SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 136 - March 2010

The great anti-poll tax victory

How 18 million people brought Thatcher down

The majority of trade union leaders are completely unprepared to meet the coming onslaught on jobs and public services, the worst for 40 years. But that does not mean that the inevitable resistance is destined for defeat. On the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the poll tax to England and Wales, PETER TAAFFE looks back on the ‘unofficial’ mass movement which humbled the seemingly invincible Margaret Thatcher.

THE 1926 GENERAL strike and the battle against Thatcher’s poll tax in the late 1980s and early 1990s were probably the two most important events in the consciousness of the labour movement in Britain in the 20th century – although, for Marxists, the epic 1984-85 miners’ strike together with the Liverpool struggle led by Militant, now the Socialist Party, are on a par with these events. There were, of course, differences in the character of these struggles. The general strike involved the mobilisation of the mass of organised workers against the austerity programme of Baldwin’s Tory government of the day. The poll tax, while combining some of the features of classical industrial struggles – appeals to the trade unions to take action against the imposition of the tax, etc – was broader and more ‘social’ in the diverse forces that were mobilised. But the one overriding difference between the two was the vital issue of the role of leadership. The general strike, ‘led’ by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), ended in a terrible defeat, while the poll tax resulted in a splendid victory which brushed the defeated Thatcher onto the slag heap of history.

The different outcomes of these two titanic battles came down to the character of their leaderships, the differing strategies and tactics, as well as organisation, which were deployed. In the first, the union leaders mobilised the legions of the trade union movement in the epic nine days of the general strike. Victory was in the grasp of the working class, its overwhelming power displayed, and yet defeat ensued. There was no such mobilisation of trade union power or of real, official involvement in the poll tax struggle by the unions. Ironically, it was for this very reason – the absence, indeed outright sabotage of the official Labour and trade union leadership with the then Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, at their head – that this struggle was victorious.

It remains an incontestable historical fact that it was neither the official leadership of the labour movement nor small left groups – without a feel for the real pulse and movement of the working class – that provided the leadership for the decisive poll tax victory. It was, instead, the vilified and persecuted forces of genuine Marxism gathered around Militant which played the crucial role.

This battle had been prepared by the whole preceding period, which had seen the forces on both sides testing their strength in struggle, particularly in the Liverpool campaign of 1983-87. The poll tax victory would not have been possible without the events in Liverpool, an important dress rehearsal. Liverpool city council, backed by a mass movement including general strikes of public-sector workers, first of all humbled then defeated Thatcher, forcing her to retreat and grant concessions in 1984. This was at a time when numerous other councils, claiming to stand on the left, were joined in common struggle. However, these former ‘left’ leaders, such as Ken Livingstone and David Blunkett, eventually capitulated, leaving Liverpool and Lambeth councils isolated. Nevertheless, the heroic Liverpool struggle was lodged in the consciousness of particularly the most politically aware sections of the labour movement and the working class. Eric Heffer, the left-wing Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, in a favourable review of our book, Liverpool: the City that Dared to Fight, wrote that Liverpool "was politics put to the test and, contrary to what some would say, it was a test that the Liverpool councillors and party members passed".

At the launch of this book in London, I commented on its relevance to the forthcoming struggle on the poll tax: "The vast majority are opposed to the tax, but the Labour leaders have made it clear that the struggle is to be restricted to parliament. But the history of this government is that they do not listen to parliamentary speeches. Only when a mass struggle is mobilised, as it was in Liverpool, can the labour movement force the ‘iron lady’ to retreat. Scottish councils [where the poll tax was introduced a year earlier than England and Wales] have the same choice as in Liverpool. Either they can get the odium of implementing the poll tax or, like Liverpool, say no, refuse to collect it and call a one-day general strike. Otherwise, they might as well resign their positions. There is an explosive situation developing on the housing estates. The government has made a big error".

Thatcher’s big mistake

WE RECOGNISED FROM the outset that Thatcher had made a fundamental mistake. She had abandoned her ‘salami tactics’ of taking on one section of the labour movement while seeking to mollify others, shown in the Tory government’s tactics used against the miners, print workers at Wapping and against Liverpool. This time, she had decided to take on the vast majority of the British people all at once.

With the poll tax, Thatcher achieved what the Labour and trade union leaders had failed to do in the previous nine years: she had united and generalised the struggles of the working class against her government. Previously, she had been very careful not to take on the whole of the working class or to open up an offensive on two fronts. But the poll tax affected young and old, employed and unemployed, the sick and disabled, council tenants and house owners, as well as the black and Asian populations. All except the rich and upper middle class were to be hit.

