Part Four of ten articles exploring the history of the grass-roots movement against Thatcher’s infamous poll tax. CHRIS ROBINSON looks at the beginning of the fight back. Thatcher’s Tory government introduced the poll tax a year earlier in Scotland following their rejection of ‘Thatcherism’ in the 1987 elections. An acknowledged ‘Labour stronghold’, yet it wasn’t Labour who were to lead the campaign.
“We have caused a tremor which will turn into an earthquake” – Tommy Sheridan, Anti-Poll Tax Federation
Scotland was the testing ground. ‘The Abolition of Domestic Rates (Scotland) Act’ was pushed through Parliament to thrust the poll tax onto the Scottish working class. Thatcher used Scotland as if it was some political laboratory.
As Tommy Sheridan, chair of what was to become the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF), was to write in 1994: “The Tories had nothing to lose up here (electorally). But they forgot that the Scottish people had nothing left to lose either”.
The Scottish working class had firmly rejected Thatcherism and consisted of some of the most combative fighters against the ravages of capitalism so, spitefully, the Tories chose to implement the poll tax there earlier than the rest of the country. It was a big mistake.
Scottish workers have a long history of struggle. The Scottish Labour Party was one of the original organisations that helped form the British Labour Party, Keir Hardie was its first MP. James Connolly moved from his work as an activist in the Scottish labour movement and became a leader of the Marxist movement in Ireland. John McLean was one of the leaders of ‘Red Clydeside’ that was on the brink of revolution in 1919, panicking the British ruling class into sending troops and tanks to occupy the city of Glasgow, Scottish miners were at the forefront of the eight month national strike that had developed into the General Strike of 1926, and their descendants in the NUM later helped remove the Heath government in 1973-74 and took on the full force of the Thatcher state in 1984-85.
In Scotland, as in the mining communities across Britain, the 1984 miners’ strike was fought tenaciously and with a strong sense of communal solidarity that, though left to fight without the full support of the labour movement leadership, thousands of working class people raised and donated money, clothes and food supplies before the miners were practically starved back to work. Though that struggle was lost, the idea and will to struggle was not. By the time the poll tax arrived, those communities, not just mining communities, would be under attack again.
For the first time, Margaret Thatcher was to finally unite society. A tidal wave of revolt was about to be unleashed against her.
The poll tax was designed as a body blow to local authorities, particularly those run by Labour. The Thatcher project was intended to ‘roll back the frontiers of socialism’ and, throughout her tenure at Downing Street, she and those grouped around her, had worn away at local councils’ abilities to provide the public the services they needed.
Historically, it was because 19th century capitalism would not clear up its own mess in the cities and towns – open sewers, bad housing, diseases and lack of an educated workforce – that local councils had to take in hand all these social problems, levying a local rate. The councils organised a skilled workforce to carry out these urgent tasks primarily to provide business with a reliable source of labour. They were soon to help provide hospitals, schools, water and better housing as British imperialism could afford some concessions, especially if it helped undercut support for the growing labour movement. Naturally, the majority of those benefiting directly would vote for those who provided the best services for the community. At first, at the end of the 19th century, the Liberal Party benefited in local elections, but they were surpassed by the growth of the Labour Party based on the working class, mainly in urban and industrial areas. Hence, by the 20th century, and after the 1945 Labour government reforms, the likes of Thatcher saw most councils, certainly all Labour councils, as centres of ‘municipal socialism’. She wanted to re-introduce those old ‘Victorian values’ and attacked the idea of ‘collectivism’, infamously denying the existence of society as ‘just men, women and their families’!
Between 1979 and 1988, the Tories gradually trimmed down central government funding – the Rate Support Grant – by £28.5 billion in Britain. Councils were told to make it easier for tenants to buy their houses, opening up swathes of housing stock to be sold off, not just individually, but to private landlords and housing associations. Those who could not afford to buy were left to suffer diminishing repairs and services on the worst sink estates where poverty and crime became rife. Yet, perversely, councils were then forbidden to touch any receipts from council house sales!
The poll tax would represent barely over a fifth of council funding after a jittery Nigel Lawson provided something of a safety net of ploughing a transitional grant to help soften the blow. The Tories were anxious to keep the flat rate of the poll tax as low as possible to prevent a political backlash. Nevertheless, the Thatcherites insisted that ‘everyone should make a contribution’. If the rate support grant continued to fall then the Tories knew the councils would face the choice of either raising the poll tax or cutting jobs and services, or else putting them out to ‘competitive tendering’ – ie. selling them off to private contractors. Either they would pass the costs onto the working class, or close down libraries, nurseries, leisure centres, close schools or services for the elderly and disabled. Either way, the working class was going to bear the brunt of this local tax.
