Part Eight of ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ where CHRIS ROBINSON examines how the anti-poll tax campaign moves on from the aftermath of the magnificent 200,000 strong demonstration in Trafalgar Square that was turned into a ‘police riot’ in March, 1990 giving the media and political establishment the opportunity to smear the ever-growing campaign to defeat Thatcher’s ‘flagship’ policy.
“Why don’t you go and live in America?” – Northwich APTU’s John Pearse to Neil Hamilton MP
Nothing could overshadow the fact that we had gained a resounding victory on March 31, despite the attempts of the national media to smear our campaign. The violence of the police riot at Trafalgar Square presented opportunities for the Tory leadership, and their shadows amongst the rightwing leadership of the Labour Party, to try and declare our mass movement as being controlled and manipulated by the ‘Militant left’.
The presence of almost a quarter of a million non-payers on the streets of London and Glasgow demonstrated the fact that 18.5 million people were either refusing to pay or were in serious arrears showing only too clearly where the majority of working class people stood.
The demonstrations were our answer to all those who doubted that this was the greatest campaign of civil disobedience this country had seen. We intended to keep the momentum going with regional and local marches, and Northwich APTU was no exception.
No sooner had we returned from London, we got to work building for our own demonstration.
We used our second Memorial Hall meeting as a launching pad. Once again, we plastered our flyers and spread our leaflets around the town and outlying districts, aiming for our march to take place on Saturday, April 28.
We used our regular Saturday stall in the shopping precinct which was, as ever, well attended as more and more people signed up to join our struggle. We were soon out of leaflets and always managed to boost our fighting fund. One or two APTU members didn’t like the idea of us approaching young teenagers suggesting we might be seen as ‘manipulating young kids’. But our argument was that if we didn’t defeat the poll tax sooner rather than later, then within two or three years these youths themselves would be facing even higher poll tax bills. Anyway, didn’t they have minds of their own? Besides, they could take our leaflets home to mum, dad, granddad and grandma, their brothers and sisters.
But some of our best publicity came from the very poll tax bills that landed on the doormats of thousands. As the local Northwich Guardian newspaper pointed out in an article on April 11, ‘Poll Tax Chaos’, said the headline: ‘The council’s finance department has been inundated with calls jamming the switchboard - “It’s chocka!” said a spokesman.’
‘And Northwich Citizen’s Advice Bureau is also dealing with a torrent of enquiries from distressed ‘can’t payers’. More than two hundred people - the majority of them in the last week - have contacted the bureau with a variety of poll tax problems. Manager Paul Nichols urged them to keep coming, warning: “Some will simply pay the full instalment then go without basics like food.”
The administrative nightmare went on. Local grocers Colin and Maureen Richardson received three demands for payment each, a total of £2,400 in all.
“My wife got the first demand on Wednesday, then on Thursday, three arrived for me and another two for her. On top of that, another demand for the business rate…”
Pensioner Mary Pickering received a poll tax bill for her late husband, Len. The bill was addressed to ‘Mr Leonard Pickering (Deceased)’, asking him to pay £2.72 ‘community charge’ for the first three days in April, despite Mary’s husband having died in January before the poll tax even began!
“If only they had addressed it to me or left the ‘deceased’ off,” she told the press. “I went to the department in Church Road and asked them if they would like to walk across the road to my husband’s grave so he could reach up with his hand and pay the poll tax.”
Vale Royal’s chief financial officer, David Parton, said: “I am inclined to agree that someone has been a bit keen in sending a bill for three days.”
Dozens of stories like these underlined the viciousness of the tax.
Significantly, the percentage of rent arrears in the borough was the same as that of people not paying the poll tax - 30%.
A new phase
Our demonstration received a good turnout. We estimated there were between 400-500 at its height as people joined us as we made our way around the town. The police would not allow us to march through the shopping precinct using the excuse of ‘Trafalgar style’ violence. All the way, though, we demonstrated our organisation’s ability to peacefully, but noisily, protest. On the way round, near the Church Road council finance offices, one man stood outside his ‘des-res’ muttering at our good-humoured chants: “We’re not paying the poll tax, nah, nah, nah, nah!” etc.
