Radical publishers Pluto Press have released a new book looking back at the defeat of Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax. Unfortunately it fails in presenting the real historic significance of the anti-poll tax movement – led by Militant, the Socialist Party’s predecessor organisation. CLIVE HEEMSKERK writes.
Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Fight to Stop the Poll Tax
By Simon Hannah
Published by Pluto Press, 2020, £16-99
The battle against the poll tax in the late 1980s and early 1990s is one of the greatest episodes of working class struggle. Mass non-payment of the tax, with around a third of the entire adult population facing some form of legal action against them over a four year period, laid the basis for an organised movement to make it unenforceable. With Tory party splits also developing over the European Union, Margaret Thatcher, the international standard-bearer of brutal neo-liberal capitalism, re-elected with a 102-seat majority in June 1987, was forced to resign 41 months later in November 1990. The anti-poll tax resistance was, as Simon Hannah says in the preface to his new book, “the last mass movement in Britain [to date!] that helped bring down a Tory prime minister”.
Just the magistrates’ courts of England and Wales saw a fivefold increase in cases brought before them in the period between April 1990 and September 1993, compared to the years before. In files released in 2017 it was revealed that John Major, who had replaced Thatcher as prime minister, timorously wrote to her before he announced the abolition of the poll tax in March 1991, excusing his decision on the grounds that it had been “very much more difficult to collect than we imagined” and “would never be properly collectable”. (The Guardian, 20 July 2017)
But this outcome was not a forgone conclusion. The state powers to enforce the tax – starting with a council winning a liability order in court against a non-payer – included deductions from earnings or unemployment benefits, the use of bailiffs to seize property, and finally, after a further court appearance for a ‘committal hearing’, imprisonment for up to three months. In Scotland non-payers could not be imprisoned but sheriff’s officers had powers to force entry into homes, unlike bailiffs in England and Wales, to seize goods for warrant sales or ‘poindings’ to meet poll tax debts.
As Simon Hannah rightly says, “if there had been no movement against the tax, making the case for non-payment and supporting refuseniks, then it is possible that it would have survived, with some modifications” such as expanded rebates. He points to the enforcement measures of the previous rates system which did not provoke a mass reaction – “in fact, fewer people were jailed during the poll tax years than they were on average under the rates system” – showing what potentially could have happened, over time, without an organised campaign to back non-payment.
But the organisation of such a campaign with sufficient weight to shape events was also not preordained. Overconfident as she surveyed the ‘official’ opposition to her, it is true that Thatcher blundered by taking on the working class as a whole – firstly in Scotland where poll tax bills were issued in April 1989 and then in England and Wales a year later – which would have guaranteed wide scale protest. The government and its local state agencies – in particular by issuing bills to everyone at the same time, sending summonses for liability hearings in the same council area at the same time, and so on – laid the groundwork for an organised resistance to the tax.
But it still had to be organised and the national leaderships of the pre-existing core organisations of the working class – the trade unions and, at that time, the still dual character ‘capitalist workers’ Labour Party – refused to go beyond a verbal condemnation of the tax. When it came to non-payment there was more support, it is true, amongst individual Labour councillors and even MPs than there has been support for Labour councils defying Tory austerity since 2010, even during the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party leadership. But Labour-led councils in the poll tax years acted no differently to Tory ones in taking punitive measures against non-payers in an attempt to implement the tax.
Militant’s critical role
Militant, however, the predecessor of the Socialist Party, had built a sufficiently authoritative Marxist organisation to provide the politics, strategy, tactics and organisation – the leadership of the movement in other words, not ‘imposed’ as hinted at by the author but developing organically with the struggle – to shape the course of events. And we did. Thatcher fell, the abolition of the poll tax was announced in March 1991, and the Major government was forced to inject an extra £4.3 billion (about £7 billion in today’s terms) into local government to facilitate the transition to the council tax, a solid material measure of the victory achieved.
