In Part Five of ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ with no political party willing to seriously oppose Thatcher’s poll tax, millions of ordinary people begin to organise themselves at grassroots level, often inspired by the historic revolutionary events in the former Stalinist countries of Eastern Europe. The town of Northwich was typical of the many communities up and down the country who were prepared to make a stand in spite of their political ‘betters’ advising otherwise.
“We did this” – George Deacon, Militant supporter
Historic events in Eastern Europe during the winter of 1989-90 inspired people the world over and worked as a beacon to the anti-poll tax campaign in Britain.
The events unfolded on our TV screens – the Berlin Wall coming down, the mass demonstrations, secret police being elbowed aside, dossiers being flung from police headquarters, Ceaucescu and his wife being shot and the long lines of funny-looking Trabant cars tuck-tucking their way to the greetings of western workers.
I optimistically phoned one of my local papers, the Northwich Chronicle, and asked to speak to someone in editorial. I offered to go to the Berlin Wall to report for them if they would pay my air fare.
“Now why would Northwich people be interested in that?” the tired voice came back to me.
“It’s history!” I said. “And I’m from Northwich”, I naively argued. With no air fare forthcoming, any revolution would have to be home grown.
My visits to George and Juliet’s flat became more frequent that winter where our political discussions became enthused by what was happening in Eastern Europe.
George had still kept in touch with Matthew Davies who now lived in Chester and who was involved with the Militant branch there. The controversy of the looming poll tax was everywhere I went – in Northwich pubs, post office queues, in cafes. People were talking about how much it was going to cost.
In November, 1989 the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF) had been founded with Tommy Sheridan elected as chair. We decided, one early January morning of 1990, in George’s living room, over a cup of tea and with ‘Kilroy’ on the telly, that we would set about re-launching our anti-poll tax campaign drawing on our organisational skills and experience learned in the Militant.
In the final analysis, if Labour was not prepared to lead a struggle, like thousands of other working class people, we had no option but to defend ourselves.
George wanted to go for a public meeting somewhere in Rudheath, a village attached to the town, where there was a large council estate. I suggested we go for the big one at Northwich Memorial Hall. I reckoned we would have little trouble filling that place given the general mood on the streets. So we set about it.
I got my mate Arthur to knock off hundreds of flyers and leaflets on his computer. He also had access to his works photocopier with an eye over his shoulder in case his supervisor caught him. We booked the Memorial Hall for Tuesday, February 27 at a cost of about £300. We were hoping to cover the cost by passing collection buckets around the people who, hopefully, would turn up.
Together with Juliet and a Labour Party member, John Stanway, we leafleted and fly posted all around Northwich and its districts, despite the icy weather and pouring rain. We fly posted bus stops, walls, lamp posts using flour and water. George got the word out to the two local papers, the Northwich Chronicle and Northwich Guardian. It took four weeks until we covered the whole area, nearly every council house on every council estate was covered. Over two days before the meeting, we drove around the area and pulled out our old branch megaphone, wound down the car window and made sure everybody got a reminder.
In Winnington, we parked outside Labour councillors Bob and Janet Mather’s house and gave them a mega-blast about the meeting. A letter was written to all Vale Royal councillors to invite them to the meeting. They didn’t reply. Our Tory MP for Tatton, the infamous Neil Hamilton, replied to our letter explaining he couldn’t attend due to ‘other commitments’. Admittedly, we sent him a letter the day before the meeting as an afterthought. He replied that twenty-four hours was a little short notice. We received a £50 donation from the trades council. Juliet’s mother, Ellen, a shop steward at a local sewing factory, agreed to chair our meeting for us. Mersey Militant booked us a speaker from the ABAPTF, Geoff Goulding. We were all set to go.
We were nervous but excited about how things would go. When we got there, all the hall’s seating was set out. We joked about ‘what if we had a revolution and nobody came?’ By 7.30pm, people started to arrive. Pretty soon, all the seats were taken. After that, it was standing room only. By the time the meeting was underway, the hall was spilling over into the foyer and people had to be turned away due to fire regulations. Nevertheless, a small crowd gathered outside. As Ellen opened the meeting through the pa system, George looked at me and nodded to the packed hall of more than 600: “We did this”, he said.
