The article below was originally written for Red Banner, an Irish socialist magazine for discussion and debate. In its conclusion this article draws some of the key lessons needed to conduct a successful struggle against the cuts today.
It is twenty years since Thatcher’s Tory government tried to impose the Poll Tax. Officially termed the Community Charge, the Poll Tax amounted to a flat rate tax that individuals had to pay to their Local Councils regardless of their income. Previously, Local Councils raised much of their revenues to pay for the services they provided through the Domestic Rates. These related to the value of people’s property. This meant Domestic Rates were a broadly redistributive tax. However, under the Poll Tax, a cleaner living in a one bedroom flat was to pay the same as the lord living in a stately home. The queen didn’t have to pay a penny! King Richard II was the last person to try to introduce a Poll Tax in England, in 1381 – it led directly to the Peasants’ Revolt!
There were important political aspects of the Poll Tax. It was designed to prevent Local Councils implementing progressive social policies through higher Domestic Rates on the better-off. Under the Poll Tax the least well off would contribute proportionately far more of their incomes than the rich. The Tories wanted severe cut backs in those services that benefited the disadvantaged – the unemployed, pensioners, the disabled and single-parent families. The accompanying Register was designed to monitor the movements of all Poll Tax payers (not just property owners, as before), so it represented a major extension in state surveillance.
The Poll Tax was introduced a year earlier, in 1989, in Scotland as a test run for the abolition of Domestic Rates throughout Britain. (Even the Tories had more sense than to try to introduce the Poll Tax in Northern Ireland in the context of the ongoing Republican resistance there!) The Poll Tax brought well-off Tory supporters in the leafy suburbs of Scotland’s cities the financial rewards they craved, despite the government only enjoying a small and shrinking electoral base here. Thatcher also wanted to demonstrate the ‘benefits’ of the Union to those Scots with money and the impotence of the official Labour ‘opposition’.
What gave the Tories the confidence to test out the Poll Tax in Scotland, where they enjoyed so little support, and then to extend it to England and Wales? Over the previous few years, the ‘Iron Lady’ had been able to ride rough shod over once powerful left-wing institutions – Labour controlled Local Councils including those of Edinburgh District Council, Lothian Region and Greater London Council.
Industrial action, undertaken by trade unions to defend their members’ pay, conditions and jobs, culminated in the Great Miners’ Strike in 1984. Although this heroic struggle involved thousands of miners and tens of thousands of supporters, Arthur Scargill always looked to the Labour Party and the TUC to deliver the knock-out blow. The miners waited in vain and the NUM went down to defeat in 1985.
The Tories now felt invincible. Seeing no further than the official bodies of the Labour Movement, they felt they could take on the whole of the working class without any fear of concerted opposition. The Tories had the measure of the official opposition. To begin with, the Scottish Labour Party and the STUC promoted the ‘Axe the Tax’ campaign and organised the first marches. However, a Scottish Labour Party Special Conference, held in March 1988 in Glasgow, refused to back Non-Payment. This marked the end of official Labour opposition. What the Tories hadn’t calculated on, was the possibility of our class organising independently of the official movement. And this is exactly what happened.
By the beginning of 1988, Local Anti-Poll Tax groups were formed, and the very first regional organisation was set up, the Edinburgh (soon to become Lothians) Anti-Poll Tax Federation – or the ‘Fed’ as it became widely known. Very soon Federations were formed in Strathclyde (where Glasgow is located) and in every other region of Scotland. Glasgow became the heartland of the campaign and the centre for the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation.
Whilst the local groups always retained a high degree of autonomy, the overall strategy, tactics and coordinated actions were discussed and debated at the regional ‘Fed’ meetings and the national conference. These were attended by delegates from local groups and usually met monthly. The ‘Feds’ certainly brought together many political activists and trade unionists, but meeting outside their usual official structures. However, they also brought together many more people, who were not involved in formal politics or in trade unions – housewives, pensioners, unemployed and non-unionised workers.
The initial tactics used by the ‘Fed’ were focussed upon two bodies which had already been tamed by the Tories. Labour councils were pressured by petitions, demonstrations and occupations of council chambers to adopt a policy of Non-Implementation. Trade unions, with members involved in the administration of the Poll Tax, were called upon to adopt a policy of Non-Collection. However, having already caved in before successive Tory attacks, neither the leaders of the Scottish Labour Party nor the STUC were prepared to move beyond token protests.
