Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay (V): The Wall Comes Tumbling Down

November 13, 2013 4:48 pm

Part Five in a series of ten articles on the history of the  ‘Anti-Poll Tax Campaign’. CHRIS ROBINSON looks at how the campaign developed at the local level in his own area of Northwich, Cheshire – reflected up and down the country as millions prepared to fight back against the vicious new tax inspired, in part, by the ‘people power’ of the fall of the Iron Curtain.

5

“Drop a pebble in a pool, and the waves spread. We can be that pebble” – Gladys Shaw, Tenants’ Association, Northwich, Cheshire

‘People Power’ came into its own in the winter of 1989 and beyond, both nationally and internationally.
In Britain, a huge groundswell was building in open opposition against Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax. First introduced in Scotland, vociferous opposition was being built up. It was not in the form of a Labour Party or trade union-led uprising, though many members of both took part. The mighty British labour movement need only have lifted its finger against the poll tax and it, and the vicious Tory government, would have been dead in the water in 1987. But under the (mis)leadership of Neil Kinnock, and the moribund trade union barons, ordinary working class families were left to the mercies of the most vindictive, oppressive government known to Britons for generations.

Across the housing schemes of Scotland, anti-poll tax unions (APTUs) had been organised, despite the spoiling tactics of the Labour aristocracy and trade union bureaucracy presenting token gestures like the feeble ‘Stop it’ Campaign. In the end, the working class knew that the best campaign – the one consistently put forward by the Militant Tendency – was a campaign of civil disobedience based around mass non-payment of the poll tax.

Following many demonstrations, including the 20,000 strong demo in Glasgow on March 18, 1989, and numerous rallies, despite the best attempts by the national media to ignore the anti-poll tax struggle, the campaign was about to cross the border into England and Wales where, by the end of March, 1990 the poll tax would be introduced. The media wall of silence was about to come tumbling down.

‘Land Fit for Heroes’

Northwich is a middle-sized town in the middle of sleepy, rural Cheshire. Like its nearby sister Winsford, it was founded on the ancient salt mining trade in the Roman times, supplying places like the nearby fortress of Deva (Chester).
Down the centuries, Northwich grew some local industry. This was boosted by the arrival, at the turn of the 20th century, of the Brunner-Mond company. Brunner-Mond went on to become the multinational conglomerate of the Imperial Chemicals Industries (ICI) which quickly outstripped the salt-mining works as the town’s chief employer with sprawling plants at Lostock and Winnington.

Northwich town, even a sleepy town in Cheshire had an ‘Anti-Poll Tax Union’

The reforming Labour government of 1945-51 of Clement Attlee had founded the welfare state of post-war Britain. Under its auspices, it had nationalised the commanding heights of industry, rail, transport, mines, gas, water, electricity, shipbuilding amongst them and had created the National Health Service (NHS). For the first time in British history, a genuine sense of community was given a chance to replace the chaos and hardship of laissez-faire capitalism that remained burnt in the memories of so many millions since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The privations and the horrors of the war had demonstrated the need to rebuild the peace. There was a real sense that the promises following the First World War had been broken. ‘The Land Fit for Heroes’ had ended in dole queues, hunger, poverty and squalor. This time, under a Labour government with a massive majority, it was hoped the government would get it right.

In reality, Thatcher meant to roll back all the gains of 1945 and deliver the commanding heights of the economy back into the hands of capitalism.

The defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85, the rightward lurch of Labour under Kinnock, the capitulation of the local councils in the anti-rate capping campaign, only invited more aggression. Only the defiance of Liverpool City Council and Lambeth, who fought to the end, showed the way for the working class to fight back. Militant was at the forefront of these struggles. Militant members were rewarded with expulsion from the Labour Party, surcharge and disqualification from the councils alongside other Labour Party members.

The weakness of the Kinnockites only invited further attacks from Thatcher. Her flagship policy – the poll tax – was the most vicious. The campaign against it was to be the ‘Revenge of Militant’.

I joined Militant in September, 1987. At that time there was a Militant branch in Northwich.
I had been aware of the existence of Militant through the press furore about Derek Hatton and the Liverpool City Council. They were hated by Thatcher, and they were hated and disowned by Kinnock – so I knew, instinctively, that they must have been doing something right!