“Pay it, you communist bastards!” he snarled.
We immediately re-wrote the lyrics: “You can pay our poll tax!” etc. It didn’t make his day.
It ended with a rally outside the magistrates’ court where the crowd was told of the campaign taking place up and down the country, and that soon the next phase of the campaign would take place in the very building whose steps we were using as our rally’s platform. We ripped up our poll tax bills and burned them to cheers and applause.
One marcher, 76 year old Lily Sandbach, a former shop steward at the local Roberts’ Bakery, said: “If everybody broke the law and didn’t pay the tax, they couldn’t do anything.”
The rally ended with a call for our Tory MP Neil Hamilton to resign. This last appeal was only fitting because, finally, Hamilton had lowered himself to agree to come and defend his party’s poll tax against us in person. Not at the rally, or at any public meeting where he would be called to account by his constituents. He agreed to meet with a small group of us from the APTU, with his local agent, Peter McDowell, at my house at Wellington Street, Castle, following our demo.
In my front room, we met Neil Hamilton at last, George Deacon, Juliet and Ellen McGreavy, Andy Evans and myself met the harsh face of rightwing Toryism.
All along, we had challenged him in the press to come and defend the poll tax in front of the public he was supposed to be representing. All the time, he had not shown his face, had resorted to ‘Militant’ smears and derided our campaign. Now he must have thought a pleasant chat and debate might be able to show that he was, after all, perfectly reasonable.
He arrived in his flash suit, with his agent lackey Peter McDowell, shaking our hands. We gave him a seat and we sat opposite. He reeled out all the well-worn arguments in favour of the poll tax, defending the indefensible.
He said it was a ‘fair tax’, that everyone should contribute and generally ‘banged on’ about the typical scenario of the ‘little old lady’ living on her own against the council house full of workers greedily sharing the old rates bill. When he was questioned about his own savings on the poll tax, he claimed there wasn’t much difference between what he would have to pay now and the old rates. Yet we all knew he lived in a large, converted vicarage house. We knew then he was a liar. And years later, he was found out by the whole world about his dishonesty during the infamous ‘cash for questions’ scandal for which he was to pay for when he lost his Tatton seat to Martin Bell in the 1997 general election.
However, Hamilton’s reputation came before him. This man once claimed that the NHS was suffering from a shortage of nurses because public health service unions had their ‘noses in the trough’ of public expenditure! This, in the light of his taking thousands of pounds in plain brown envelopes from a millionaire to ask questions in Parliament! He and his wife, Christine, were only too happy to quaff champagne in a plush Paris hotel while his constituents were to suffer under attacks like the poll tax.
Towards the end of our fruitless discussion, Hamilton began, once again, to deride our campaign as a ‘front’ for the ‘Marxist-Leninist group Mr Deacon belonged to’.
After an hour or so, it was clear there was little point in continuing. When he left the house, a dozen or so members of ours were waiting outside to give him a good barracking, one he had managed to sidestep all the way through our campaign while just sniping at us in the press. It was a beautiful image to see him backed up against the wall of my house, defending the poll tax, and he was harassed all the way to his waiting car.
Neil Hamilton MP, supporter of the poll tax
“Why don’t you go and live in the Soviet Union?” he sniffed to one of our members, John Pearse.
“Why don’t you f*ck off and go and live in America?” said John, in a very non-parliamentary way to the ‘honourable friend’.
“The protesters were wearing stickers with ‘Mersey Militant’ emblazoned on them,” Hamilton bleated later to the local press. “The ordinary, decent people who are being duped and used by these Militants ought to be very angry. They are being used as pawns in a larger game of seeking to bring about political change by violence. That is always the Militant’s tactic - as in the miners’ strike in 1985.”
We were angry alright, but not for the reasons he claimed. We were angry about the violence of the poverty foisted on us by the poll tax and years of Tory rule.
The Neil Hamilton meeting signalled the next stage of our campaign of political agitation. It was payback time.
