Organising In The Neighbourhoods
I had taken the decision that I wasn't going to pay, but it got to November 1989 and I thought hell! Where's the support that we're supposed to get from the SNP? We heard a lot about the One Hundred Campaign, but they didn't come into the villages and towns of Midlothian. So we were starting to get a bit worried. There were a few women kept phoning me and saying 'Are you still not paying? "No, I'm not paying,' I said, 'We should get together. I've heard of a group in Edinburgh, Prestonfield — I work near there, why don't we go along one night?' So my sister, myself, one of her friends, and my daughter went along to Prestonfield. We just sat and listened. We were amazed... Look at all these people that know what they're doing! Every one of them was so confident. We left Prestonfield that night with a donation of money from them to start our own group, and a promise from them that if we had our first public meeting they'd send somebody out to help us. So I phoned round people that I knew... To save time, we decided to have the meeting in the house, so there must have been about a dozen people turned up and Kenny Curtis, from Prestonfield he came out and advised us on how to start up our group. We held our first public meeting a couple of weeks after that and we got 60 people.
Chris Moyers, Mayfield APTU, Midlothian, 6/5/91.
By the end of 1988, the majority of city neighbourhoods, most towns and many villages in Scotland had an Anti-Poll Tax Union (APTU). In England and Wales there was a buzz of excitement as information trickled out about the growing non-payment campaign. Community Resistance produced an information pack and sent literally hundreds to contacts across the border. Speakers went to Sheffield, London, Leeds, Norwich, South Wales and many other cities. Some of these areas twinned with Prestonfield and other Scottish neighbourhoods (an idea taken from the miners' strike) and, by the end of 1988, local groups started forming in England and Wales. By November 1989, there were over 1,000 local Anti-Poll Tax Unions in Britain. These were the organisations from which the real assault on the Poll Tax was launched.
The groups which formed were small at first, often with only five of six activists but within months many unions had built up memberships of over 200 people. Some had signed up over 500. Typically, the Anti-Poll Tax Unions covered small areas about the size of a political ward. They operated in the heart of the community. Meetings were held at first in people's homes, and then in pubs, community centres and local halls:
30 people were crammed into the living-room which can't have been more than ten-foot square. People were sitting on the arms of the chairs and on the floor, there wasn't even room to open and shut the door, but everyone got a cup of tea and time was allowed for everyone to explain who they were and where they lived.
Danny Burns, extract from diary, May 1989.
People talked openly about their personal hardship and, while non-payment became the dominant political strategy for the campaign, in most APTUs everyone was welcome to the local group, whether they were non-payers or not. Many groups started like the Mayfield group described above. They were built on personal networks — people who knew people, who knew other people. Sometimes these overlapped with the mainstream political networks, often they didn't.
Activity in most areas started with public meetings. In Bristol alone well over 100 meetings were held between February and May 1989. The numbers attending these first meetings were huge.
I spoke to a local meeting of over 500 people in Bridgwater. In Plymouth a crowd of 200 stood in the street as I arrived to speak and 200 more were inside. The Hall only held 200 people, so we had to have two meetings, and those outside waited for an hour and a half until the first meeting had ended. I attended many meetings in small outlying areas whose councils were mostly Tory controlled. One was the village of Cromhall in North Avon. Out of a population of around 500 over 120 turned up to the meeting and 40 stayed behind to discuss the formation of an Anti-Poll Tax Union. In other areas the meetings were even bigger. The Anti-Poll Tax Union in Haringey organised a borough wide meeting with Tony Benn as a speaker and over 1,000 people turned up. People were hungry for information:
They organised within that year to make sure that every single town and village around Morley had a meeting. Me and a young student Jo went along to a meeting which had been organised in East Ardsley which is a large village on the edge of Morley. It was held in the local community centre. They only had room for about 100 or so people but 250 crowded in. When we turned up at this place there wasn't a single light on in the village, the whole community had come to that meeting. Jo had never spoken at a meeting anything like that before, she felt nervous and quite humbled that all these people should be hanging on her every word.
lan Greaves, Secretary, Leeds Federation APTUs, 11/5/91.