They were vilified because they dared to actually carry out their election manifesto. They cleared slums and built houses, created jobs and supported workers in struggle. Militant also, by that time, had three socialist Labour MPs – ‘workers MPs on workers’ wages’ – councillors and trade union representatives who also accepted workers’ wages so that they would remain aware of the bread and butter issues of the people they represented and not get cut off from their class by the inflated champagne and caviar wages of the parliamentary and trade union aristocracies and forget where they came from.

The introduction of the poll tax was to especially highlight the social gap between the haves and have-nots. The poll tax was a massive transference of wealth from the poor to the rich. It really was ‘Robin Hood in reverse’. The Labour and trade union aristocracy’s political outlook was dictated by their economic conditions (ie. their high salaries). Small wonder they told people: ‘Pay the poll tax, obey the law, and wait for a Labour government’. They didn’t want to understand that the majority of people simply could not afford to wait.

Life got harder

I was a day student at Crewe and Alsager College when I was recruited to Militant by a friend of a friend, called Dave Moran, in Northwich.

The national press campaign against the Militant-led Liverpool council was still in full swing at that time and when I attended my first meeting I was given the other side of the story. I promptly joined there and then. The Liverpool Labour council had fulfilled its election promises and was still being attacked for making a fighting stand against Thatcherism.

As I grew up in the 1970s, it was difficult to tell the difference between life under Labour or the Tories. My instincts were for Labour, and I loyally voted for them at every local and general election, but life never seemed to get better. As Thatcher came to power, life got harder. Lack of work and fewer prospects had urged me to find work abroad in Germany at the beginning of the 1980s where monetarism was practically unheard of.

Initially, I was a little suspicious of some Militant members. I had experienced some of the antics of student politics in college – some of them were middle class radicals who belonged to the SWP. Some of these ‘radicals’ were posh kids who had caught ‘political acne’ for three years before going home to work for daddy’s business.

Despite this, in my first term at college in 1985, there had been a strike and we had occupied the college for four weeks when an American exchange student had been under threat of being sent home for taking time off to visit Paris for a long weekend. The strike was successful and I was impressed with how we organised ourselves with our student union – the leaflets we published, our open meetings, our public rallies, our speaking tours to other colleges. And the fact that our strike was a victory was nothing short of inspiring to know that we didn’t have to put up with bullying tactics of management.

But, although some of the Northwich Militant members had gone to college or university, we were mostly working class.

There was Matthew Davies who had been a Manchester student, hailing from Northwich, he had sacrificed a potentially lucrative career as a journalist to become politically active; George Deacon from Thetford in Norfolk, who had been a fellow student of Matthew’s and now shared a house with others in Northwich. Around them, they gathered Martin Bates, Juliet McGreavy and Dave Moran, all from Northwich. They had been involved in Youth CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), throwing themselves into a fight against the arms race – sometimes literally when they took part in a ‘public die-in’! At a Youth CND recruitment meeting, Pete Naylor, a member of Mersey Militant, had gone along with the intent of recruiting young people to the Tendency.

Pete must have made a marvellous intervention at the meeting because George, Juliet, Matthew and Martin were to form the nucleus of the first Militant branch in Northwich.

Marxist theory

Militant branch members attended regular weekly branch meetings, organised Saturday paper sales in the town centre and at least one estate sale per week knocking on doors and raising fighting fund. We paid monthly subscriptions – mine was a fiver as I was a poor student with a part-time bar job. All the while the aim was to recruit new members or, at least build up a list of contacts of those who would take the paper regularly, or we could call on for support or donations.

Branch meetings educated members in Marxist theory, or we would revisit significant periods of working class history. We organised activities and campaigns co-ordinated nationally and regionally through our organisation. We were not by any means just a political discussion group, we were a Marxist-Leninist organisation who were not there just to talk the talk but walk the walk. As Marx wrote: ‘Philosophers explain the world, the point is to change it.’                          

 ‘Philosophers explain the world, the point is to change it.’ – Marx

The final condition of joining the Militant Tendency was to agree to join the Labour Party. Something I agreed to do while holding my nose. As mentioned before, I had always voted Labour since I turned eighteen in 1974. The biggest impression made on me was that our parents had experienced first hand the benefits of the Welfare State and the NHS. It was a world away compared to life growing up in the Depression of the 1930s. My father was born in 1926, the year of the General Strike, my mother in 1929 when the Wall Street Crash led to mass unemployment. They both knew the hardship of life during the war, leaving school at 14.