Like Robin Hood in reverse
And it was only right. The Tories introduced the poll tax and the Labourites were just standing aside and telling us to pay it and wait for them to come to power. Meanwhile, thousands of working class people were left stranded to cope alone against the forces of ‘law and order’. Council chambers and magistrates’ courts were the arenas where the immediate battles were to be fought out. These institutions were designed to inflict intimidation and humiliation on us with their ornate pseudo Georgian or Victorian décor with imposing wooden panelling, coats of arms adorning the walls inscribed with gold leafed Latin words, all meant to put us in our place. Our elected so-called representatives enjoyed the trappings of power, hoping to dictate to us how we were to hand over our hard-earned pay to subsidise the rich and the super-rich.
Up and down the country, over the last few months, many a council chamber had been invaded by angry workers, most memorably in Nottingham where people dressed in Lincoln green like Robin Hood, throwing custard pies of revolt in the faces of authority. In Brighton, protesters took the council chamber over and held their own ‘workers council’ meeting - that echoed the ‘soviets’ during the Russian Revolution!
In Chester, Crewe, Widnes, Macclesfield, Grantham and Northwich, we joined local anti-poll tax marches. We lobbied council meetings systematically as drawn up and agreed following the formation of the All Cheshire Anti-Poll Tax Federation on June 17 at the Red Lion pub in Barnton, Northwich. More than eighty delegates attended from all the main towns of Cheshire. A steering committee was elected, George was the secretary, and he announced three points of action:
Our first point was to rally support for the first mass summonses at the magistrates’ courts in Warrington on Thursday, June 28.
Protesters besiege Warrington courts
In the Isle of Wight, one magistrate only heard forty cases out of several thousands before proceedings were brought to a halt when people were urged to demand a personal hearing. Warrington council was attempting to deal with their cases en masse - 4,000 at this stage. Our aim was to get people to show up for their individual hearings and clog up the courts system.
Our second point was to forge closer links with trade unionists who will be expected to deduct poll tax payments out of wages and benefits. We were less effective in this area as we hardly had any civil service union links in our area.
But the third point was more crucial. We needed to build, for the future, local defence groups that would prevent bailiffs entering people’s property.
We kept up the pace. Whenever there was a council meeting in Vale Royal with the poll tax on the agenda, we turned up to quiz councillors about whose side they were on, and to generally jeer at the Tories.
Our council finance committee voted 13-12 in favour of appointing a debt counsellor, and that every avenue would be ‘exhausted’ before a non-payer would be sent to prison. This was won by our focussing on three Liberal Democrat councillors, particularly their leader, Arthur Woods, at an earlier lobby. We got him to say he would not vote to prosecute people who could not afford to pay the poll tax. The LibDem vote, combined with Labour, meant - on paper, at least - that the council would drag its collective feet before being responsible for jailing non-payers. The catch was, two Tory councillors were to judge who would be liable for prosecution.
But, nevertheless, it was plain that our campaign was making some councillors decidedly uneasy. Sending people to jail clearly didn’t sit well with some. Or, at the very least, they didn’t want to be seen to be jailing voters.
They were getting used to us turning up with our banners, our interruptions and our cheers. One of our members, Andy Evans, hid behind the curtains during the ‘secretive Part B’ of one meeting. But what really riled some of them was when we used to help ourselves to the cheese and ham salad sandwiches which were laid out on silver trays on their long mahogany table.
We let it be known, we paid for these sandwiches out of last year’s rates!
We began to build our first ‘bailiff-busting’ team on Leftwich estate. Three hundred signed up at the Pillar of Salt pub where John Pearse helped to organise a telephone tree around the estate to defend themselves against any bailiffs.
Labour managed to send Cllr. Bob Mather (again - see Part V) who announced he would not vote to prosecute people who could not afford to pay the poll tax! Bob had attended our very first public meeting back in 1989 on Danefield estate, the pebble that sent ripples! There, he had been gloomy, full of foreboding for the consequences of not paying. Now he felt safe behind the recent council meeting’s new policy on non-prosecution of those non-payers who could not afford the tax. He could now afford himself the luxury of appearing ‘radical’ and on our side.
