrance to raise money for our campaign. Instead of rubber-stamping thousands of cases through a day, the court had to deal with hundreds of us. They were completely overwhelmed.
We became savvy with the law. Some of us became McKenzie’s Friends (a layperson giving support in the court). At one stage we were told the next person up as a McKenzie’s Friend would be arrested on the spot (the courts were acting illegally doing this). I was the next one up.
As the police moved forward to arrest me I was surrounded by others from our local APTU. They threatened to arrest us all, but didn’t have enough cells! We were fearless!
Then the jailings began. Disgracefully the first person in England to be jailed was a pensioner from South Tyneside. We were shocked that a Labour-controlled council was leading the attack against us. What could we do?
Again it was Militant members who came up with a strategy. To raise awareness we would occupy the South Tyneside Labour leader’s office. A couple of Militant members, alongside a group of women from South Tyneside APTU, were joined by us women from Gateshead APTU. This was a military operation.
We stormed into the leader’s office, slammed the door shut, and then barricaded ourselves in.
We’d already tipped off the local media something was happening. They were contacted from a local phone box – no mobile phones then! This stunt gave us loads of publicity – we were turning the screws on the Labour council, and they were squirming.
The same council also jailed a Militant supporter for non-payment. We retaliated by asking everyone we knew to phone every South Tyneside councillor – at 6am in the morning! We told them the poll tax prisoner would be getting his wake-up call, so we thought they should have one too! We demanded they stop the jailings.
Another threat, which many feared more than being jailed, was the bailiffs – who, if they gained entry to a property, could seize and sell off a person’s possessions, usually at a fraction of their value, to pay the poll tax and court fines. The women from Gateshead APTU became ‘Bailiff Busters’. We were scary!
This entailed real attention to detail. I was one of the women at the top of a ‘telephone tree’. If anyone was threatened with the bailiffs they could ring one of us, we would then call a few more, who would ring a few more (much easier now with social media).
Then we had to let people know about our telephone tree. We knocked on doors, had stalls and street meetings. We gave advice on what to do if the bailiffs came (including never let them in your house).
It didn’t take long for our first call to come through. The bailiffs were going to a woman’s house – could we help? By the time the bailiffs turned up there was around 20 of us waiting for them. This emboldened the woman. She answered the door holding a baseball bat, with all of us standing by her side.
The bailiffs looked petrified! This wasn’t the reception they were expecting, she was supposed to be frightened of them! Word quickly got around that the bailiffs could be fought.
As support grew for the campaign it became increasingly difficult for the authorities to act against us. Some of the activists from our local APTU were caught flyposting by the police. It was at a bus stop, but the police backed down from doing anything because everyone in the queue supported the posters being put up.
Maggie! Out! Out! Out!
When Thatcher opened a new building at Newcastle College two of us managed to convince the police we were her biggest fans. We were paraded up to shake her hand, but shook our fists and shouted: “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!” To our surprise, we weren’t arrested. They probably decided it would just give us more publicity.
There are many valuable lessons to be learnt from the anti-poll tax struggle. Just like Thatcher, Boris Johnson thinks he is invincible. We have to be ready to reach a new generation of working-class fighters who will undoubtedly move into action on a whole host of social, economic and political issues.
All these years later, myself, and others involved at the time, are immensely proud of the militant stance we collectively took. We were working-class people who became anti-poll tax warriors. Our motto – “Better to break the law than break the poor” – still resonates today.
A historic demo of the mass non-payment anti-poll tax movement
The Militant-led APTF and local anti-poll tax unions had played the key role in organising it by distributing over 1 million leaflets and posters as well as filling 1,000 coaches and a few trains.
Alongside clogging up the courts, busting the bailiffs and defending those facing jail the central London demo was the culmination of months of huge lobbies of councils across England and Wales that involved tens of thousands of people – building on the success of the big anti-poll tax movement that had already existed in Scotland (the Tory government had introduced the tax a year earlier as a ‘test run’).
On a sunny spring day, the demo marched from Kennington Park in Southwark to Trafalgar Square, with well over 300,000 protesters flooding the streets of central London. Tens of thousands had travelled hundreds of miles to join what was a carnival of working-class protest adorned with homemade banners, along with thousands of APTF and Militant placards.