An equally fatal error was to mistake the supine position of the Labour leaders for an accurate reflection of the mood on the ground. We were still wedded to the idea, at this stage, that the official labour movement could be won over to take effective action against the poll tax. Despite the vicious witch-hunt that had been launched against Militant’s leading figures – the five members of the Editorial Board expelled from the Labour Party in 1983, the persecution of the Liverpool Militants, both by the Labour leadership and the state – we had not abandoned hope that the struggles of the working class would act to transform the Labour Party in a leftward direction. It has to be admitted that, by the late 1980s, this hope was misplaced. The scorched earth policy of Labour’s rightwing – orchestrated by Kinnock’s local apparatchik in Liverpool, Peter Kilfoyle – demonstrated that Labour was, in fact, irredeemable at that stage. (New Labour subsequently moved so far to the right that, merely by standing still, Kilfoyle has been transformed into a ‘left’ today!)

It would have been better – as some of us suggested at the time – for Militant to have launched an independent organisation in 1987, at the time of the witch-hunt in Liverpool, rather than five years later in Scotland. Politically, Militant would have been better prepared to benefit from its leadership of the poll tax struggle. Also, with the larger membership that such a stand would have resulted in, we would have been more able to withstand the hostile political gales resulting from the collapse of Stalinism and, with it, the planned economy, in the 1990s. It seems incredible to recall now that at the very time when Marxists in particular, but also others on the left of the Labour Party, were seeking to harness the indignation at the poll tax to confront the government, the Labour leadership spent all its efforts expelling the most combative and prominent fighters. Tommy Sheridan, a well-known Militant supporter at the time who headed the struggle in Scotland, was expelled from the Labour Party, and later imprisoned. As was the heroic, late Terry Fields MP. Dave Nellist MP was ‘merely’ expelled. All for offering effective leadership to the most oppressed, who were worst effected by the imposition of the tax.

Can’t pay, won’t pay

NOTWITHSTANDING THIS persecution, Militant was unswerving in identifying the poll tax battle as the key struggle from 1987 onwards and drew all the necessary political and organisational inferences from this. The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), after initially dabbling in Glasgow in the first stirrings against the poll tax, effectively withdrew from the field of battle. Under the direction of its leader, the late Tony Cliff, it decided that the main demand of the poll tax movement from its inception, ‘Can’t pay, won’t pay’ – again, under the influence of the suggestions of Militant – was as impractical as "not paying your fare on the bus"! (Cliff, in a speech at Newcastle University) The SWP was only repeating its mistaken stance during the miners’ strike when it concluded early on that it was ‘unwinnable’ because of an alleged ‘downturn’ in the class struggle! By the time of the Liverpool battle, the SWP had become outright hostile to Militant and its leadership role in crucial struggles. Its infamous front-page headline from Socialist Worker, Sold Down the Mersey, was how it greeted the victory of the Liverpool workers. This contrasted starkly with the widely recognised view throughout the labour movement in the city and nationally that Thatcher had suffered a severe setback. As an organisation, the SWP played no central role in the poll tax struggle other than later claiming, usually out of earshot of Militant supporters, that it had led this battle! Individual SWP members and others did participate – some even being fined or imprisoned – but this was a tiny minority of their forces.

The SWP also claimed that the so-called ‘Trafalgar Square riot’ – commented on later – was decisive in defeating the poll tax. In this, it was at one with right-wing capitalist commentators who covered up the crucial importance of the non-payment campaign. Important though the ‘riot’ was, it was more symptomatic of the mood against the tax that existed. It was mass non-payment, suggested and organised by Militant and its allies, which was the real reason that compelled Thatcher and her successors to retreat and ditch the tax. Similarly, anarchist groups, which occasionally latched onto and viciously attacked the organised anti-poll tax movement, if left to themselves, would not have defeated Thatcher. The poll tax struggle was objectively determined by the character of the all-embracing attack of Thatcher on the vast majority of the working class and even the British people as a whole.

Superficial capitalist commentators see mass resistance arising from the ‘fiendish plotting’ of a handful of ‘agitators’. This is the view of the historian Robert Service, for instance, and others in ascribing conspiratorial methods to the Bolsheviks in the October 1917 revolution in Russia and the role of revolutionaries in general in all revolutions. William Shakespeare, through Owen Glendower in Henry IV, part one, declares: "I can call spirits from the vasty deep". Hotspur replies: "Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?" The mere incantation of ‘revolution’ will not result in its materialisation.