Ellen opened the meeting presenting the stark choice of paying the poll tax or getting into debt on other commitments, or even whether people would have enough money for food and clothing. Said Ellen:
“This vicious, unfair tax, complemented by unjust laws to back it, takes no account of ability to pay. The blame for it lies fairly and squarely with this government…from this meeting we should be looking for the most effective ways we can organise our opposition”.
Geoff Goulding told the meeting that this was by far the largest gathering he had addressed in the North-West.
“I represent the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation that consists of more than 500 APTUs. We are preparing all over Britain, the biggest mass campaign of civil disobedience that this Tory government has ever witnessed. The kind of mass action we have been witnessing in Eastern Europe”.
He told of the TV coverage of Eastern Europe and the lack of similar coverage of the ‘mini-revolution’ taking place in Scotland against the poll tax.
Not a single penny
The first round of applause broke out minutes into the meeting after Geoff told of the half a million people in Scotland who hadn’t paid a single penny of the poll tax.
“The truth is, all around Britain, ordinary working people are not settling for the poll tax. In every town and city, thousands of people are signing up to support mass non-payment”, he said.
The meeting gave rise to lots of questions, but was underlined by a determination to beat the poll tax. When it was asked whether there were any Labour councillors present there was no reply. But Juliet wasn’t going to let that slip because, tucked away at the back of the crowd, was Cllr. Richard Merritt, hoping very much nobody would notice him so Juliet introduced him to everyone. He was shamed into coming onto the platform and addressing the meeting after trying to say he knew nothing of Labour councillors being invited to attend.
Ellen read their reply to our invitation, from their leader, David Hanson, since then a graduate to the House of Commons in a safe Welsh Labour seat: ‘Thank you for inviting us to your meeting. Unfortunately, all Labour councillors are attending a group meeting preparing for the council meeting on March 1. The group is discussing opposition to the poll tax’. They underlined that they were not in support of a non-payment campaign. No surprises there.
Richard Merritt got himself into a moral tangle about how else we were to fight the poll tax without breaking the law.
“I wish I knew the answer to that”, said Merritt, wringing his hands. He said he was ‘uncomfortable’ breaking the law, as even the Nazis had broken the law to get into power. He was reminded from the floor that, in fact, Hitler had come to power quite legally when the German government had traded him into a coalition cabinet but that had no bearing on the matter at hand. Thousands of people would be forced to break the law if they could not afford to pay the new tax.
Cllr. Merritt didn’t have an answer but we had more than 600 answers in the hall, and they all signed up to our anti-poll tax union. All our membership cards were sold out after the meeting. The collection buckets covered the cost of the hall and with some over to start our campaign proper. It was a busy week. On the Thursday, two days later, we were lobbying the Vale Royal Borough Council meeting that was to set the poll tax rate.
We weren’t on the evening’s agenda but we turned up anyway on March 1. About twenty of us showed up at short notice. Vale Royal was dominated by the Tories and when we arrived proceedings were already underway. There were no seats set aside for us so we stood on the plush carpet paid for with our money as the Executive Officer asked us to withdraw as the ‘community charge’ debate was down on the list. Clearly, they wanted to delay discussion hoping we would get fed up and drift away. We momentarily withdrew to discuss our next move. George, ever the political tactician, briefed us on our next move:
“It’s what we want in terms of our local press coverage. The press will want to know why we’re here. Let’s show ‘em”.
We went back inside the chamber.
George took the lead and interrupted the councillors: “We believe that the Tories have rearranged this meeting because they control the borough council. They’re going to set the poll tax. There’s very little we can do here tonight so we’re making a protest and demand that the Tories resign. We call on our Labour councillors to support us. We demand the Tories resign. You’re in disarray, if you don’t go tonight, we’ll get you in the local elections. We’re not paying the poll tax”.
Brothers and sisters
No Labour councillor said a word. The Executive Officer asked for the police to be called. The Tories cynically slow handclapped us.