My father once pointed out a sombre-looking building to me – it used to be the local parish workhouse. His first job on leaving school was emptying domestic human waste before the benefits of modern plumbing. My mother went to work ‘in service’ in a chip shop in Manchester away from her family. So they voted Labour all their lives because they saw life improve for them, and millions of working class people, due to the 1945 Labour government.

George Deacon and Juliet McGreavy invited me to the next local Labour Party meeting to get a taste of the machinations of the rightwing Kinnockites, attended as it was by a number of borough and town councillors who knew only too well who we were. When I applied to join the party first time around my application form was ‘lost’. On applying a second time, I was told they were ‘full up’.

It was to be a year later when I gained entry, by applying nationally. I attended  regular ‘Militant’ paper sales on Saturday mornings in Northwich shopping precinct. We used a pasting table, decorated it with posters pinned to the front, laden with papers, leaflets and any current pamphlets. Comrades using our fighting fund collection tins sold up to thirty-odd papers and regularly got donations of around £10 – £20. Petitions gained us names and addresses of likely regulars who might take the paper or join the branch. Shoppers would stop to talk to us. Some obvious rightwing Labour or Tory supporters would sneer, argue with us, or generally verbally abuse us but we would argue them off the precinct, or laugh, or blast them with the branch megaphone. Occasionally, we got a visit off a policeman who would try to make us move on, only for us to set up shop further down the street. Some police officers discussed politics with us, usually sympathetically and didn’t bother us. Then there were the estate sales.

Often the response was excellent and we would get a regular sale, or even get invited inside to discuss politics and get someone interested in coming to a branch meeting. We had links with the local trades council (the local TUC), though that was mostly run by retired ex-communists, negative, tired people who had lost all their faith in the working class and who were only really a moribund discussion group that came up with reasons not to fight back. But they could be useful for the odd donation now and again. They also had some connections to figures amongst local shop stewards which proved useful in some of our campaigning.

The real hatred came from the older Labour Party members, some of whom photographed comrades selling the paper to help build a case for their expulsion. Our full-timer, Pete Naylor was expelled.

Heading our way

Into 1988, my attendances at the branch began to fall off as my college work, and my job to support my meagre grant, had to take priority.  I still took the paper and paid my subs. The height of my political activity was to write a letter in support of Pete Naylor who had been expelled from the local Labour Party for being a Militant supporter. George used to visit me almost religiously on a Sunday afternoon – ‘the vicar of socialism’, I used to call him. Once I had stopped taking the piss, his discussions with me kept my understanding of socialism on the boil, though I was adamant not to allow myself to be drawn back into branch activity.

When I finished college that summer, the need to earn a living was foremost in my mind. After gaining my degree, I became a cleaner in the local college to scrape my rent and pay off any outstanding debts – no ‘gap year’ for me. By January, 1989 the ‘vicar’ finally got me to attend a branch meeting. Opening that week’s paper as the comrades were gathering, I’d been reading about the anti-poll tax unions in Scotland.

“We’ve got to do something about this poll tax. It’s heading our way”, I said.  That’s exactly what was on the agenda. Labour weren’t doing anything, so we had to.

We set about organising an estate meeting with the Danefields Estate Tenants Association under the auspices of YTURC and had a guest speaker from the Scottish APTUs, Pat Brown. We also managed to bring local Labour councillor, Bob Mather. Pat gave us a potted history of the non-payment campaign of the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation: “For the majority of people in Scotland, it’s not a question of ‘won’t pay, but can’t pay’, he said. “People in Scotland are getting involved in a campaign to stand together against the poll tax. I’m here seeking support from people in England and Wales for people in Scotland. Only in this way can the poll tax be defeated.”

Cllr. Bob Mather,  true to Labour Party policy across the country, was there to pour cold water on proceedings and issued a barely concealed dire warning against non-payment: “Everyone over eighteen will pay the poll tax. A support register will be compiled and failure to register would mean either cuts in services, a fine of up to £200 or removal from the electoral register. No payment, no vote!” Like other Labour representatives, the best he could offer was to say that he was opposed to the poll tax, but by implication, it was ‘pay it and wait for a Labour government’. A mantra we had heard a hundred times before. He added that the local Labour Party would call a public meeting ‘later in the year’, a meeting that, if it ever took place at all, had no impact whatsoever.