Some groups used theatre and entertainment as a way of spreading information. The Aberdeen Anti-Poll Tax group was formed when people from the radical bookshop came together with a community arts group:
More and more people kept coming in and asking what was being done about the Poll Tax... The local community arts group had a theatre group called 'Wise Up' and they got a show together about the Poll Tax. They took this show around the estates with information for people about registration and how to fight it, to encourage them to set up local groups and support networks. The plays were performed in local community centres. Attendance for the plays varied from about 10 to 40 or more. The meetings which followed were encouraging because people gave their names as contacts or asked people to set up future meetings.
Charles Wood, Aberdeen APTU, 16/4/91.
The public meetings formed the embryo of the new groups, and each group as it was set up helped others to start:
We started our group. We put out our phone number and we started getting calls from all over. It was far too much for us to handle. Midlothian is a very big area, so we decided that we had to set up groups in other areas, so we did a Prestonfield. They'd helped us, so we went out and helped other groups... just by getting in touch with people in the area, people that we knew, and said 'why don't you start a group and we'll come and help you start it?' So we started one in Dalkeith, we gave them advice. We also gave them a donation, and then we started one in Gorebridge... this is all areas in Midlothian. We started Pathhead, Penicuik, Bonnyrigg and, as a result of going down to Dunbar on the same day as a poinding, we managed to set up a group in Dunbar. So that was Midlothian pretty well-covered. We felt quite proud of ourselves that we'd gone out and made other groups start themselves.
Chris Moyers, Mayfield APTU, Midlothian, 6/5/97.
In my local group, Easton in Bristol (a residential neighbourhood of small terraces with very few public shopping streets) the union was built up through a door-to-door campaign. A group of five or six people (mostly friends) formed the core. They advertised a public meeting on the Poll Tax and about 50 people turned up. Out of these some joined the organising group. This small group then mass-produced a window poster which said 'No Poll Tax Here'. The poster was dropped through the letter-boxes of 2000 households and the group waited to see who put them up. Posters appeared in about 100 windows. Activists then went round and spoke to these people individually, inviting them to attend the next organising meeting, about fifteen did— enough to form the core of a group.
At the next meeting the whole neighbourhood was divided into areas of three or four streets and each group member was given responsibility for an area. This meant leafletting regularly, acting as the local contact and advice point, and also identifying further activists in their `patch'. The aim was to get down to street level organisation. There was an incentive for the area representatives to do this because the more people they got involved, the less responsibility they had to take on themselves. This network was strengthened by a door-to-door survey of over 500 households. The survey was not intended to be scientifically accurate. Its purpose was to give the APTU a fairly accurate picture of what was happening on the ground, and, perhaps more significantly, it was a pretext for engaging people in conversation about the Poll Tax, informing them of the non-payment campaign and encouraging them to join their local APTU.
The results were interesting. Only 20% said that they would definitely pay. The same number said that they would definitely not, but most significantly, 55% said that they wouldn't pay if a lot of other people in the area weren't paying either. So even at this early stage we knew that non-payment was going to be massive. Over a third of the people canvassed became paid up members of the union. By the end of the exercise Easton had over 300 members and street reps for almost every street. The canvass was not left there. The key to its success was the second visit.
The group compiled all the statistics on a street by street basis and many of the reps then went back, door-to-door, and told people the results of the survey in their street and the neighbouring streets. A newsletter was delivered to everyone telling them what the overall results were for Easton. This meant that people knew how few of their neighbours were going to pay and it gave them confidence not to pay themselves. They had spoken to the canvassers personally, so they knew that the survey was genuine. Soon after, a public meeting was held in Easton which attracted 300 people. This steadily increasing growth was typical of the way many APTUs developed. Much of the early work of the Anti-Poll Tax Unions was spent listening to information about people's personal financial circumstances.