Juliet summed them up: “You lot belong in the House of Lords”.
But we got our publicity. With the successful meeting two days before, it all helped to launch our campaign.
At our stall the next day in the shopping precinct, with about a dozen supporters, we leafleted and signed up more members. Our stall was drowned by constant crowds taking our leaflets and giving us donations.
I spotted a Tory councillor and his wife coming out of a soft furnishing shop: “And it’s curtains for the Tories!”
Saturday afternoon saw us on the big 15,000 strong anti-poll tax demo in Liverpool. After the long march to the city centre, we rallied at St. George’s Hall to hear several speakers, including a striking ambulance worker, Labour MP Eddie Loyden, and Tommy Sheridan.
“Brothers and sisters”, said Sheridan, “It’s a marvellous demonstration. I feel, however, that I have to ask your assistance in perhaps hiding me from the forces of law and order because I feel a little bit like a special envoy who has escaped from Scotland to tell you about the biggest campaign of civil disobedience in British history and the reason I have to escape to tell you is because there is a media wall of silence that has been erected around Scotland to try and hide the fact that, after eleven months of Mrs Thatcher’s poll tax, there are 500,000 people who have paid nothing and 700,000 people who are now in serious arrears. That’s 1.2 million people who are not paying Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax. What a disgrace that I have to come all the way down from Scotland to tell you that news when you can turn on the TV and see all the marvellous movements throughout the whole of Eastern Europe and yet you can’t see on the TV the marvellous movement that has taken place over the last year. What a damning indictment of the so-called British media”.
“The whole of England and Wales is going to be in revolt after April 1. Mrs Thatcher thinks she’s got a rebellion on her hands. She ain’t seen nothing yet”.
He pointed out that Thatcher would not listen to public opinion, if she did she would have paid ambulance workers a decent wage six months ago. He gave a word of warning to those Labour councils who tried to do the Tories’ dirty work for them:
“Stand with us, not against us”.
And he gave a message to Neil Kinnock: “We don’t need jokes in Parliament. What we need is the Labour leadership to call for a general election now. We are winning this campaign. Mass non-payment is making the poll tax unworkable and uncollectible”.
He noted that the Ministry of Defence was taking ‘special measures’ to protect members of the armed forces from the poll tax.
“If he can do that, why can’t the TUC take ‘special measures’ to protect their members from the poll tax?”
He ended by inviting everyone to the national ant-poll tax demonstration in London on March 31.
The rock of nonpayment
Liverpool councillor, Tony Jennings, one of 28 suspended Labour councillors who voted against the implementation of the poll tax, said: “The Tories’ flagship will founder on the rock of non-payment. The poll tax will cause Thatcher to be thrown out of office. We want a Labour government to represent working class people the same way Thatcher has represented her people”.
Next up was Felicity Dowling, one of the 47 Labour councillors surcharged and disqualified from office during the era of the Militant-led Labour council of the 1980s: “The 47 councillors who were surcharged for defending jobs and services in this city support non-payment. And we call on councillors who were elected on our backs to keep up the fight. Jobs and services cannot be defended if you implement the poll tax so have the guts to stand up and fight. Let’s have one council that stands firm. We need a council that will stand and fight”.
If any workers in struggle, as we were against the poll tax, needed any inspiration, then you only had to listen to such class fighters as the 47 councillors of Liverpool Labour Council surcharged for defending the people they represented.
Riding high from the Liverpool demo, we headed back to Northwich to carry on the campaign. By now, the whole country buzzed with the anti-poll tax movement. On the TV news there were sights of mass demonstrations at council meetings up and down the country. At times, some violence broke out, which naturally the press and TV focussed on in order to portray our movement as a violent one. We lobbied Chester City Council as it set its poll tax rate. Outside, I overheard two journalists talking to each other saying there was nothing to report here because there was no riot! We would never expect support from a media owned by millionaires so we had to learn to use the press to our best advantage.
But it was a hard task. The media jumped over all the few instances of poll tax riots such as in Hackney. Nevertheless, the majority of demonstrations and rallies were completely peaceful – rowdy maybe – but non-violent. This was why we always briefed our APTU members to demonstrate with the traditions of labour movement discipline.