Fortunately, the Anti-Poll Tax groups anticipated the weakness of the official movement. They had another tactic that generated widespread support. Non-Payment proved to be the real backbone of the campaign, and massively contributed to the undermining of the Poll Tax. To be effective, Non-Payment needed community organisation at an unprecedented level. Community Anti-Poll Tax groups came together on a regular basis (weekly or fortnightly).
An early tactic which was discussed was Non-Registration. This was to provide a focus for activity in the period before the Poll Tax was implemented. It proved to be controversial, because some activists thought that people would ‘disappear’ from the Electoral Register too. Nevertheless, with or without the advice of the ‘Fed’, many people did not register. This marked the beginning of a collection nightmare for the authorities. Their registers proved to be inaccurate, whilst registration officers soon found they were most unwelcome in many areas, anticipating the later reaction to sheriff officers.
Anti-Poll Tax groups organised stalls, flyposting, mass leafleting, public meetings and many other events. People put up ‘I’m not paying’ posters in their windows. This gave confidence for others to follow their lead. Phone trees were put in place to warn of the activities of the sheriff officers employed by local councils to enforce payment. Street demonstrations were mounted and houses were occupied to prevent any seizures of personal belongings (poindings).
Local groups produced hundreds of thousands of leaflets, posters and other imaginative material. Colourful local Anti-Poll-Tax banners were made for use on demonstrations. In some areas such as the pit villages such action was able to draw upon long established community traditions, whereas in those previously largely anonymous areas in the cities new communities came together for the first time.
The ‘Feds’ organised region-wide demonstrations and occupations of Local Council Chambers, the sheriff officers, and a mock poinding at Tory Scottish Secretary of State, Malcolm Rifkind’s house. The ‘Feds’ also produced the initial material for the new groups, and provided the link between the local groups and the Scottish (and later the All-Britain) Anti-Poll Tax Federation.
As well as organising Conferences with delegates from many constituent Anti-Poll Tax groups, the Scottish and all-Britain ‘Feds’ organised huge demonstrations. Over 10,000 people marched on the first Scottish demonstration in Glasgow on March 18th 1989. Just over a year later, on March 31st, 1990, 200,000 marched in London, whilst a further 50,000 marched in Glasgow. Furthermore, non-payment levels had reached such massive proportions that the authorities no longer had any realistic prospect of collecting the hated tax.
The Scottish National Party leadership opportunistically took advantage of the mass movement to win a stunning by-election victory in Glasgow Govan on 10th November 1988 (with a 38% swing). Their vision was confined to making further electoral gains in Scotland.
The levels of non-registration and non-payment in Scotland, coupled to the ever-widening ‘no-go’ areas for sheriff officers (and Labour Party canvassers!) brought about levels of civil resistance not seen since the mass Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland. The regional and Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federations saw the necessity of spreading the action to England and Wales, on the basis of internationalism from below. Speakers were sent south.
It was the knock out blow, delivered in the very heartland of the UK state by the riot in Trafalgar Square on March 31st, 1990, which prompted the ruling class to ditch both Thatcher and the Poll Tax. This was truly a stunning victory for independent class action. So what did the Left learn from this?
In many areas, the activities of the Anti-Poll Tax groups brought them into conflict with Labour Local Councils, which had become the Tories’ principal agent on the ground enforcing the hated tax. What soon became clear was that the local Anti-Poll Tax groups, with their regularly weekly or fortnightly meetings, and their usually monthly regional meetings, formed a far more extensive and better-supported network than the Labour Party with its ward, district and regional meetings. The political basis of a new independent political movement was there for any serious socialist who was prepared to see what was before their eyes.
The largest political grouping in the Anti-Poll Tax movement was Militant. After the bruising experience of trying to takeover the Labour Party in Liverpool, they began to question its previous strategy. It wasn’t easy for them. A Militant member-sponsored motion to the short-lived East of Scotland Anti-Poll Tax Federation called for it to be a condition of membership that you supported the Labour Party! Even the Militant leadership opposed this.