Revolution and counter-revolution, for that matter, are only possible when the underlying developments have prepared the preconditions for the social eruptions characterised by such an event. Even then, it can only come to fruition – as the history of both the successful socialist overturn in Russia and their defeat elsewhere demonstrate – if the movement possesses the organisation, the necessary leadership and clear objectives, strategy and tactics to ensure victory. The poll tax represented an element, at least, of ‘revolution’, in the sense of a mass movement – one of the greatest in Britain’s history – which effectively overturned the government and underlined the power of the masses once they move into action. Struggle was inevitable given the character and scale of the attacks. The choice, however, was between an organised mass struggle as a means of ensuring victory or an inchoate movement from below with less chance of defeating the government.

A similar dilemma confronts the working class and the labour movement today on the issue of the unprecedented attacks being prepared to slash public expenditure. The main political parties – whoever wins the next general election – will seek to slash the £200 billion government deficit through savage cuts in jobs, services and the pay of public-sector workers. Inevitably, there will be resistance to the cuts that are being proposed. But the same dilemma confronts this upcoming struggle as the poll tax battle 20 years ago.

Scotland takes the lead

EVERYONE SEEMED TO be opposed to the poll tax. Many even initially embraced the demand ‘Can’t pay, won’t pay’, including some sections of the ‘official’ movement – the trade unions, Labour MPs, etc. But once it was a question of proceeding from words to deeds then one by one these forces peeled away. Even ‘left’ Labour MPs refused to join millions in not paying the tax. Initially, this discouraged some workers from struggling. At the outset of the battle there was indignation at the tax but little confidence that Thatcher could be stopped. Campaigners were met on the streets with the refrain: ‘She defeated general Galtieri in the Falklands war, crushed the miners and the printers. What chance have we got of defeating this tax?’ These ideas were countered with facts, figures and arguments. But sometimes the ‘propaganda of the deed’ is needed – not in the anarchist sense of terroristic action against individual capitalists, but of mass action. It was necessary to demonstrate the colossal subterranean revolt brewing on this issue precisely through deeds, and heroic deeds at that, particularly in Scotland first.

Singling out Scotland for implementation of the tax a year early was perceived by the mass of the Scottish people as a ‘colonial’ punishment for daring to defy Thatcher – with the Tories reduced to just ten Scottish MPs in 1987 out of 72. Tory secretary of state for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind, in relation to the Tory government’s power over Scotland, was widely quoted as invoking Hillaire Belloc’s poem: "Whatever happens we have got; the Gatling gun, and they have not". He denied that he had said this, but the Scottish people remained unconvinced, which reinforced their determination to oppose the tax.

It was Leon Trotsky who remarked that in the veins of the British working class ran Scottish, Irish and Welsh blood, which gave it a revolutionary temper at critical moments in history. In other words, because of historical circumstances – extreme suffering at the hands of the British capitalists – revolutionary feeling was greater in Scotland, Ireland and Wales than it was, perhaps, in England.

Thatcher, however, ploughed on regardless. A labour movement campaign was launched in Edinburgh in December 1987, initiated by Militant supporters. Soon after this, steps were taken in the West of Scotland, particularly in areas like Pollok, where Tommy Sheridan lived at the time. In particular, the organisation of anti-poll tax unions was undertaken which led to the idea, promoted by Militant, for a West of Scotland anti-poll tax federation. But before this step had been taken there had been serious discussions in Militant’s ranks, in Scotland and the rest of Britain, about the programme and organisational steps to be taken to maximise the resistance to the poll tax. In April 1988, a one-day Scottish conference of Militant was organised, attended by myself on behalf of the national leadership. This meeting clarified important tactical issues and gave the green light to Militant supporters in Scotland to concentrate on the poll tax as the key issue to link the struggle and the battle that was likely to develop on an all-Britain scale later.

The conference took the decision to organise anti-poll tax unions throughout Scotland to systematically press for a programme, the central demand of which would be non-payment. At each stage, the fighting approach of Militant contrasted sharply with that of the leadership of the Scottish labour movement. There were, however, great hopes, because of the unpopularity of the measure, in persuading the trade unions and Labour Party to come in behind the struggle. One MP at the Labour Party conference in Scotland the month before had declared: "There is an army waiting to be led down the road of non-payment". Even then he could not resist comparing Kinnock to "a general leading his troops into battle carrying a white flag".