Trade unionists marched beside pensioners who marched beside families with children. Londoners untypically walked miles to get there because the buses were full. Attendances at London football games that day were down as many fans joined the demo. There was even a ‘Bikers Against The Poll Tax’ contingent!
The demo poured into Trafalgar Square to welcome speeches by left Labour MP Tony Benn, Dave Nellist (then a Militant-supporting MP) and others. The Square echoed to the chants of “No Poll Tax! No Poll Tax!” It was a festival atmosphere that reflected the growing confidence of the campaign and the feeling that on this front the Tories had finally bitten off more than they could chew.
The demo was ‘people power’ on a grand scale, something which the Tory government and Metropolitan Police could not tolerate. So yet again the police saw fit to brutally attack a mass, peaceful, working-class demonstration.
This was a regular feature of life under Thatcher. Miners, printers, travellers and students had all faced similar treatment during the 1980s. However, the weight of numbers on the demo meant that the usual lies about ‘violent protesters’ fell flat.
Too many people had been there and could report back that it had been peaceful until the police were unleashed. Many returned home later that night unaware that the demo had been attacked as they had left early to catch coaches.
There are many versions as to how the events in Trafalgar Square started but just one unalterable fact; the police on horses, and riot police wielding batons, viciously attacked the 80,000 present in the square. Defenceless protesters were battered and one woman was trampled over by one of the many police horse charges that took place. They even drove vehicles into the crowd.
No wonder demonstrators fought back to defend themselves and others. Even to this day, the images of police attacking peaceful protesters on a sunny day in London are truly shocking.
These police actions continued for many hours across the West End, and in particular against the vast number of youth who had been forced to live on the streets of London due to Tory cuts to youth benefits.
It is viewed by many as the one event that beat the poll tax when in reality it was one of a series of many acts that played their part as the battle unfolded. But critically, the demo had made its point.
Mass non-payment was being built, millions would refuse to pay and the events of that day showed the strength of the growing movement, its true roots and its exuberance
Couldn’t pay, wouldn’t pay, didn’t pay: the battle to defeat the poll tax
30 years ago the historic struggle against the hated poll tax was reaching its peak. Below is an edited version of a forward by Dave Nellist to the new book “Couldn’t Pay, Wouldn’t Pay, Didn’t Pay” compiled by Eric Segal, secretary of the South East Kent Trade Union Council. Dave, a member of the Socialist Party and its forerunner Militant, was the Labour MP for Coventry South East from 1983-1992 and became the main parliamentary spokesperson for the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Here he outlines the most important stages in the battle to defeat the poll tax and its lessons for the struggle today.
The battle against the poll tax was the biggest civil disobedience campaign of the 20th century. In a normal year in the 1980s, the number of cases (summonses) brought before the magistrates’ courts of England and Wales was about two million. But between April 1990 and September 1993 the number of cases of unwillingness, or inability, to pay the poll tax taken before the magistrates (in just England and Wales) totalled an additional and staggering 25 million.
It is estimated this involved 14 million people, many with multiple summonses. That’s just under one-third of the entire adult population. The sheer volume of cases overwhelmed the legal system; universal enforcement of the poll tax was made impossible, and what had once been described as Margaret Thatcher’s ‘flagship’ policy was sunk.
In November 1990, as Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign, the captain went down with the ship.
How did a government with a 102-seat majority and a seemingly strong, commanding leader, suffer one of the greatest defeats in modern times? Such results are not accidents, they don’t fall from the sky. They require planning and organisation.
The poll tax
The poll tax was introduced in Scotland in April 1989, and England and Wales a year later. It was never risked in Northern Ireland. The poll tax replaced the domestic rates system, which had been a means of raising income for local services based on the size of residential property, so roughly related to income.
The poll tax, however, was a head tax – a flat rate – which meant a millionaire paid the same as the poorest 18-year-old. The poll tax affected young and old, employed and unemployed, the sick and disabled, council tenants and homeowners. It was widely seen as unfair. It was estimated that Thatcher’s own family in Dulwich would save £2,300 a year, while working-class families with adult sons or daughters living at home could have an extra bill of many hundreds of pounds.