Often time was put aside at the beginning and end of each meeting to answer questions about individual problems. This was important because it gave newcomers a sense that people cared and that they were not just being talked at. They saw:
It was ordinary people that were there. It was nobody that was going to sit at a top table with a dicky bow. It was one of their own.
Jackie Moyers, Mayfield APTU, Midlothian, 6/5/97.
Many people were already up to their necks in debt and some had started cutting back on food and clothing. Often they couldn't see a way out of their difficulties, so giving them the confidence to consider collective action was vital:
This was a wee housing estate built between the wars, and rehoused slum people from the south side of the city. So we've now got a population of very old people. It's a whole generation of people who remember warrant sales, who remember that you don't get in debt even if you do without food. We had quite a job on our hands... We had a woman in tears, quite hysterical at a meeting, just because she was at the end of her tether. She was already doing without food, already not having the heating on, and still trying to pay the rent, so where the hell was she going to find any other money?
Sadie Rooney, Prestonfield Community Resistance Against The Poll Tax, Edinburgh, 10/5/91.
These discussions were particularly important because people felt isolated. Some people lived on their own, others received little support, and in some cases outright hostility, from their families. Another story from Prestonfield shows how, as in the miners' strike, families were split down the middle:
We had one woman who had to hide her Poll Tax books from her husband. He pays and she hasn't paid. in fact it's a guessing game in the group. Where has Rosalind hid her Poll Tax books?! Because he's had the house upside down trying to find these books. Because if he found them he would go and pay it for her. But she's so determined that she won't pay, and that's caused a lot of hassle in their marriage, but she's stuck to her guns and not paid.
Sadie Rooney, Prestonfield Community Resistance, Edinburgh, 10/5/91.
Focused personal contact helped to build a feeling of solidarity, and this in turn supported the building of organisation at the most local level. The work of one street rep in my local group shows how important this was. An independent television company approached the Easton group in order to work with us on a film about the Poll Tax. The film was never shown, but the way the community was engaged in the process of making it is instructive. The film producers wanted a shot of all the doors in the street, opening one by one as the occupants came out of their houses with banners and signs.
Charles, the local street rep, went round to people's houses every evening for a week and explained to them what was wanted. Out of 30 houses in the street (a cul-de-sac) 28 agreed to participate. The street is multi-racial with a fairly wide class mix. It was inspiring to see white working class men standing shoulder to shoulder with Asian women and their kids, holding the same banners and engrossed in conversation. Some of them had never spoken to each other before.
The film was made, but more importantly, as result of making it, virtually every one of those households joined the Union, and most still had posters in their windows a year later. People were brought into the campaign, not through a leaflet or a canvasser, but through an interesting activity. They didn't have to go to the campaign, it came to them. It was this sort of localised work which created real trust and gave people the confidence to do things they would never have done before. In most areas, the focus was something other than a television programme; maybe a local 'bill burning' or the organisation of a street level public meeting. Information and support was not only passed on through direct contact with the Anti-Poll Tax Unions. While these formed the backbone of the movements' organisation, an infinite number of informal networks were spreading information:
I think informal networks are important. It's difficult to quantify, but every so often I get a glimpse of that sort of thing. Like I was in Stockbridge the other day and I ran into someone who was due to have a poinding a year ago, and was active in resisting that poinding but hasn't been involved in the group since. But I bumped into him in the street, and he'd heard that the sheriffs had been about, and he asked me for some leaflets. Obviously this was a topic of conversation in the pub, and so that was someone who I would no longer have considered as an activist but who was obviously still spreading information to their own friends and colleagues at work and so on. In a way it's like having a ripple effect. The activists who attend the meetings produce leaflets and put out leaflets. These get to people who are on the contact list but who maybe never go to a meeting, but I get the impression that these people themselves are considered advisers and experts by their own circle of friends. This goes on amongst workmates and in the pub and all these sorts of informal circles.
Mike Valiance, Stockbridge Newtown APTU, Edinburgh, 6/5/91.