On the day that this conference had opened, an opinion poll had showed that 42% of the Scottish people favoured an ‘illegal non-payment campaign against the poll tax’. Amongst Labour voters the figure was as high as 57%. Yet the speech to conference by Kinnock was so poor that the Glasgow Herald wrote that it was "universally rated as a disaster". The conference voted two to one for a resolution opposing illegality. It was at total variance with the mood of the vast majority of delegates, particularly from the constituency parties. However, the trade union tops cast their block votes in favour of the party’s Scottish leadership. Even then it was decided to reconvene the conference in the autumn to reconsider the non-payment option.

This gave an opportunity to the advocates of non-payment to mobilise working people in action in favour of this demand. Consequently, massive meetings on Scottish housing estates showed that the workers expected the Labour leaders to take a lead. Tommy Sheridan was elected as secretary of the Pollok anti-poll tax union and reminded a mass meeting of the 47 Liverpool councillors who were prepared to stand firm and defy Tory law. ‘We need them here in Pollok’, was the audience’s response.

A defining moment in the campaign in Scotland was when Tommy Sheridan was addressing an anti-poll tax meeting and Michael, now Lord, Forsyth, then a Tory MP in Scotland, entered the fray. He was in evening dress, having come from a function in his constituency. Verbal exchanges took place which were terminated when Tommy declared: "Tell your boss [Thatcher] we [pointing to the meeting] are going to defeat her tax, her, and her government". Forsyth, shaken, turned as white as a sheet but did not respond. However, he is back today calling for savage cuts in state spending. He should receive the same warning now as he did 21 years ago from the mass anti-poll tax movement!

In July 1988, 350 delegates representing thousands of workers in 105 anti-poll tax groups, mostly from community councils and tenants’ associations, agreed to set up the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation. This conference called unanimously for a mass campaign of non-payment and for Labour councillors to refuse to pursue non-payers. It also called for the Scottish TUC to step up its campaign and organise a 24-hour general strike. Tommy Sheridan was elected unopposed as secretary of the federation and promised vigorous leadership from the newly elected committee.

Battle joined throughout Britain

IN 1989, ONE million Scots were not paying the poll tax. Even the capitalist press, like Scotland on Sunday, estimated that 800,000 Scots were not paying out of the 3.9 million eligible to pay. This was indeed a very good mass demonstration of the ‘propaganda of the deed’! But not a whisper of this campaign appeared in the press outside of Scotland. By a thousand different channels, however, the information seeped through, particularly through leaflets and information supplied by the anti-poll tax unions. This campaign, even before it had reached the rest of Britain, had demonstrated the power of mass action, so long as it was organised and with a leadership with a clear strategy and tactics. The rest of Britain would come to the aid of the poll tax battlers in Scotland, leaving the official trade union and Labour leaderships suspended in mid-air.

Twenty thousand took to the streets of Glasgow, followed by a massive demonstration in Manchester, nominally organised by the TUC but effectively taken over by anti-poll tax demonstrators. The one million refusing to pay the tax in Scotland were used to prepare a colossal campaign in England and Wales. Lone voices in parliament, such as Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, sought to warn the government of what was coming. Dave declared in July 1989: "I give a clear warning to the secretary of state that millions of people in England and Wales will not be able to pay the poll tax and that millions more will be unwilling to... Just under two years ago the Tory Reform Group described the poll tax as ‘fair only in the sense that the Black Death was fair, striking at young and old, rich and poor, employed and unemployed alike’... That description was wrong in one basic respect. At least the rich catch the plague – the rich will not catch the poll tax".

Crucial for the battle on an all-Britain scale was the founding conference on 25 November 1989 of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Tommy Sheridan greeted 2,000 delegates to a body that was to play a decisive role, as events the next year would demonstrate. There was much discussion in our ranks over what proposals would be best to put forward on the structure. Such was the decisive influence of Militant in the anti-poll tax unions that it would have been entirely possible for us to take all positions on the national committee. We decided against this, to give the movement as broad a base as possible, to facilitate the drawing in of all genuine forces which were prepared to struggle in action against the tax. Therefore, it was agreed that we would pursue the policy of the united front by involving non-Militant supporters on the national committee. This was the case in Yorkshire, London and the South West.