Building the campaign
The campaign against the poll tax in Scotland was launched in Edinburgh in December 1987. The new tax in Scotland, and later in England and Wales, was to have the effect of providing a single issue – a lightning rod – for accumulated hatred of Margaret Thatcher and the Tories for the defeat of the miners, the pauperisation of local services and councils, rising unemployment, the decline of manufacturing employment and industries, and the privatisation of utilities.
In April 1988, a conference of Militant (now Socialist Party) supporters decided to launch anti-poll tax unions throughout Scotland. An opinion poll, some 12 months before the poll tax was actually introduced there, showed 42% would be in favour of a campaign of illegal non-payment. Amongst Labour voters the figure was 57%.
The anti-poll tax unions mushroomed. In Glasgow three months later, 350 delegates from 105 anti-poll tax groups agreed to set up the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation. The confidence of those building the anti-poll tax unions with the strategy of non-payment was well placed. By the end of 1989, one million of the nearly four million adult population in Scotland had refused or delayed payment.
Don’t pay, don’t collect
The poll tax was made unworkable by grafting together the millions unable to pay with millions more unwilling to pay. ‘Don’t pay, don’t collect’ was the slogan from the beginning of the campaign. And the strategy of mass non-payment and non-collection was campaigned for, almost singularly, by the anti-poll tax federations in Scotland, and later in England and Wales, following the lead given by the Militant.
Many supported non-registration as a way of ‘hiding’ from the tax, and it did remove a million or more from the electoral register. But it was only useful as a precursor of preparation for non-payment, not a viable strategy in its own right.
Then as now, with battles against local council service cuts, Labour leaders restricted their opposition to parliamentary speeches. Those involved in, and especially leading, the anti-poll tax movement understood that major social issues are not resolved in parliament – where no matter how good the speeches, governments rarely listen – but outside, by real social forces.
Should we break the law?
The Labour leaders opposed any strategy which involved refusing to obey the law. But there are two types of law – those we all accept that keep society in check (laws giving pedestrians right of way on a zebra crossing, through to laws against murder) and naked class laws, such as the restriction of union rights to organise industrial action – or taxes, like the poll tax, blatantly designed to benefit the rich at the expense of the rest.
If preceding generations hadn’t had the courage to break laws that declared trade unions illegal, we wouldn’t have many of the gains trade unions have subsequently won for us. We had no qualms about building mass resistance to the poll tax, even if that meant breaking the law.
Many on the left also thought the strategy of illegal mass non-payment could not succeed. The Socialist Workers Party leader, Tony Cliff, dismissed the tactic in a speech at Newcastle Polytechnic in May 1989, saying: “Not paying the poll tax is like getting on a bus and not paying your fare; all that will happen is you’ll get thrown off”!
Those of us already fully involved in preparing the anti-poll tax struggle had more confidence in working people. And, as it turned out, not just in areas traditionally thought of as working-class. As one newspaper correspondent later commented: “I knew Margaret Thatcher was done for when I read that, according to official figures, one-third of the people in Tunbridge Wells aren’t paying”!
Campaign in England and Wales
The campaign against the poll tax in England started small. Some felt Margaret Thatcher couldn’t be beaten – she’d beaten Argentina in the Falklands war and defeated the miners, so how could we win over a tax?
In Coventry, the campaign started, like in many other towns and cities, as we gathered outside the Council House and ceremoniously and defiantly burnt the registration forms in dustbins.
MP and Militant supporter Terry Fields and myself regularly raised the issue throughout 1989 in the House of Commons in speeches and in questions, linked to dozens of meetings we were speaking at out of hundreds that were organised nationally.
At the Labour Party conference in October 1989, a dramatic incident was seen by millions on TV news bulletins. Christine McVicar, a delegate from Glasgow Shettleston Labour Party, tore up her poll tax payment book at the conference rostrum as she moved a resolution calling for Labour to back the mass campaign of non-payment.
She defiantly declared to the conference: “Without the Tolpuddle trade unionists and the suffragettes breaking the law, we wouldn’t be here at this conference… I’m ripping up my poll tax book not as an individual but as part of a mass campaign of non-payment”.
The following month the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation was founded at a conference of 2,000 delegates. The federation was to play the decisive role in the coming battle. The protest grew as 1990 opened with hundreds, sometimes thousands, gathered outside town halls to protest.