Simon Hannah acknowledges our critical role. He writes that “it was Militant who first saw the potential of a mass non-payment campaign across Britain and resolutely stuck with it until the end”. And further, that “it was Militant organisers and members who provided the spinal column for the movement”.
He does so, moreover, as a political opponent of ours, having in the past been a member of the Workers’ Power group which, he notes, argued in 1990 that “neither mass non-payment nor non-collection on their own have the power to beat the poll tax”. This background explains why, no doubt, alongside the fact that he had no experience of the events to check against (he was nine in 1990!), he gives weight in his book to made-up myths about Militant and a series of secondary gripes which there is not space to deal with here. But he does not – cannot – dispute our incontestable leading role.
And in doing so he is not, in fact, distracting from his main theme. He wants his book to be more than an historical account of the struggle but one which also “tackles some of the more difficult questions, such as why a mass movement that helped bring down Thatcher and abolish a hated tax still saw the Conservatives win the general election in 1992”. Why did it not “either extend into a wider anti-Tory campaign or launch serious destabilising industrial action?” It was precisely Militant’s role, he believes, that “partly contributed to the limitations of what came next”.
“Their single-minded focus on the non-payment strategy”, he argues, “meant that the campaign never unleashed the wider social forces that would have led to far more destabilisation and opened up the possibility of a seismic political shift”. The net result of the anti-poll tax movement, in consequence, was that “it did not stem the overall long term decline of the British workers’ movement or of the socialist left”. We were, it seems, responsible for the 1990s! What this criticism does actually show, however, is the author’s failure to understand the anti-poll tax struggle and its aftermath in their historical context – in Britain and internationally.
The movement in context
The Tories moved to introduce the poll tax towards the end of a decade in Britain marked in particular by the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-85 – due, above all, to the failure of the TUC leadership to organise the necessary solidarity action and the trade union left to bring sufficient pressure to bear on them from below. Also critical in feeding the overconfidence of Thatcher was the collapse of the 1985 rebellion against the Tories’ rate-capping cuts on local government.
This was revealed in cabinet papers released in 2014 under the 30-year rule on the debates in Thatcher’s government over plans to introduce the poll tax. They showed that in May 1985 the Tory cabinet could not agree on replacing domestic property rates on households by an individual charge. The then chancellor Nigel Lawson warned of ‘political catastrophe’ and the home secretary Douglas Hurd anticipated the same enforcement difficulties in British cities as those encountered in the (non) collection of BBC licence fees in west Belfast (the poll tax was never introduced in Northern Ireland). But by November 1985 the cabinet had changed their minds, a green paper was published in January 1986, and the poll tax became the ‘flagship’ policy of the 1987 general election manifesto.
What had changed between May and November 1985 was that of the twenty-one Labour councils that had come together to defy the Tories, all bar the Militant-led Liverpool council had capitulated. In October Labour leader Neil Kinnock made his infamous Labour Party conference speech attacking the Liverpool councillors. By the end of 1985, having measured the preparedness to fight of the Labour Party and trade union tops, the Tories were confident to move on to their next assault, the poll tax. Again though they met with the resistance of the working class, with Militant – as in Liverpool – once more the ‘spinal column’.
This struggle, however, developed against an international background of the unfolding collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe and the ideological triumphalism of capitalism. While the totalitarian Stalinist regimes were a grotesque caricature of socialism, and responsible for the rotting of the state planned economies on which they rested, their demise was used to ‘prove’ that socialism was unworkable and that the capitalist market was the only viable way of organising society. It was an objective defeat, ideologically, for the international working class. Propaganda about a capitalist ‘new world order’ was reinforced by the decisive victory of US imperialism over Iraq in the first Gulf war at the start of 1991. All this had its impact even as the anti-poll tax struggle was developing, but particularly so in its aftermath.