Given that the campaign involved millions of people in refusing to pay the Poll Tax and only tens of thousands were involved as activists, the things people were talking about in the pubs and the chip shops probably had more influence than the local group meeting. These informal networks were strengthened by the sheer visibility of the campaign at a local level. This was often the crucial factor in turning a local issue into a local talking point. This meant that the shops and shopping streets were also an important focus.
In the Bedminster area of Bristol in the middle of 1989, the local group held a stall and engaged people through a petition on which the signatories stated their commitment to non-payment. On the first Saturday, 1,700 people signed it within three hours. The pavement was completely blocked; people were signing and then returning an hour later with their whole family. Similar scenes were repeated for the next four weeks. In some areas you could walk down a whole shopping street and the majority of shops were displaying a 'Pay No Poll Tax' poster and information about the next local group meeting. In Bristol, the city council identified twenty newsagents who they hoped would collect the Poll Tax. Within weeks of the list being circulated six pulled out. Local communities made it plain that they would no longer use the shops if they continued to collect. In some cases they went further:
Attacks and threats have been made against Bristol newsagents and shops where people can pay the Poll Tax. Windows have been smashed and graffiti daubed over businesses which have become agents for the Bristol-based company 'Penalty Points'. The firm installs special tills with its agents to collect the community charge on behalf of local authorities for a fee. Mr. Ross Hendry, a spokesman for the company... said 'because of the attacks, one newsagent in Patchway has now declined taking an agency after a brick was thrown through his window.' He said another newsagent in Bishoport Avenue, Hartclife had the words 'Poll Tax scab' and 'you're the first' scrawled in white paint across his window. A Circle K store in Cardiff where the revolutionary scheme was launched on April 9th with 48 agents, had its door locks jammed with superglue.
Bristol Evening Post, 10/5/90.
While the council was still able to collect through local post offices, the newsagents' payment scheme proved a disaster. Another reason the campaign had such a high profile was its saturation cover of information. The Strathclyde Federation of Anti-Poll Tax Unions produced over 250,000 copies of its first newsletter. The Leeds Federation produced over 100,000 of its first leaflet and, by mid-1990, the Haringey groups had delivered over a million leaflets door-to-door.
Fly-posting was an important part of this saturation approach, and was used to create an atmosphere of resistance. In many areas, every lamppost had an A5 notice stuck to it, telling people what to do if the bailiffs came round, and offering telephone numbers to ring if they needed advice or support.
Housing schemes and estates were plastered with posters. One showing a vicious dog, read 'Bailiffs? Make my day!'. Another showing a picture of Malcolm X holding a machine gun looking out from behind the curtains, read: 'Bailiffs we're ready.' A third showed a picture of a bailiff swinging in a noose. It read 'Dead bailiffs don't knock on doors.' In some areas bailiffs and registration officers were photographed and their portraits were reproduced on posters which read 'wanted' and listed their 'crimes'. These images were extremely popular. They made people laugh, and because they were enjoyed they weren't ignored. People were used to seeing images of themselves in the role of victim. Now wherever they looked there were images of their adversaries in this role. This inspired confidence and a feeling of security.
So when the local group declared their neighbourhood a bailiff-free zone, it didn't seem like the declaration of a distant committee. People could see it was a bailiff-free zone. Contrast this with the way in which traditional labour movement organisations handle information. A set of boring minutes once a year to the members and a totally uninspiring (but glossy) leaflet to the community at large once a year: 'What we are doing to help your community.' It is hard to imagine the local Labour Party executive committee endorsing a campaign to fly-post information onto every blank space; every lamp-post; every street corner. It is even harder to imagine them actually doing it — wandering the streets with a plastic bag full of wallpaper paste concealing an old paint brush.
The Labour Party represented conventional 'respectability'. This was the fundamental difference between them and the community who waged the campaign. The posters which were fly-posted were only the tip of a massive iceberg of imagination. One of the great strengths of the movement was its diversity. While the central federation produced a number of standard leaflets, the local groups produced a myriad of different posters, leaflets, car stickers, etc.