The poll tax ‘riots’
Mass demonstrations were organised on 31 March, 1990, the day before 35 million adults were due to get their bills. 200,000 demonstrated in London and a further 40,000 in Glasgow. The divorce between the vibrant campaign organised from below, and the passive opposition of trade union and Labour leaders organised from above, was sharply illustrated a few days later when on 4 April the Trade Union Congress held a rally against the poll tax in a hall that would hold 3,000, but only 800 (mainly union officials) turned up.
The march in Glasgow was entirely peaceful, but the activities and strategy of the police in London led to violent clashes between them and some protesters which the media played up as riots. But that didn’t dent the anti-Tory mood across the country.
At the beginning of April, a few days after the so-called poll tax riots of Trafalgar Square, Labour had an opinion poll lead of 23%! But Labour’s leader, Neil Kinnock, then spent much of his time over the next months and years expelling the leaders of the poll tax rebellion and ended up squandering that lead. By December, it was the Tories who were ahead by 8% and Neil Kinnock lost the subsequent general election in 1992.
In 1990, the campaign against the poll tax continued to grow. An All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation trade union conference was called in June 1990 and attracted 1,287 delegates from 651 organisations representing 870,000 workers.
The battle moves to the courts
As well as on the streets, in marches, demonstrations and lobbies, the struggle moved crucially to the courts. Two weeks after the date that the first poll tax payment fell due, if it wasn’t received, local councils were legally entitled to begin court proceedings, obtaining ‘liability orders’ calling in the whole year’s debt. If no payment was then received, councils could invoke more draconian enforcement.
By June and July, court cases from liability orders were in their hundreds of thousands, and the millions who did not pay ground down the judicial system.
Hundreds of activists developed the skills of an obscure court role, the ‘McKenzie friend’. As thousands were summoned to the courts, facing the magistrates and the council officials without the benefit of legal representation, hundreds and hundreds of ordinary working-class people stepped up to the role, trained by the briefing notes provided by the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation and, in particular, the poll tax Legal Group.
Competitions grew as to who could keep the magistrates busy (or, even, entertained) the longest. So in hundreds of courts, at best, magistrates were hearing a few dozen cases a day. But liability orders were obtained, and more punitive enforcement began.
After obtaining a liability order, legislation allowed councils to invoke deductions from earnings or certain state benefits. If non-payment persisted, the bailiffs were sent in to seize property for sale (known in Scotland as warrant sales or ‘poindings’).The final sanction was imprisonment for up to three months.
The use of sheriff’s officers (bailiffs in Scotland) began as early as July 1989. One of the first cases was against Jeanette McGinn, a widow from Rutherglen in Glasgow, who had refused to register for the poll tax and not paid the £50 fine. When the sheriff’s officers gave notice they were coming to her home to seize her property, she telephoned the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation office, which organised buses and minibuses from all over the city and region to take hundreds of protesters to her home.
The council backed down. Similar tactics were later used in England and Wales, as local anti-poll tax unions developed ‘bailiff busters’.
The first to be threatened with jailing in England was 74-year-old Cyril Mundin, in Northampton, in October 1990. Cyril had been a paratrooper on D-Day, so a certain amount of press interest was inevitable.
Hundreds marched to the court in his support. A Sunday newspaper, the News of the World, sent ‘Captain Cash’ to pay the fine so that Cyril wasn’t sent to prison! But Rupert Murdoch’s paper couldn’t (and wouldn’t) pay all the outstanding poll tax bills! And so the jailings began. Pensioners were sent to three-month maximum-security prisons such as Durham. In the first 18 months, 117 people were imprisoned by 40 councils. At least ten pensioners received sentences totalling 366 days.
Every jailing was challenged in the High Court by judicial review, whereby a senior judge was asked to review the procedures by which the imprisonment decision was arrived at. Many cases were won and dozens were released.
Initially, 30 Labour MPs signed their refusal to pay, which would have meant their imprisonment. Only one, in fact, went the whole distance – Liverpool Broadgreen MP Terry Fields, who was imprisoned in July 1991 and served 58 days in Walton prison in Liverpool. Thousands demonstrated outside.
The Labour leadership was vicious. Neil Kinnock condemned advocates of organised mass non-payment of the poll tax as “toytown revolutionaries”. At the next national executive committee of the Labour Party following Terry’s release from prison, Roy Hattersley and Clare Short proposed Terry’s and my expulsion – Terry for going to prison, and ‘bringing the Labour Party into disrepute’, and me for being next in line. Labour later closed down the Labour Party Young Socialists for its role in supporting the campaign. The motion at the October 1993 Labour Party conference was moved by one Tom Watson!