Danefields tenants that were present were outraged. A family on the estate with six members over eighteen would be liable for fees of more than £1,000 per year on Mather’s modest reckonings. As it turned out, his calculations were way off mark. The poll tax for Vale Royal Borough Council, of which Northwich was a part, turned out to be £399! That family of six faced a collective bill of £2,400!

Secretary of Danefields Tenants Association and a grandmother, Gladys Shaw, who sadly would not live to see the outcome of the forthcoming struggle, took up the meeting’s call for action. She proposed combining with other tenants associations in the area. She told the meeting: “We must stand together on this. Drop a pebble in a pool and the wave spreads. We can be that pebble.”

Prophetic words.

Rallying around

We had more than a year to go before the poll tax was introduced in England and Wales. By April, 1989 everyone over eighteen was supposed to be registered for the new tax. Militant, nationally, proposed we try to rally people around non-registration and to use this to raise awareness of what was happening in Scotland. Despite our efforts, and those of Militant branches across the country, non-registration was a non-starter. We recognised that people would probably not get the wake up call until the cold, hard fact of a poll tax bill was about to be pushed through their letterboxes. Try as we did, the ‘media wall of silence’ erected around what was happening in Scotland was, to a certain extent, dampening down a large part of the movement south of the border.

This did not stop our activities.

We had made inroads at the local FE college through our YTURC work. We held impromptu rallies in the college canteen. The vivid memory of our comrade, Juliet McGreavy, banging a tin tray to gain students’ attention when the battery on our megaphone had run low went down in the folk lore of our branch. We held meetings against student loans, on apartheid in South Africa, even a public debate between one of our comrades and a Young Conservative student to create interest and a buzz. From these activities, a college APTU was formed. Together with the contacts we made there, and our local supporters, we filled a coach to take part in the March 18 20,000 strong anti-poll tax demonstration in Glasgow.

At this time, I was working as a postman. I saw the potential was there to get the postal union in Northwich to affiliate to our APTU and, who knows, if I could gain influence in the UCW (now the Communications Workers Union – CWU) branch, maybe I could get poll tax bills boycotted by postal services in Vale Royal.

This wasn’t as overambitious as it sounded. Although I brought it to the comrades, they seemed more preoccupied with work either on the estates or in the college at the Hartford campus, consolidating our hard work there, especially following up the contacts made from the Glasgow demo in March, important as it was.

The Northwich branch of the postal workers union was led very effectively by their shop steward, Nick Wilkinson. When I first spoke with him, I told him if ever he needed any help with union matters just ask. He also proudly told me how it had been the Northwich branch that had sparked the last national postal strike in late 1988, as a mark of their willingness to fight the bosses over the introduction of privatised delivery services in parcels.

Working on the post was a hard job. It made you very fit with an early start at 3.20 in the morning. You stood at your ‘fittings’ and sorted all the mail for your designated ‘walk’ by the street in numerical order. By half past five, you had to be ready, then bag your mail. I was told my ‘walk’ in Weaverham was the longest. I had three bags of mail sometimes. We picked up our bikes and the other Weaverham crew crammed into the back of a rusty red post van and got dropped off come hail, snow or rain.

Often it was icy cold, but the body soon warmed up once you were pedalling the bike, balancing with a big bag of mail upfront. I took one bag and left the other two at the local post office to pick up on my way round. It was a good job, the fresh air, the cycling, the sorting and posting, and I liked to travel. I had my fair share of snarling Rotweilers and Dobermans.

Nick Wilkinson would call us altogether and hold impromptu union meetings, ask management to leave and call everyone from their work to discuss negotiations over one issue or another. One young worker had been ‘carpetted’ for ‘walking around with his hands in his pockets’. I was ‘advised’ to get my haircut and ‘brighten up my image’. Lower managers were briefed not to be ‘too friendly’ with staff, and to ‘maintain a distance’.

£65 for a thirty hour week, and most of us ‘associate’ post workers (part-time temporary) were offered all the overtime we wanted. Another postman told me he used to get £57 a week with a family and mortgage to support. He told me someone else had been dismissed because he had six days off sick in six months, while another, Craig, had just received his ‘final warning’ for having his sixth day of sickness in eighteen months!

A fire broke out one day, accidentally started by roofing contractors.