Nevertheless, when local groups agreed to put forward Keith Simpson, the recent Musselburgh Labour councillor and Militant member, as an independent Anti-Poll Tax candidate in 1990 Militant opposed them. The local groups went ahead nevertheless, and Keith won over 20% of the vote. Scottish Militant eventually learned some lessons, and put forward candidates in Glasgow and Strathclyde in 1992, winning four District and one Regional Local Council seat.
Many of the political forces, including Militant, which came together to form the initial Scottish Socialist Alliance (SSA) in 1996, were from the Anti-Poll Tax Federations. The SSA went on to become the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1998, winning its first seat in the new devolved Holyrood in 1999. The highpoint was the SSP’s winning six seats in 2003. Virtually the whole of the Left in Scotland (including Militant and even the SWP) were united in the one party, and the opposition to the Iraq war was at its peak. Since then the Left in Scotland and the UK has once again been in retreat – but that’s another story!
The success of the Anti-Poll Tax campaign highlights the necessity to build independent organisations for our class. Sometimes this will mean continued work in sections of the official movement – there were individual Labour Party and trade union branches, which supported the Anti-Poll Tax Federations. However, in such cases, the main job is still to try and win their memberships over to independent class politics.
Furthermore, there is another vital lesson for us today. Class struggle in the late 1980’s was at a low ebb after the defeat of Left Labour-led councils and, in particular, of the Miners. Nobody anticipated the success of the Anti-Poll Tax struggle. Today, in the face of massive attacks in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Credit Crunch’, many workers still feel cowed. However, they also feel very angry. The massive rejection of the Social Democratic/Left Green Alliance government’s banker bailout in the referendum in Iceland, and the major strikes and confrontations between workers and the Greek Socialist government and state forces, show how quickly the mood can change. Trade union leaders, however, only want to renegotiate the draconian cuts, not to oppose them on principle. Success means reviving independent class organisation and building internationalism from below on an even wider basis.
Allan Armstrong, SSP (former Chair of Lothians Anti-Poll Tax Federation and co-Chair of first Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation Conference)
The following article was written by Allan Armstrong for the Edinburgh Peoples Festival website
20 YEARS AFTER THE POLL TAX EXHIBITION
The Edinburgh Peoples Festival launched its ‘20 Years after the Poll Tax’ Exhibition at the Radical Book Fair, in the Out of the Blue Centre in Leith, on the evening of Wednesday, 28th of October.
The launch was presided over by Julie Smith, who had been active in the Sciennes/Marchmont Anti-Poll Tax group. Julie gave a brief background to the exhibition. The very first Anti-Poll Tax Groups in Scotland were formed in Edinburgh and this exhibition told their story. Julie drew attention to some of the exhibits. She thanked the EPF and the people who had put the display together. These included Marilyn Sangster, Craig Maclean, Sadie Rooney, Rob Hoon, Allan Armstrong and Mike Vallance. Julie then introduced the evening’s speakers and performers.
Allan Armstrong from the EPF, and former Chair of the Lothians Anti-Poll Tax Federation, outlined the situation in the 1980’s. Workers and their families had faced a whole series of defeats under the then Thatcher government. By 1987, Thatcher and the Tories thought they were invincible and they launched the poll tax to benefit her rich backers. This amounted to a swingeing attack on the majority of the people. Allan compared this with the situation we face today, and the failure to stop New Labour’s wars, and their current attacks on jobs, pay and conditions to bail out the banks. Yet, the Anti-Poll Tax Movement had stopped the government in its tracks, after a similar earlier period of setbacks. This can inspire us today.
Mike Vallance of the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh (ACE), who had then been active in Stockbridge/New Town Anti-Poll Tax group, emphasised the importance of community resistance in the success of the campaign. With no mainstream politicians or trade union leaders to back them, the local communities had to organise themselves. Mike went on to describe how the local groups operated and some of the imaginative actions taken, which challenged the local council and the sheriff officers. He pointed out that success also inspired later campaigns, and that ACE continued to help and organise people facing the sheriff officers to this day.
John Greig, and his son Robbie, followed with two anti-poll tax songs by the local writer, Stuart McHardy. Gary Joyce rounded off the evening. He performed a parody of “I Did It My Way”, which he sang as one half of the Dangleberries, at many Anti-Poll Tax socials.
38 people attended the official launch, whilst over the next four days, over a 1000 people visited the Radical Book Fair, where the Exhibition was prominently displayed.