The new Leftwich Estate APTU secretary, John Pearse, told the press: “Non-payment is now a reality in Leftwich and if we stand together as a community, we can make the estate a poll tax free zone.” The article went on to report that our 3,000 strong union was setting up the first of our estate-based APTUs.
While the council was still in an uproar, bickering over the new non-prosecution proposals, we were out building the ‘bailiff-busters’ and getting ourselves ready for the court battles to come.
We took part in our first mass summons rally outside the Warrington magistrates’ court. The courts were packed and the queue for seats went all the way down the stairs and flooded out onto the street where there was a thousand-strong rally chanting so those inside could hear them.
All 4,000 summonses were adjourned after protesters took over courtroom microphones and addressed the court. Outside, the protesters cheered. Adjournments meant more delay. Nobody received an automatic liability order without a fair hearing.. It was another brick in building ‘uncollectability’ into our campaign. In nearby Crewe, only eleven orders were issued out of 450 who showed up for their hearings. In Liverpool, as many as 40-50,000 homes were liable to receive a visit from the bailiffs. While, in Birmingham, 300,000 reminders had been sent out. In Wigan, only 35% of those liable to pay had paid anything.
Our All Cheshire Anti-Poll Tax Federation was finding plenty of work as we kept our links throughout the county with other APTUs. The anti-poll tax campaign rolled across the area and Warrington remained a particular hot spot of protest. Already described was the protest lobby at the courts and the successes there. On July 3, in Grafton Street, dozens of demonstrators were mobilised to stand outside a house when its owner received news of a visit by the bailiffs.
The bailiffs didn’t turn up in the end. Maybe they drove straight past when they saw us.
“This barbaric method of intimidating, frightening and upsetting people is shameful from a Labour council and belongs in the Dark Ages,” George told the Warrington Guardian.
It was clear that, having been beaten for the moment in the courts, the council was gearing up to use strong-arm tactics with bailiffs. All the while, they were wringing their hands and considering following Vale Royal’s lead - an interview procedure to distinguish between people who could or could not pay the poll tax.
We held another public meeting at the Memorial Hall’s Hayhurst Room on July 19 to discuss and give information out on the new phase of the campaign - how to defend yourself in court and how to build ‘bailiff-busting squads’ on our estates.
We reminded people to demand an individual hearing, and told them of the right to have a ‘McKenzies’ Friend’ - a person who could stand beside you and advise you in court. We also told the crowded room that we demanded that the council set up a ‘hardship committee’ to make sure those unable to pay were not taken to court.
The centre of the struggle in Northwich was beginning to shift to the court action as 17,000 reminders were sent in Vale Royal.
The Tories had overturned the 13-12 vote against prosecuting those unable to pay by taking the majority of those to be ‘wilfully refusing’ who didn’t try to pay or contact the council. As if in answer, by August 8, the hard-pressed Citizens’ Advice Bureau told the press how an ‘exceptionally high number of people’ had taken advice from them.
Meanwhile, a ‘stress-related virus’ had reportedly hit Vale Royal Council’s poll tax section. Northwich Chronicle (August 8) reported that staff sick leave was ‘record high’ in the community charge department.
On that same day, the poll tax was beginning to come home to roost as the rumblings of our mass movement was continuing to reverberate back in the Tories’ faces. Secretary of State for the Environment had already announced a further £3.2 billion to ease the burden of the poll tax in more rebates and ‘transitional grants’.
But Tories like MP for Rutland and Melton, Michael Latham, was worried for his middle class constituents: “The changes Chris Patten has made, while an improvement, were really just tinkering with the problem…I really do fear for the poll tax payers next spring.” He failed to note that, at the rate people were joining our campaign, there wouldn’t be any poll tax payers for him to ‘worry’ about. The transitional grant only accounted for a rebate for as little as £28 for the average bill - a mere pinprick - and only served to underline the scope of the disaster. Further tinkering, and generally desperate ideas, included exemptions for non-working wives and people with disabilities, while rabid rightwingers stuck to the ‘principle’ of everyone making a direct contribution. Divisions were in the making. Panic was beginning to filter through to the Tory tops as, before long, elections would be looming.