Meanwhile, the richest man in Britain, the Duke of Westminster, a cousin to the Queen, would be liable to pay a poll tax of around £400, saving £9,600 he used to pay in rates for his Cheshire mansion.
The Tories were hopeful that, apart from the shift in wealth from the poor to the rich, a useful by-product would be the resentment voters would feel towards Labour councils who raised the poll tax or cut services.
When the poll tax was introduced in Scotland in 1987, a few small groups of activists began to form in Edinburgh, Govan, Maryhill and, significantly, in Pollok, Glasgow.
At the forefront of the anti-poll tax group in Pollok was Labour Party member and Militant supporter, Tommy Sheridan.
In 1987, the year of Thatcher’s third general election victory, Militant was being hounded out of the Labour Party by the Kinnockites. The Liverpool city council struggle was being played out with more expulsions and suspensions. The 47 Liverpool councillors were surcharged, or fined, to the tune of £106,000, and disqualified from holding public office for five years. They had been expelled from the Labour Party the year before, leaving Kinnock the chance to step aside and leave them exposed to be attacked by the capitalist media and the unelected House of Lords, who finally moved them from office. But, Militant supporters were elected in Liverpool in the May, 1987 local elections, and other Militant socialists were re-elected to Parliament (Nellist and Fields), with Pat Wall gaining his seat in Bradford. If Labour had received the same percentage of votes nationally that Militant supporters had won locally, then Neil Kinnock would have been swept to office in Downing Street and Thatcher – along with the poll tax – would have been kicked into the dustbin of history.
Instead, Kinnock’s leadership was a miserable failure. He, and those ‘New Realists’ around him, believed the answer was a further move to the right, abandon more principles and keep on expelling socialists.
Yet, where would Militant socialists be expelled to if they were chased from the party? They would be expelled to the trade union branches, and to the housing estates where they would continue to agitate and re-build the movement towards a socialist society.
Hitting Scotland first
The Tories in Scotland had been severely damaged by the 1987 general election. There were only ten Scottish Tory MPs compared to fifty Labour members. Nevertheless, Tory victory below the border meant further attacks on the working class. Calls increased in some sections of workers for a Scottish Assembly, or even complete independence as the introduction of the poll tax appeared on the horizon, hitting Scotland first.
The so-called ‘Fighting Fifty’ Labour MPs meekly began the ‘Stop it’ Campaign, the ‘Scottish Campaign Against the Poll Tax’. They became better known as the ‘Feeble Fifty’ As time would tell and, as with other ‘protests’ inspired by the Kinnockite right, it was pure gesture politics. Even the Scottish National Party (SNP) began to advocate non-payment, more as a way of seeming to be to the left of Labour. Sensing some movement stirring from below, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, attempted to make an effort to appeal to the Tories’ better side – if he could find one. Dewar spoke behind closed doors with his opposite number, the then Scottish Secretary, Malcolm ‘Gatling Gun’ Rifkin.
Donald urged his parliamentary chum to ‘scrap the poll tax, cancel cuts in social security and invest in health and education’. But Malcolm mustn’t have been listening that day because Donald’s verbal duelling came to nothing: “It may well be it will have to be decided at the ballot box at some future time”, said Dewar.
This was to be typical of the Labour Party leadership’s response to fighting the poll tax – ‘don’t rock the boat, don’t break the law, pay the poll tax and wait for a Labour government’.
Meanwhile, the real fightback was getting underway on the ground. If Labour was not going to lead a struggle, if they were going to stand aside or even hinder, then workers were going to defend themselves. The memories of Kinnock’s and Hattersley’s condemnations of so-called ‘picket line violence’ during the miners’ strike was still hanging in the air and their lack of a show of leadership was all too familiar.