Over five groups in Bristol produced their own badges, as many produced their own Christmas cards. A great deal of imagination went into leaflets aimed at local work-forces. The Easton group in Bristol leafletted the local chocolate factory in an attempt to get them to set up a work-place Anti-Poll Tax Union. The Haringey group in London wrote a letter to post office workers asking them not to deliver Poll Tax notices. Activists posted these through all the pillar boxes — a very direct means of communication. On April 1st 1989, the Tottenham group held a theatrical street event — Mad Thatcher's Tea Party — at which they gave out tea-bags to celebrate 200 years since the Boston Tea Party (which began the revolt against another tax imposed by the British government). This diversity reinforced the image that local people had of a deep-rooted movement in which many 'ordinary people' had become active.
In most campaigns 'central office' produces thousands of leaflets which are then distributed locally. This can lead the general public to believe that there is no local campaign; that it is run by one person; or that it has no depth. In this campaign the local groups were not the passive arm of a centralised campaign but centres of energy and imagination.
Diversity also ensured that the campaign got extensive press coverage. In Bristol for most of the first year, there was something on the Poll Tax in virtually every edition of the Evening Post. Sometimes this related to decisions of the city council, but often it was a report of a creative action a local group had taken — a demonstration outside the Tory headquarters; or the burning of bills in local shopping streets; or, as in the case of Easton, a mock bailiff valuation at the house in which Tory MP Jonathan Sayeed was holding his surgery. In some areas, the police tried to stop the local meetings on the pretext that they posed a threat to public order.
One meeting, due to be held in a pub in Nailsea, was cancelled as a result of police pressure on the landlord. The Anti-Poll Tax Union were only expecting 30 or 40 people but, after the story of police intervention was splashed across the press, over 300 people turned up to a meeting in the car park of the same pub. Events and issues of press interest were reported under the names of the local group 'Montpelier APTU', 'Bedminster APTU' etc. Each had their own press contact, and if the press came through to the federation they would be referred to the local group. This dramatically multiplied the potential for press coverage.
Groups also got publicity by participating in local elections. In many areas, the polling booths were canvassed. In some, Anti-Poll Tax candidates took on the Labour establishment. In Scotland six independent Anti-Poll Tax activists, won between 21% and 34% of the vote, with Keith Simpson obtaining 1,682 votes in Musselborough (East Lothian). In Werneth (Oldham), the Anti-Poll Tax candidate polled 528 votes to Labour's 1,408 in the 1991 local council elections.
More successful were the local Labour Party wards which stood non-payment candidates. In Bristol with every election, the size of the 'rebel' group of Labour councillors grew as more and more non-payment councillors were elected. Within the movement there was some debate about whether this was an appropriate strategy. Militant opposed standing anyone against the Labour Party because they were 'the official party of the working class', even when Labour Party candidates were openly opposed to non-payment. This reached farcical proportions when they refused to campaign for one of their own supporters, Keith Simpson (a local councillor who had been thrown out of the Labour group because of his views on the Poll Tax), when he tried to get re-elected.
Other activists were opposed to an election campaign because they thought it would only legitimise the council, and that any elected councillor would be unable to change anything once elected anyway. But, despite these objections, many activists saw the elections as another way of raising the political profile of the Anti-Poll Tax campaign, and a lot of very lively campaigns were run. As the number of Anti-Poll Tax Unions grew, city and regional federations were formed to co-ordinate activities. The Avon Federation of APTUs met every three weeks for over two and a half years. Most meetings were attended by more than 70 delegates. Other city-wide federations were just as big. The role of these federations was to produce information economically; to co-ordinate advice and information through the office, and to organise city-wide events from fundraising benefit gigs to demonstrations, council lobbies and occupations.