Still the Labour leaders resisted concrete action, centring all their hopes on a general election to kick out the Tories. One incident at the Labour Party conference in October 1989 indicated how far away it was from the mass of ordinary working-class people. Christine McVicar from Glasgow Shettleston Labour Party was seen by millions on TV news bulletins when she tore up her poll tax payment book at the conference rostrum. This was not just an individual gesture. She was moving 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". She was met with cheers from the socialist elements in the conference, and by jeers from right-wing Labour MPs and others. At this conference, Militant was still able to attract 200 delegates to its public meeting – despite the mass expulsions. However, the rightwing consolidated its hold in November with the removal of the last direct representative of the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS), Hannah Sell, from its National Executive Committee. This then led to the winding up of the LPYS.

A prairie fire of protest

THIS WAS A dress rehearsal for the dramatic events of 1990. In history – at least as far as the pro-capitalist historians are concerned – 1989 and 1990, and subsequent years, were marked by the collapse of Stalinism and with it, unfortunately, the destruction of the remaining elements of the planned economy. This was used to launch an ideological campaign which allegedly ‘destroyed’ the ideas of socialism and solidarity – indeed, the very idea of the class struggle itself. But the real history of these years is not just that. In fact, 1990 was a tumultuous year of mass struggle and the early 1990s saw big public-sector strikes in Belgium and elsewhere. With 1990 only weeks old, Militant carried the front-page headline, Smash the Poll Tax, with the call of the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation for a mass demo on 31 March. Thirty-five million people were to receive their poll tax bills in England and Wales on 1 April. The campaign was given a boost by the Economist magazine which stated: "Imagine a country where more than one in ten of the adult population is refusing to pay a tax. Welcome to Scotland 1990". In fact, this organ of big business grossly underestimated the true level of non-payment which was as high as one in three in Glasgow alone. The Economist went on: "Today’s drama in Glasgow may be repeated tomorrow in Liverpool. How long before the Tories start to pine nostalgically for the much derided rates?"

The first months of the year saw a prairie fire of mass demonstrations sweep through formerly sleepy towns and villages in the south of England. Two thousand people denounced the Tory MP for Maidenhead as the ‘Ceausescu of Maidenhead’ for supporting the tax. In Hackney and Lambeth, 2,000 gathered outside the town halls. Hundreds lobbied Southwark, Waltham Forest and Haringey councils. Practically every area was affected in one way or another by poll tax demonstrations and protests in February and March.

Militant was then identified by the capitalist press as the ‘enemy within’ because of its splendid role in the poll tax struggle. Rupert Murdoch’s papers, The Times and The Sun, plumbed the depths. The Sun compared us to football hooligans: "The Militant tendency is Labour’s own Inter-City Firm". To his eternal shame, Kinnock repeated some of the wilder Tory claims. Tony Benn correctly concluded: "The Labour Party is more frightened of the anti-poll tax campaign than of the poll tax itself". Bristol, Norwich, Weston-super-Mare, Exeter, Gillingham and Birmingham saw demonstrations. However, this was all ascribed to professional protestors moving around Britain. Poll tax minister, Chris Patten, said they were all "rent-a-crowd outsiders, bussed in from Militant places like Stroud"!

Kinnock also condemned the advocates of mass non-payment of the poll tax as ‘Toytown revolutionaries’, a phrase lifted from The Sun. In contrast, Tony Benn demanded an amnesty for all those who refused to pay. Kinnock condemned him as condoning law breaking, with the clear implication that non-payers would be pursued through the courts by Labour councils. But it was Labour MPs, even some on the ‘left’, who were not sufficiently resolute in supporting the millions who could not afford to pay, who were met with public hostility.

The SWP had moved from lukewarm and passive support for the anti-poll tax campaign to opposition to the strategy of non-payment. Just prior to the 31 March demonstration it declared in Socialist Worker: "The government calculates that a passive non-payment campaign can be whittled down eventually to a level it can manage... Activists should recognise a majority of workers are likely to feel they have no choice but to pay. Many will fear the consequences of court proceedings and falling into debt. Some will fear the loss of their jobs if they are fined" (Socialist Worker, 24 March 1990). The SWP even argued that without the backing of the trade union leadership the campaign could not succeed! Some commentators in the capitalist press, however, were to the ‘left’ of the SWP. Victor Keegan wrote in the Guardian: "Judging by the experience of Scotland and opinion polls in England and Wales, the number refusing to pay will run into millions. Since enforcement on such a scale is impossible, this will not only bring the law into disrepute, but will generate a fresh backlash against the tax by those who are currently paying up".

