The battle against the poll tax

Can’t Pay Won’t Pay – A Short History of the Anti-Poll Tax Struggle 1989-1993

By Chris Robinson

Published by Thinkwell Books, 2023, £10

Reviewed by Eric Segal

The struggle and victory against the poll tax was a significant event in British working-class history. Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party), which led the campaign, did what the Labour Party and trade union leadership had failed to do over nine years of vicious Tory anti-working class policies. In a clear lesson for today’s trade union leaders, co-ordinated, united and generalised class struggle defeated the poll tax and brought down the government of Margaret Thatcher.

To be blunt, only Militant identified the poll tax as a key battleground on which to take on the Tories. Contrary to what you may be told, apart from some individuals, none of the other groups on the left supported our stand. While we led the battle of 13 million non-payers against Thatcher, other groups, including the Labour Party and the Socialist Workers Party, prevaricated, dithered and worried about the best way to respond to the poll tax. We were the warriors, they were the worriers!

Chris Robinson, author of Can’t Pay Won’t Pay, was a Militant supporter and part of the anti-poll tax campaign in Nantwich, Cheshire. His wide-sweeping book of 155 pages covers his recollection of the anti-poll tax battle in Nantwich but is also crammed with snapshots of political events.

Thatcher made a number of fundamental tactical mistakes. She ignored the remarkable role that Militant played in politically guiding the 47 Liverpool socialist councillors against the Tory cuts from 1983-87 – the only successful fight to defend local services by a local authority. She abandoned a key principle of only taking on one section of the working class at a time. But fundamentally she looked at the role that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and Labour Party leaders had played in betraying the miners in their year-long strike from 1984-85 and concluded that there would not be a united working-class campaign against the poll tax.

The poll tax was Margaret Thatcher’s flagship policy. It was a wealth transfusion from the poor to the rich. With a stroke of a pen a working-class family’s tax for local council services was tripled while ‘the duke in his castle’ had his bill slashed. The Community Charge, which came to be known as the poll tax, was a tax on individuals, replacing the rates which were very loosely based upon income. So a millionaire would pay the same as a low-paid worker.

The poll tax was introduced first in Scotland in 1989, and in England and Wales a year later. It was in Scotland that the battle began. After coming to power in 1979 the Tories had cut the rate support grant by £28.5 billion. In 1976-77, central government’s contribution through the rate support grant represented 72.5% of Scottish local authority spending. By 1987-88, it had been reduced to 55.6%. This meant that the share of expenditure that had to be raised through the rates increased by 30%.

Scottish workers instinctively opposed the implementation of the poll tax. Militant provided the political and tactical leadership, drawing on the experience of the Liverpool 47, the women-led Glasgow rent strike during the first world war against increased rents imposed by unscrupulous landlords, and the street committees set up throughout the Soweto township in South Africa in the battle against rent increases during the apartheid era.

Anti-poll tax unions were set up with the slogan of ‘Pay no poll tax’. The slogan had not been plucked out of the air but flowed from working-class people’s inability to pay and was developed through discussions within the labour and trade union movement and in the teeth of vicious opposition from the leaders – with some honourable exceptions.

At that time Militant supporters were members of the Labour Party and so we tried to push the official movement in the direction of non-payment. Instead, however, Labour introduced the stirringly named ‘Stop It’ campaign, with a view to blocking the developing non-payment movement. It was clearly a spoiling tactic. The Labour leadership’s argument was that they could not tell people to break the law.

Then, as now, economic reality forces people to make choices. The economic slump in the early 1980s devastated manufacturing industry, and personal debt rose from £90 million in 1980 to £283 million in 1987. Since the Tories had come to power the top ten percent had seen their wealth rise by 22%. The income of the bottom ten percent, on the other hand, had fallen by 10%.

Clearly, the amount that individuals would have to pay under the poll tax would force people to make a choice about whether to put food on the table or pay the tax. In other words, the decision of whether to break the law or not in relationship to paying the poll tax was not an academic decision.

Our success had political consequences. As the non-payment movement grew, we were falsely accused of violence, hijacking the anti-poll tax campaign and of infiltrating the Labour Party. So a new wave of expulsions from the party began, following on from the expulsion of the Militant editorial board in 1983.

The anti-poll tax struggle led to the resignation of Margaret Thatcher – it was her flagship policy and her downfall. However, this was only possible because of the confidence given by Militant to the millions of heroic and determined ordinary working-class people who came together under the banner of ‘Pay no poll tax’.

Although Chris writes that we need to remember victories like the anti-poll tax struggle and use those experiences to build a mass socialist party, he mistakenly seems to leave open the possibility of resuscitating Starmer’s Labour Party: “Or, alternatively, continue the struggle to re-found the Labour Party, since the disgraceful undermining and demonising of Corbyn’s leadership and the subsequent closing down of party democracy under the leadership of Keir Starmer”.

The history of the anti-poll tax struggle is not an excuse to sit back and reminisce about the ‘good old days’ because the attacks on our class, the working class, including cuts in jobs and services continue unabated. That is the case whether the attacks come from the current, weak Tory government or from a future Starmer-led government. A new period of working-class struggle has opened up and a new layer of warriors are learning the lessons of past struggles including the anti-poll tax campaign.

See also In Defence Of Our Great Anti-Poll Tax Victory, in Socialism Today No.241, September 2020.