Unanimous vote

The  sorting office was an ancient listed building made of wood – a potential fire trap. Our rest room and fire escape were out of action. The damaged roof was leaking water causing dangerous slippery pools on the wooden floor. A plank fell through a glass skylight, destroying a couple of fittings. Somebody could have been killed. By March 11, Nick Wilkinson called for an immediate vote to walk out until management made repairs. The vote was unanimous – apart from the scab. Over that weekend, the post office roof, rest room and the fire escape were restored.

I wanted to get a resolution passed at the next UCW branch, to affiliate it to the APTU. The intention was to involve the local union in anti-poll tax work. I would try to get a boycott on delivery of registration forms, maybe get the branch to refuse to handle council mail until they agreed not to implement the poll tax. On April 3, I attended the UCW branch meeting in the Lion and Railway pub. I had put the poll tax on the agenda. There were twenty-plus members present. Nominees were welcomed to stand for the branch committee. Steve Gough put himself forward, so did I, as an afterthought. It had been expected that Steve would win unchallenged as he was a long-standing member. I was a newcomer. I lost by six votes!

I then held the floor when the poll tax came up on the agenda. I explained how everybody was liable to pay the poll tax and that it was a massive transference of wealth from the working class to the rich. It was my first ever political speech in front of a meeting (apart from our political discussions at the Militant branch). I told the meeting that people like us would be hammered by the new tax bills that we were expected to deliver to ourselves and thousands of others like us. I won the vote taken to affiliate to the APTU. Steve Gough commented that we ‘weren’t allowed’ to refuse to deliver the Royal Mail. His memory of last year’s national postal strike not as vivid as others.

No millionaire backers

By the end of summer and into autumn, our branch had slowly wound down. We scattered in all directions across the country as members went to different colleges. George and Juliet now shared a flat together and I had returned from a trip abroad and was staying at a mate’s house in his attic. I would visit George whose flat was just around the corner. We were both unemployed so we had time to discuss politics and analyse what had happened with the branch. George had been exhausted with the exacting demands made on him as a Militant full-timer over the past two or three years.

Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989

Militant didn’t have any millionaire backers but existed on paper sales and donations from workers and the labour movement. Therefore, full-timers, if they ever got paid at all, received a sparse £30 per month if they were lucky.
By November, the rumblings of revolution were stirring and well underway in the Eastern European Stalinist states. The whole of the Warsaw Pact countries were rocked by the might of their working class risings against decades of stagnation, shortages, corrupt bureaucratic authoritarianism and the stifling of any hint of workers’ democracy.
The one-party states, under the dictatorship of the Stalinist leaders of the USSR, were beginning to reap the harvest of their inability or unwillingness to create genuine socialism as intended by the leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky.

Hungary and Czechoslovakia first began to show cracks as waves of refugees travelled through the ‘Iron Curtain’ to the west. The trickle became a wave and the process escalated until the workers of East Germany also took to the streets and forced their governments to resign, implode or collapse as police helplessly looked on as the masses took the stage. Nobody could ever forget the historic scenes as the monstrosity of the Berlin Wall came tumbling down as the workers of the east linked hands with those of the west.

All through the winter of 1989 and into the new year the whole of Eastern Europe had been transformed from stultified Stalinist totalitarian societies and had managed, one way or another – most violently in Rumania – to topple the Stalinists. Unfortunately, with no socialist party at the head of such movements, one yoke was replaced by another when full blown capitalism moved in to snap up the best of the industries and services and command economies became a privatised free for all, creating more poverty, unemployment, bad housing and crumbling public services than there had ever been even under the deformed Stalinist worker states.

In one region, the Balkans, and primarily Yugoslavia, even worse was to follow by 1991. For the first time in fifty years open warfare in Europe took place as the Yugoslavian state tore itself apart and nationalism reared its head, and the barbaric reappearance of concentration camps demonstrated how capitalism could only usher in a world of war, massacres and the new euphemism for genocide – ‘ethnic cleansing’. All in the name of former Stalinist apparatchiks building support by appealing to the most base, nationalistic instincts in order to cling to power.

Western capitalists had tried to bury the revolutions by proclaiming the ‘triumph of capitalism’ that had supposedly won the ideological battle between east and west, between capitalism and so-called communism. But even the west had looked on as the masses had risen against their oppressors. They could never drown out the images of millions of working class people on the march. It was there as a shining example of ‘people power’ and it was nothing short of an inspiration to workers across the world.

It was to give another boost to the soon to be home grown ‘people power’ against the poll tax.

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