Most federations organised big bill burning demonstrations when the Poll Tax was being set. Some of these events were interesting because of the way that they combined local organisation with a central focus. Following the implementation of the Poll Tax in April 1990, both Leeds and Bristol organised 'Star Marches'. These involved people marching into the centre of the city from various local neighbourhoods. Because they had a local focus, they were able to reach out to working class areas.
The local meeting point was not just an assembly point. Local people were leafletted by the local APTU and asked to gather on a local green to burn their bills. Speeches and music were organised for each small locality. A brazier for burning was located on each green. This meant that older people or parents with children, who couldn't easily walk into the centre, were able to attend a local event, while other people who thought they wouldn't go to the centre, did so when they met all their friends at the local event.
Some of the city-wide federations set up campaign offices. Offices were opened in Glasgow, London, Leeds and Bristol. These were staffed full-time by volunteers and became an important central focus for the campaign. By ringing the office, people were able to get personal advice and were put in contact with the Anti-Poll Tax Union in their local area. Distribution of coach tickets to demonstrations was organised there; leaflets and posters were stocked there, they also acted as a co-ordination point for the local groups. In Bristol when the court cases started (see Chapter 5), each person with a summons, who rang into the office, was logged and sent an information pack. The same personal attention was given to people with notices from the bailiffs.
At the peak of the campaign, the Bristol office was staffed morning and afternoon five days a week by different volunteers. Between February and May 1990, it was receiving over 200 calls a week. Large numbers of volunteers were co-ordinated through the offices. In Bristol, in addition to the eight functional officers, there were up to fifteen volunteer office workers (although this number dwindled by late 1990), at least five court support workers and two people specialising in bailiff monitoring.
Most of these activists did at least a day's work for the city-wide federation, in addition to the work they were doing for their local groups. Raising money and monitoring also took time. The Bristol campaign alone had a turnover of over £20,000. Benefit gigs and jumble sales were organised and raised vast sums of money. The St. Werburgh's group in Bristol raised £500 on one night. The Easton group raised £650 with a day of jumble sales and videos, and an evening of entertainment. The Leeds Federation raised £3,000 for the campaign when 'The Wedding Present', a local band, held a benefit gig.
These activities probably involved more people in local organisation than any other campaign in British history. Local Anti-Poll Tax Unions engaged people who had never been involved in organised politics before. Local organisation was the key to success because it enabled groups to tap into informal networks. These sustained the vast levels of non-payment, which in turn sustained the campaign through the lulls in political activity.
Democracy In The Movement
Despite these achievements not all groups operated in such a dynamic and open way. There was a big difference between those which were run by independent activists and many others (albeit the minority) which were dominated or controlled by political groups.
Most non-aligned groups found it necessary to have a minimum of clearly identifiable 'officers' (such as a secretary and treasurer), but these people were elected to do a job, not to exercise executive power. The atmosphere of these groups tended to be extremely informal, and this made it possible to involve people who were not used to public meetings and keep them interested:
We had our first proper public meeting and we went through all of the rigmarole of electing a chair, a treasurer and a secretary and things like that, making it official. We had one member who was very officious and wanted everything done right. We couldn't quite see the point. We just wanted to get out there and fight against sheriff officers.
Chris Moyers, Mayfield APTU, Midlothian, 6/5/91.
We rotate the chair at every meeting. People take the chair now who would never have dreamed of taking chairs of anything. That's the beauty of it. It's great. It's become a social education.
Linda Wright, Prestonfield Community Resistance, 10/5/91.
Often groups sent delegates to federation meetings on a rotation basis in order to encourage as many people as possible to become involved in the city and regional co-ordination. Many of the groups set up by Militant operated in a different way. Militant would call public meetings (which were often well attended) and then, often at the same meetings, call for elections to determine who would make up the executive committee and who would be delegated to the federation.
Whereas most members of the public had very little free time, many of the Militant members were either unemployed and had time on their hands, or lived 'the political life', going to meetings every evening. Most ordinary people at those meetings didn't know each other and had little political experience, so they voted for the people who had set up the meeting. As a result, large numbers of delegates to regional and city federations were Militant supporters — often the only ones in their group, and as such extremely unrepresentative.