The 31 March demo and Thatcher’s demise

THIS SET THE scene for the mass demonstrations of 31 March 1990. Scotland’s demonstration passed off peacefully, which was not the case in London. Responsibility for this has to be firmly placed on the shoulders of the government and the police. The demonstration became the lightning rod for all the discontented elements in society thirsting for revenge against Thatcher: the homeless, unemployed youth, the oppressed and destitute, miners and printers, alongside others who had felt Thatcher’s boot on their back. However, the march was completely peaceful, like a carnival, at the outset. By the time the head of the march reached Trafalgar Square there had been only one arrest. The square was soon full to capacity and the back of the march had still to leave Kennington Park!

A handful of anarchists, joined by SWP members, were involved in clashes with the police but the overwhelming majority in what was till then the biggest demonstration in British history – only exceeded by the 2003 anti-Iraq war march – accepted the decision of the federation for a huge but peaceful and democratic demonstration. The 31 March demonstration ‘riot’ was one of the most important events in labour history in the 20th century. By itself it did not finish off the poll tax or Thatcher, as the SWP and others have claimed. The honour for this belongs to the eventual 18 million–strong army of non-payers and those who welded them into an unbeatable force. But these mighty demonstrations were the visible and dramatic expression, to the British ruling class and the world, of the scale of opposition to the poll tax and the burning hatred of Thatcher and her government.

It marked the beginning of the end of Thatcher herself. She wrote in her memoirs: "For the first time a government had declared that anyone who could reasonably afford to do so should at least pay something towards the upkeep of facilities and the provision of the services from which they benefited. A whole class of people – an ‘underclass’ if you will – had been dragged back into the ranks of responsible society and asked to become not just dependants but citizens. The violent riots of 31 March in and around Trafalgar Square was their and the left’s response. And the eventual abandonment of the charge represented one of the greatest victories for these people ever conceded by a Conservative government". (Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years)

Following the actions of the police, who had deliberately provoked and attacked the demonstrators, Militant and the organisers of the demonstration were accused of being ‘anti-democratic’, while ultra-left sectarians and anarchists accused Militant supporters of ‘collaborating with the police’. This was totally false. Tommy Sheridan and the other leaders were overwhelmingly re-elected to head the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. A 19-year-old who had gone on a demonstration for the first time, more accurately reflected the mood: "I hope that in 20 years time I can look back and be proud to have been the child of world revolution and tell my children: ‘I was there, I saw it all happen, I saw Thatcher fall!’" He will still be waiting for the first part of his prediction to be borne out, but Thatcher did indeed fall and it was not because of the TUC or the official Labour leadership. Four days after the epic mass demonstration, the TUC held a rally against the poll tax. In a hall holding 3,000 people, 800 were admitted, mostly union officials. The march to the hall was abandoned because only ten people turned out!

There could not have been a greater contrast between mass organisations and demonstrations led by Marxists and the impotence of the official trade union and Labour leadership. However, the 31 March demonstration alone did not compel the government or Thatcher to immediately retreat. It took a protracted non-payment campaign with 18 million people refusing to pay to achieve this. This was accompanied by some strikes, such as by civil servants in Glasgow. The first flashpoint in the English poll tax courts came on the Isle of Wight. The court threw out 1,800 summonses for non-payment! In effect, a protracted social ‘guerrilla’ campaign unfolded. The Guardian admitted that non-payment was running at "40-50% in several large towns and cities". In London it was much higher. 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!"

In the teeth of the campaign of mass non-payment, Thatcher was forced from office and her heirs in the Major government ripped up the poll tax. But that was not before brutal methods were used to try and impose the tax. This went from the use of sheriff officers in Scotland and bailiffs in England and Wales – met with massive resistance led by Militant supporters – and the jailing of the leaders, as already reported. Although officially declared dead, the poll tax had not yet been buried completely. Indeed, months after its end, the pursuit of non-payers for arrears continued. One hundred and seventeen people had been jailed by November 1991 by 40 councils. At least ten pensioners received sentences totalling 366 days and ten women had been jailed. Amongst these was Janet Gibson – partner of one of the leaders of the 2009 Lindsey strike – from Hull, who went to jail for two weeks. The knot of history – broken by the collapse of Stalinism – is being retied in current battles. Other jailed Militants included Eric Segal, Ruby and Jim Haddow, and Anne Ursell in Kent, and Mike O’Connell in London. Five billion pounds was owned to local councils from accumulated poll tax arrears.

Without the campaign of mass non-payment, the poll tax would still probably be in existence. It was the mass uprising, led by conscious socialists and Marxists, which brought about its defeat and that of Thatcher. We must learn all the lessons for today in order to prepare for the tumultuous battles to come.


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