Mass non-payment was first publicly raised by Labour councillor Chic Stevenson at the Militant conference in Scotland towards the end of 1987. A Marxist, Chic was a shop steward in the MSF union and a councillor for the Queenslie ward in Easterhouse, Glasgow. He called for a mass campaign of civil disobedience in Scotland. This proposal was to be further discussed at a special Militant conference in April, 1988 after months of discussion and debate throughout the Militant Tendency. In April that year, when registration for the poll tax was in force, it was unanimously decided to begin a campaign of disobedience based on non-payment. Chic Stevenson spoke at this conference: “I’m having nothing to do with Thatcher’s poll tax. I am voting against Glasgow district council setting its part of the tax at £92 per person, along with five other councillors. A mass non-payment campaign will still have to be organised. I was elected to fight Thatcher, not to bow the knee to her poll tax”.
The Militant-initiated ‘Labour Against the Poll Tax’ had already organised anti-poll tax unions (APTU) and anti-poll tax federations on housing schemes by the end of 1987, especially in the west of Scotland. The Labour Party Scottish conference, which had taken place a month before in March, contrasted sharply with Militant’s fightback. Dick Douglas MP, who was a rightwinger, but who could feel the heat beneath him, criticised Neil Kinnock when he said: “There is an army waiting to be led down the road to non-payment. (Neil Kinnock) is like a general leading his troops into a battle with a white flag”.
While Kinnock was too busy ducking and diving with an eye on the next photo opportunity, more important conferences were convening.
The Militant newspaper reported that April: ‘Four hundred people packed into a public meeting to establish an anti-poll tax union in the area (Pollok). “What are we going to do? How can we fight this?” they asked. A shop steward from Govan shipbuilders asked the regional Labour councillor: “If the regional council is so against this tax then why have they got people running around harassing tenants and intimidating old age pensioners with post cards and registration forms?”
‘He was answered by Tommy Sheridan: “We need councillors who are prepared to fight, to stand up now against this tax. One and a half million are prepared to defy this law”. ‘Sheridan was voted secretary of the Pollok Anti-Poll Tax Union’.
By July, the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation was formed representing thousands of working class people in 105 APTUs that called for mass non-payment, and demanded Labour councillors refuse to implement the tax. Sheridan was elected secretary of the new federation.
At the Labour Party conference in October, to the horror of the Kinnockites, Militant supporters and other Labour Party members called for non-payment of the poll tax, Glasgow councillor Jim McVicar said: “We can’t just wait for a Labour government. A mass campaign is the only way to guarantee a Labour victory. The choice is between the red flag of socialism and the white flag of surrender”.
Predictably, Labour leaders rejected the non-payment campaign. Donald Dewar stated that non-payment was…”tactically naïve and wrong in principle”.
While Donald was sticking to his ‘principles’, millions of ordinary working class people, some of whom he was supposed to be representing, were about to be attacked by the Tory poll tax. But Labour’s refusal to heed the Militant call cost them dear with the SNP gaining Govan in a by-election in November. Significantly, the SNP supported non-payment, and made much of it in their campaign. Jim Sillars – an ex-Labour MP – won the seat with a 33% swing to the Nationalists. “I concentrated on the fact that Donald Dewar is telling people to pay the poll tax while the SNP is organising a campaign against it”, he said.
But, in reality, the SNP were forwarding their own brand of non-payment. Theirs was a slogan of ‘Can Pay, Won’t Pay’. They called for an elitist ‘those who can afford it not to pay’ supposedly not to force the poor into more debt. Their aim was to get 100,000 middle class ‘refuseniks’ on principle, instead of the millions of working class people, an army, who would refuse to pay out of necessity.
The SNP were themselves a balancing act, trying to keep its working class and middle class elements from falling apart. Its worker components, like Jim Sillars MP, advocated mass non-payment on platforms with Tommy Sheridan, but officially ‘Can Pay, Won’t Pay’ was adhered to in order to keep the SNP together. Meanwhile, SNP-controlled councils like Angus District Council implemented the poll tax. In Grampian, SNP councillors sided with the Tories and Liberals to take the poll tax from those on benefits.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) were also doubtful about the idea of mass non-payment. They argued that working class communities refusing to pay would only be subjected to wage arrestments, fines, threats from bailiffs (Sheriff’s Officers in Scotland). Whereas, they believed, the emphasis should have been on organising workplace unions. The Militants in Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation argued that trade unions should certainly join the fight in the workplace against the poll tax, but the base for the campaign for mass non-payment was in the community and it would include all those unemployed, non-unionised, family members, students. In fact, dozens of union branches were affiliated to the Federation in Strathclyde as hundreds more were to affiliate to the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Along with tenants’ associations and leisure centre meetings in the communities, there were hundreds of factory gate meetings to recruit workers to the anti-poll tax cause. By the end of 1988, there were anti-poll tax federations in Scottish Central Region and in Lothian and Fife.