The poll tax is defeated
Eight months after the poll tax was introduced in England and Wales, in November 1990, Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign and John Major replaced her. We had not only moved the government on policy, but we’d also removed a prime minister!
The poll tax was abolished on 21 March 1991, one week short of one year! Though legal proceedings against non-payers continued for many months and years.
What were some of the lessons learned? Well, perhaps the most important was, struggle works! As the late, lamented Bob Crow, leader of the transport union RMT, famously said: “If you fight you won’t always win. But if you don’t fight you will always lose”. And in the case of the poll tax the struggle of those unable to pay united with those unwilling to pay, welded with a confident strategy and tactics, led to a historic victory.
It was an organised mass struggle, not individuals left to fight or suffer alone, that made the battle against the poll tax so seminal in the 20th century. We could have won more quickly had the trade unions had a policy of non-implementation, which we had called for since 1987 with the slogan “don’t pay, don’t collect”.
But we did win, and it was because Margaret Thatcher and the political establishment in Britain made two fundamental mistakes. Instead of their previous tactics of taking on one section of the Labour movement at a time in separate struggles, they introduced a tax that attacked the whole of the working class at the same time, making solidarity even easier to achieve. And they mistook the timid leadership of the Labour Party and trade unions for the determination of the working class once roused in struggle.
It’s one thing to make laws, another to implement them – a lesson the establishment doesn’t want working-class people to remember. It also illustrates what Marxists have often argued: that general election results are merely snapshots of the mood of the country on a particular day, not set in stone for a whole parliamentary term.
Even large government majorities can be ephemeral when working people are roused in anger and have organisations with a leadership determined to resist injustice – a point worth remembering even now with Boris Johnson’s 80-seat Tory majority, the largest since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987.
‘Better to break the law than break the poor’
Eric Segal is a member of the Socialist Party and secretary of the South East Kent Trade Union Council. He was a leading activist in the Kent Anti-Poll Tax Federation. and was jailed for 30 days in 1991 for non-payment of the poll tax.
The anti-poll tax struggle provided incontrovertible evidence that the state in Britain is not some benevolent, impartial institution. The role the courts played in legitimising and then enforcing the poll tax legislation cut through the illusion that fairness and reasonableness uphold the rule of law.
What more evidence do you need when you look at the part the police played in backing up the bailiffs who were sent by the courts to force their way into homes to take the possessions of working-class people? Or the way they policed the anti-poll tax demonstrations or jailed those who, in the words of MP Terry Fields, would rather break the law than break the poor?
The battle against the poll tax showed that the state is used as a vehicle to maintain and defend the dominant interests of the capitalist class – contrary to the view held by academics and the reformist right wing of the labour and trade union movement.
Prison is a part of the state machinery. Imprisonment for political activity is not new, and prison has long been known to be the university of revolutionaries. We understood that it was likely that, alongside those who simply could not pay the poll tax, the jailing of anti-poll tax campaigners would be part of the mass campaign to stop the tax. We knew that the Tory government would not hesitate to use all the resources to defend its class.
The election to a position in the Kent Anti-Poll Tax Federation was conditional on the understanding that it could result in imprisonment for non-payment. We had to show that we were deadly serious in our determination to break this unfair tax and bring down Thatcher. In other words, we meant business.
Our slogan, ‘pay no poll tax’, showed the clear difference between us and the leaders of the trade unions and Labour Party in our determination to break the tax. The key was that this was a mass movement led and organised by the working class with a clear perspective.
It was not the demonstrations alone that won or the ‘riots’ that took place when the police attacked peaceful demonstrators in Trafalgar Square. It was the sustained and organised campaign of civil disobedience, the mass non-payment campaign proposed and initiated by Militant supporters. At its height, 18 million people were defying the law and refusing to pay. It was the organisation of that movement and clear ongoing tactics and strategy that succeeded.
Those of us in the leadership of the anti-poll tax unions who were prepared to go to jail did so in the knowledge that we were supported by our class. We were not individuals looking for martyrdom, but we were prepared to take the fight into the belly of the institutions of the state.