While the lunacy of the poll tax continued - a boy of two, Jake Johnson, was summonsed to pay £271 and his granny picked him up in the witness box to show the magistrates - our next battle lines were being drawn up. Vale Royal issued its first one hundred summonses.
“All of them issued in the small villages and outlying areas of Northwich,” said George Deacon. “They are avoiding the large urban areas so they can pick people off with a minimum of fuss. It’s a psychological game aimed at intimidating people into thinking they are on their own.”
We promised our members we would be present at court for support, advice and to offer ourselves as ‘McKenzies Friends’, especially at the first court appearances on September 13.
Vale Royal was the last council in Cheshire to use court action, mainly because of our campaign that pushed for ‘debt counselling’ as a delaying tactic, and, more powerfully, because of the events at Warrington both outside the courts and the strength of the ‘bailiff-busting teams’, we had made them think again. We warned of similar events happening in Northwich.
First court appearances
There were about four people who were the first to turn up for their appearances in court, the rest of the eighty-plus crowd who turned up filled the court’s foyer were protesters from Nantwich, Winsford and Northwich. We crammed into the public gallery of the much smaller of the two courtrooms.
We were there in open support of each defendant, often interrupting the clerk of the court, jumping up out of our seats on points of law.
Andy Evans, now our APTU secretary, was especially outraged when a homeless man, Ronald Field, whose sleeping bag and rucksack were downstairs, was given a liability order.
“This is absolutely disgusting. If you’re living rough you’ve got more on your plate than trying to pay the poll tax,” he said.
The defendants were told they could face either wage arrestments or the bailiffs.
The local press dutifully printed all those not present but who were given liability orders as a kind of ‘naming and shaming’. In our eyes, it was a ‘roll call of honour’. In the weeks coming up, the papers were to stop this practice - they didn’t have the space! At the Vale Royal Council finance and general purposes committee on September 20, it was revealed that one in four of those liable to pay the poll tax were already behind in their payments - 20,000 out of 86,000. Financial controller, David Parton, admitted that only 38.6% of the tax had been collected. Only 240 people had applied for debt counselling.
Working class people had voted with their feet. People were either not able to pay, unwilling to pay or just waiting to see what happened next as the battle of the courts was about to shift into gear.
Our campaign was getting through.
We had held dozens of public meetings, regular committee meetings, and lots of council lobbies. We had linked up and co-ordinated our work with other APTUs and formed the All Cheshire Anti-Poll Federation. We had helped build support in other areas. Fewer people had shown at our later meetings, fifty at our latest meeting, but our stalls always continued to get rid of our leaflets. But, in the end, the impact of our campaign had struck deep - 20,000 had yet to pay the poll tax in full.
Again, Cllr. Bob Mather seemed concerned: “These figures show clearly that a lot of people in the borough are having difficulty trying to meet their payments.” Really.
By October 19, Vale Royal Council took another timid step forward and summonsed seventy-nine people. One hundred in September, another seventy-nine in October - at this rate it would be well into the next century before the backlog was cleared, and this was the first year’s payment!
This time, eight people with summonses bothered to turn up, but so did we again.
Amongst those served with a liability order was a deaf woman who used sign language to protest against the poll tax. It was the closest we came to gesture politics despite what our enemies said.
More people were going to show up for court, so soon the battle would be heating up. George and I sharpened up on our legal skills so we could become ‘McKenzies Friends’.
Within days of the October 19 court hearing, Thatcher was gone. She was pushed from office when the Tories knew her unpopularity, and the shambles of the poll tax, was an electoral liability.
Her flagship holed beneath the waterline, the most vicious Tory leader of a most anti-working class government had been forced to walk the plank. Our upcoming national demo in London on October 20 was to be a victory march.
The working class had scored a major defeat against the Tories, but the war would go on.