Yet Simon Hannah barely mentions this era-defining context except in a couple of throwaway comments that “many on the left saw in the uprisings parallels with their fight against Thatcher”, which might portend “perhaps even a revolution in Britain?” The post-Stalinist era was not one of unremitting global reaction – on the contrary, unleashed capitalism produced a seething discontent amongst the working class. The 2007-2008 crash was a definitive turning point in shifting consciousness and now a new era is opening up as a result of the coronavirus crisis and its economic, political and social consequences.
But to avoid any assessment of the broader objective conditions in which the anti-poll tax struggle took place is not ‘tackling the difficult questions’ about ‘what came next’. It shows at best that the author completely misunderstands the change in the balance of class forces the collapse of Stalinism represented; its impact for a whole historical period on the confidence of even the most active, politically conscious workers in the possibility of socialism; and the effect this would have on workers’ organisation in the 1990s – the combativeness of the trade unions and, in Britain as a herald of an international trend, the transformation of Labour into Tony Blair’s capitalist New Labour.
Labour and the anti-poll tax struggle
Our leadership of the anti-poll tax movement brought us into ever sharper conflict with the right-wing leadership of the Labour Party and their supporters in the council chambers, the local parties, and the affiliated trade unions – and now, after the showdown in Liverpool, it was on an all-Britain scale. Simon Hannah records many examples of how Labour’s right moved from verbal opposition to the poll tax to actively working to jail non-payers and expel anti-poll tax campaign organisers from the Labour Party.
His question, however – “was this just a product of a particularly right-wing leadership under Kinnock or something more institutional, something embedded in the DNA of the party?”, with him suggesting it was the latter because of Labour’s “existence as an electoralist” party necessarily accommodating for votes – is totally abstract. The Liverpool Labour Party, after all, had led a mass movement, including city-wide strike action, at the same time it was winning great electoral victories. The author’s timeless and schematic ‘analysis’ provides no means to accurately assess the possibilities of working class struggle being organised through the Labour Party either during the poll tax years, their aftermath – or now.
Labour in the 1980s was still a ‘capitalist workers party’, with structures providing opportunities for the working class to fight for their interests against a leadership reflecting the interests of the capitalists. This is in stark contrast to the results of Blair’s counter-revolution, which established ‘New Labour’ by gutting the avenues for the working class to check the leadership, complemented ideologically by the abolition of the socialistic Clause Four of Labour’s constitution in 1995.
Compared, for example, to the Local Campaign Forums established under New Labour which leave power over council candidate selections and local election manifestos in the hands of council Labour Groups – the well-rewarded local caste of councillors – the District Labour Party (DLP) structure gave real power to the membership, including local trade union delegates. It was the Liverpool DLP, with Militant’s Tony Mulhearn as its president, which directed the heroic four-year struggle in the city, including the councillors’ actions in the council chamber.
As the poll tax was being introduced there were still battles that could be fought and won, for example in Tower Hamlets, to commit Labour councillors to refuse to prosecute non-payers. But the possibilities were narrowing – the victory in Tower Hamlets was met by Labour’s national executive committee expelling 13 members (including Hugo Pierre, today a candidate in the UNISON general secretary election) and re-writing the local manifesto for the 1990 council elections to exclude the non-prosecution pledge. And the overheads were mounting.
Time to re-assess
Simon Hannah is completely wrong – where did he get the idea? – to suggest that the anti-poll tax movement saw one of its tasks to “ensure that across Britain people hated the government for the tax rather than the local councils implementing it”. That was never Militant’s approach, even as members of the Labour Party. In similar vein it is a slight on Tommy Sheridan, then a leading figure in Militant, when he suggests that Tommy’s expulsion from Labour in October 1989 “freed him up to be more radical and forthright”. We always ‘forthrightly’ defended the interests of the working class, whatever the consequences. Regarding local councils, we argued that a key task was to pressurise them – including Labour councillors – not to implement the tax and above all to refuse to prosecute non-payers. But the movement was being increasingly hampered in doing this by not having an independent working class electoral vehicle.