March was the month of many local and regional demos against the poll tax. In Northwich, we planned a series of public meetings in local areas.
Due to the media reports of violence, we found it difficult to find venues sometimes. Rudheath leisure centre preferred not allow their premises to hold an anti-poll tax meeting, as did a school in Lostock. However, most places like Rudheath Social Club, Northwich Victoria Football Club, many pubs, especially the Lion and Railway, where we regularly held our forty-something strong committee meetings, welcomed us. In Weaverham, we held an open air meeting where the floodlights failed. Nevertheless, 150 people signed up to our APTU. Towards the end of March, we had more than 3,000 members joined up and two coaches booked up for the London demo.
‘A Militant Front’
We were far from the only APTU in Cheshire – there were APTUs in Chester, Runcorn, Widnes, Warrington, Crewe, Winsford, Macclesfield and Nantwich – all had strong APTUs attending council meetings and demos. Already, there was an All Cheshire Anti-Poll Tax Federation in the making.
It was another marvellous boost to know we were not alone in the country, and not alone in the county. We held public meetings throughout the month in the Northwich district including Barnton, Winnington, Leftwich, Weaverham and Rudheath, collecting support all the way and signing people up for the national demo in London on March 31.
The battle also raged on the letters pages of the local press:
‘From its very inception the poll tax, like many other Conservative innovations…seems to aid the more affluent sectors of our society’, (L. Payne of Castle.
‘I am considering breaking the law for what I think is the first time in my life…as a mother of three I feel my responsibility lies with my family. That means I can’t support a law which will lower the living standards of my children…’ (Olwyn Dean of Northwich).
‘This poll tax does cast one light at the end of a long, gloomy tunnel…it will obviously see the end of the Conservative government and Thatcherism…’ (Mr Curzon of Winsford).
Even our brave, lion-hearted Labour councillors gritted their teeth and put pen to paper. Ten of them (probably feeling safety in numbers) wrote: ‘(We) have recently been invited to attend meetings of the APTU. We have declined these invitations and would like to make our position clear on this matter. The local Labour councillors have been elected to represent local people and have carried out their duties alongside official Labour Party policy. The policy of the Labour Party is quite clear. We are opposed to the poll tax and will change it as soon as possible after coming to power…’ So it was business as usual, pay the poll tax, don’t break the law, sit tight and wait for a Labour government.
The local Labourites blamed the Tory government, the local Tories blamed high spending Labour councils. In between them was the working class getting organised.
Notorious Tory Tatton MP, Neil Hamilton, only raised the issue of the APTU in order to smear us. He typically called us a ‘Militant Front’. The night before our coaches were due to head for London, we picketed Northwich’s ‘Floatel’ by the river Weaver. There, Tatton’s blue-rinse Tory brigade were arriving to gather in its plush conference room to listen to Hamilton and Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow (actor William Roache).
With our placards, we let each arriving Tory couple know, in no uncertain terms, what we thought of them and their poll tax. Most of them kept their heads down and slinked into the Floatel’s doors. Some of them tried to avoid us by attempting to go in through the kitchens but had to face our laughter and chants when they found the doors to be locked. One or two of them actually tried their best to engage us by trying to justify the poll tax but they could have been there all night and no doubt their dinners were getting cold. One man, who had the demeanour of a stereotypical ‘hang’em, flog ‘em’ merchant, berated us angrily, declaring in favour of the tax but he had to beat a hasty retreat, full of the spirit of Dunkirk (‘an unmitigated disaster’ as Winston Churchill said).
Inevitably, the police were called to remove our twenty or so protesters. Only George and another member, Andy Evans, were allowed through the police cordon to make ‘official’ protests to Hamilton and co. We saw Ken Barlow, who thought we were fans.
“Get back to Deirdre!” we yelled. Hamilton arrived and was heckled all the way. It put us in the right mood for our trip to London the next day.
This was no soap opera, this was history in the making. It felt like the whole country was on the march.