Most of these federations were made up of those who were not members of any party, but Militant supporters were the ones who provided the necessary backbone of political leadership and programme for the movement.
Not only were the strategy and tactics of Militant supporters building an effective, far-reaching campaign of mass non-payment, they were also challenging the obstructions of the Labour and trade union bureaucratic leadership who were eager to dampen down resistance. In the words of Donald Dewar at the September 18, 1988 Labour Party recall conference in Govan, called especially to discuss the poll tax: “A party that believes it will be soon in power and responsible for legislation cannot repudiate obligations under the law. You cannot argue for the rule of law when the right people are in charge, and have the luxury of picking and choosing when they are not. The party which takes this course forfeits”.
It was an argument to be repeated by the fainthearts in the Labour Party up and down the country – ‘obey the law, pay the poll tax’. Militant’s answer was ‘better to break the law than break the poor’.
When the bureaucrats of the Labour Party could not answer the socialist argument for mass non-payment, they answered with bureaucratic measures.
Though their non-payment campaign in Pollok brought more than one hundred new recruits to the Labour Party, people like Tommy Sheridan were attacked in the press and calls were made to investigate Militant supporters in the Labour Party. Expulsions were being prepared against them and other anti-poll tax activists.
Nevertheless, the campaign continued to spread, and the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation conference at the end of 1988 called for a national demonstration in Glasgow for March 18, 1989 to protest the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland.
On the day, 20,000 demonstrated in the pouring rain through the streets of Glasgow, getting hoots from the traffic and cheers from the shoppers.
‘Not enough to go to demos’
At the rally in Alexandra Park, Labour MP Ron Brown told the demonstrators: “We cannot afford to wait three years for the next Labour government, because we need a mass campaign against the poll tax to make sure we get a Labour government”.
Tommy Sheridan, now the All Scottish Federation chair, congratulated the thousands in the park: “A lot of people said we couldn’t deliver this demonstration. We proved them a thousand times wrong. We have caused a tremor which will turn into an earthquake of mass non-payment. But it will not be enough to go to demonstrations. We need you to go back to your housing schemes and trade unions to get active. If every trade unionist puts pressure on their leaders, then Maggie Thatcher will not be able to collect the poll tax”.
Further demonstrations followed in April and June, and the movement was beginning to spill over to England with a TUC-sponsored demonstration in Manchester with 30,000 strong with another march in Walthamstow. The TUC showed little organisational flair but were making a gesture after feeling the pressure of their members against the tax. TUC speakers were jeered when they spoke against non-payment. David Blunkett MP failed to offer any leadership on how to fight the new tax. At a Militant meeting after the rally, Tommy Sheridan called for the campaign to be unleashed across Britain. Up to a million now were refusing to pay the poll tax in Scotland, but there was not a word of it in the media. The task of Militant and the APTUs was to spread the word and build the movement.
The third conference of the Strathclyde Federation in August detailed the extent of non-payment in Scotland – out of four million liable to pay, 1.2 million were refusing. In the Lothian regional council meeting of August 29, Labour councillors who were willing to stand aside from Tory attacks on the working class were pelted by poll tax payment books by APTU members, representing the anger and disgust of 160,000 Lothian non-payers.
With the hatred of the poll tax being reflected in the opinion polls soaring in favour of the Labour Party, the Kinnockites’ undeserved popularity was repaid by the expulsion of Tommy Sheridan from the party in September. Sheridan’s answer was to continue to build the campaign with another conference called at Manchester Free Trade Hall on November 25 that formed the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF) which duly elected him as its chair and received support from many more trade union branches as well as the backing of fifteen Labour MPs including Terry Fields and Dave Nellist.
The ever-growing campaign of civil disobedience was gathering pace and expanding across the length and breadth of the country. The movement was going full steam ahead in Scotland where the poll tax had been in force since April that year. But the capitalist media had constructed a ‘Berlin Wall of Silence’ around Scotland, hoping that news of resistance would not seep through and contaminate England and Wales.
But, like the real Berlin Wall that came down that autumn as the Eastern European masses momentarily took centre stage of world history, the oppressed working class of Britain were preparing to do battle against the most reactionary government in the post-war period.
The wall was about to be breached.