That there were growing possibilities was shown by the triumph of the Scottish National Party (SNP) on a ‘We’re not paying the Poll Tax’ platform in the November 1988 Govan by-election, overturning a 19,509 Labour majority (and then subsequently refusing to call for organised mass non-payment!). The Greens won 2.29 million votes in the European elections in June 1989, a 15% protest vote in what is still their highest ever score in a UK election, as the first poll tax bills were sent out in Scotland and registration began in England and Wales.
But it was the aftermath of the movement which showed most clearly – if belatedly – what could have been achieved by a wider electoral challenge. The newly-formed Scottish Militant Labour (SML) won four seats on Glasgow council in May 1992. This was just weeks after the Tories’ victory in the general election, in which Tommy Sheridan came second in Glasgow Pollok with 6,287 votes (19.3%), ahead of the SNP. In all, from May 1992 to February 1994, SML polled 33.3% of the total votes cast in 17 local council contests with Labour (36.1%), winning six. Such successes, the direct result of our leading role in the anti-poll tax movement, were the basis for the subsequent rise of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) – which had six Members of the Scottish Parliament at its height in 2003 – before its demise as its leaders too succumbed to the pressures of the post-Stalinist era to abandon a Marxist programme and organisation (see Scotland: Twenty Years Since the SSP Breakthrough, by Philip Stott, in Socialism Today No.228, May 2019).
Militant’s editor and subsequent general secretary of the Socialist Party Peter Taaffe summed it up on the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of the poll tax in England and Wales: “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”, while potentially being “more able to withstand the hostile political gales resulting from the collapse of Stalinism”. (Socialism Today, No.136, March 2010) This is acknowledging our mistake of timing but not ignoring the objective factors shaping ‘what came next’.
The importance of the nucleus
The many different facets of the anti-poll tax movement of thirty years ago have provided a deep reservoir of experience for succeeding generations to draw upon – not mechanically but as a guide – as they grapple with the questions raised in their contemporary struggles.
The experience of organising ‘bailiff-busters’, for example, the networks of local people that were mobilised to meet bailiffs attempting to intimidate non-payers in their homes – reversing the fear – informed the ‘whistle alarm’ system established in parts of East London in 1994-1995 to counter the ‘electoral’ methods of the far-right British National Party (BNP), who would drive onto an estate and send out leafletters while 30 or 40 thugs stood by to intimidate anyone who came out of their homes to object. This organised community response, not ‘avengers’ from outside but rooted in the locality, also succeeded in ‘reversing the fear’ where this approach was adopted.
But Simon Hannah, unfortunately, is not a reliable guide to or interpreter of such experiences. Instead he approaches the rich lessons of the anti-poll tax movement through the prism of pre-set schemas and abstractions, such as that he applies to the question of the Labour Party.
In another important example he sets up a false dichotomy between ‘community struggle’ and workers organised in their workplace by a trade union, arguing that “the focus” on the unions “underestimated the importance of social reproduction as a dimension of struggle” and “where resistance could be manifested”, suggesting the former was primary. ‘Social reproduction theory’ stresses, to put it as succinctly as possible, the importance for capitalism of ‘people making’ including family and gender relations, which clearly the poll tax impacted on. (See A Manifesto to Change the World? by Christine Thomas in Socialism Today No.228 for a discussion on its relation to the overall class struggle). But in the real anti-poll tax movement there was no division between the community and the workplace. Not least because workers who did not pay the poll tax could face having their wages arrested, or dismissal if they were jailed, and the movement had to deal with this.
Simon Hannah shrugs off the efforts of the anti-poll tax campaign to win over organised workers, including the June 1990 All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation trade union conference attended by 1,287 delegates from trade union bodies representing 870,000 workers, which “failed to break the logjam in the union movement”. But he doesn’t mention important victories, such as the successful campaign within the right-wing led bankworkers’ union BIFU to prevent Andy Walsh, an executive member of the union, from losing his job when he was jailed. “The unions remained implacably immobile” he writes – and, is he saying, should also not be such a ‘focus’ today?
In reality Simon Hannah is himself an example of how socialist consciousness was thrown back in the post-Stalinist era. Viewing the anti-poll tax struggle from afar he is frustrated that it did not produce a more profound “movement of rupture” than the objective conditions made possible and is not sure that it is an instructive model after all. Dissatisfied, he reaches instead for any and every other route to building an alternative political force – even speaking favourably at one point of “the temporary left turn of the Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy”! – rather than seriously discussing how a working class Marxist nucleus can be built today that will be capable, as Militant was in the late 1980s, of melding with and leading the mass movements of the future.
The impact of the anti-poll tax movement was muted by the objective fact of the ideological triumph of capitalism after the collapse of Stalinism and its impact on workers’ consciousness and their organisations. But the next period will be completely different to the 1990s and the real historic significance of the great anti-poll tax victory will be shown in full and brilliant light.
January 1986: Tory Environment Secretary Kenneth Baker publishes a green paper proposing an individual poll tax to fund local government, to replace the household rates system based on a property’s notional rental value.
March 1987: After a four-year struggle against Margaret Thatcher’s government – and Neil Kinnock’s Labour leadership – the Militant-led Liverpool Labour council is finally removed from office by the Law Lords.
June 1987: The Tories win a 102-seat majority in the general election, with the poll tax a ‘flagship’ manifesto policy.
March 1988: The Scottish Labour Party conference votes against non-payment of the poll tax, although the leadership is forced to agree to reconvene it in the autumn to re-assess the situation.
April 1988: A Scottish conference of Militant agrees to organise anti-poll tax unions to spearhead a mass campaign of non-payment.
July 1988: The Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation is formed at a conference of delegates from 105 anti-poll tax groups, tenants’ associations and community councils, with Tommy Sheridan elected unopposed as secretary.
September 1988: Despite support for non-payment from local party delegates the recall Scottish Labour Party conference reconfirms its opposition to non-payment.
April 1989: The first poll tax bills issued in Scotland.
July 1989: A TUC national demonstration in Manchester against the poll tax is attended by 30,000, with the ‘Pay No Poll Tax’ placards dominating the march contrasting with the lack of a lead from the platform.
November 1989: Two thousand delegates assemble in Manchester Free Trade Hall to form the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF).
December 1989: Backbench MP Sir Anthony Meyer stands as a stalking-horse Tory leadership challenger, with 60 Tory MPs, 16% of the parliamentary party, failing to back Thatcher.
February-March 1990: Protests outside at least 55 council poll tax-setting meetings across Britain, attended by over 22,000 people, are denounced by Thatcher as “intimidation organised by the Militant Tendency”.
31 March 1990: In Glasgow 40,000 march peacefully on an ABAPTF-organised demonstration but police attacks on the simultaneous 200,000-strong London march lead to the so-called Trafalgar Square ‘riot’.
April 1990: Poll tax bills are issued to 35 million people in England and Wales.
June 1990: An ABAPTF trade union conference held in Liverpool is attended by 1,287 delegates from 651 union bodies representing 870,000 workers.
November 1990: Thatcher forced to resign as prime minister, replaced by John Major.
March 1991: The Major government announces the abolition of the poll tax, although legal proceedings against non-payers continue. To reduce bills before the first replacement council tax bills are issued in 1993 the Tories increase central funding of local government by £4.3 billion (about £7 billion in today’s terms), a material measure of the victory.
May 1991: After 16 Liverpool Labour councillors had been suspended by the NEC for voting not to implement the poll tax, six ‘Real Labour’ candidates stand in the council elections, winning in five wards.
July 1991: Liverpool Broadgreen Militant MP Terry Fields is imprisoned for 58 days for non-payment of the poll tax and, with Dave Nellist MP, is expelled from the Labour Party before the end of the year.
February 1992: Founding conference of Scottish Militant Labour.