In these local groups, the executive became a decision-making body which on election went away and did the work of the Anti-Poll Tax Union. Public meetings would be advertised now and again, but the public were not involved in the general running of the union. This had a damaging effect on the level of public activity in those areas because the campaign was unable to make effective contact with the all-important informal networks. It also meant that those who had been elected were totally unaccountable to their groups.
Militant members met before each federation meeting and decided a 'line' without consulting their local groups. Through this type of organisation they made an explicit attempt to gain control of the city-wide federations. In some areas, they sent 'delegates' to federation meetings from neighbourhoods which didn't have proper groups. At the beginning of the campaign in Avon, for example, there were at least four groups whose contact person didn't live anywhere near the APTU area. In other areas such as Stoke Newington in London, 'Militant' groups were set up in competition with groups which had already been long established. In some cases outsiders were brought in to set up these rival groups:
We set up an Anti-Poll Tax Union on the estate that I lived on. The first meeting was really good. About 40-50 people turned up. But after the fourth meeting, Militant's 'Newport Against The Poll Tax' started organising meetings on the same night as my one. They leafletted the whole estate leaving a blank space around my house.
Mike B, Bettws, South Wales, 3/4/91.
This activity was carried out to ensure that Militant had enough votes in the federation meetings to take control of them and it was not only confined to small areas. Militant set up an alternative federation in London (the London Steering Group of APTUs) in competition with the London Federation of Anti-Poll Tax Unions which had been meeting for some months and already involved most of the established Anti-Poll Tax Unions.
This cynical approach created a great deal of resentment and many local group members began to feel that they were being used. As a result, Militant quickly lost the trust of many non-aligned activists who had initially been sympathetic to them because of the work they had done on the ground. Nevertheless, while keeping this debate well away from the local groups, Militant openly defended their approach on the political circuits:
The truth of the matter is that we all started off in this campaign with an equal opportunity and with the chance to build and argue our arguments and positions in whatever way we chose. Yes, Militant is organised, and of course being organised, being part of a homogeneous political trend, gives you an advantage. You aren't part of a homogeneous organisation or a political trend so that you can become heterogeneous as soon as anyone starts moaning. If you believe in a programme, if you believe in a method... then you have a duty to argue that through to the end and we've done so, we make no apologies for doing that.
Robin Clapp, South West Correspondent, Militant, 24/5/91.
In Avon, the initial response of non-aligned activists was to play them at their own game and make sure that there were enough non-aligned delegates at each meeting to prevent Militant taking control. After about a month, this strategy was abandoned, not because it hadn't worked — it was very effective, but because activists (including myself) felt they were wasting time fighting Militant when they should have been fighting the Poll Tax. We decided that the only way to make the local campaign fully democratic was to make it so big that no political grouping could dominate it. So we went out and spoke to groups of people in every neighbourhood of Avon and created new Anti-Poll Tax Unions.
By the end of 1989 there were 50 local Anti-Poll Tax Unions and another 25 affiliated organisations, each entitled to send two delegates. From that point on, the Avon campaign consistently had a majority of non-aligned delegates and, as a result, most of the political groupings began to work well with each other. A similar response was made in the Birmingham Federation, and with the exception of areas such as Glasgow and Liverpool (where Militant were entrenched), it proved fairly possible to deal with attempts by political parties to take control of the movement (at a regional level) once those activists, who were not politically experienced, had realised what was going on. Even if the federations were difficult to reform because no-one wanted to go to them, all sorts of informal communication networks could be setup. It was more difficult to prevent problems at a national level.
In August 1989, a coalition of non-aligned activists, with the support of the London, Norwich and Avon Federations called a meeting for September 3rd to discuss the setting up of a federation for Britain. Invitations were sent out to every known Anti-Poll Tax group. Militant refused to participate in the initiative, and with the support of the Militant-controlled Scottish Federation, called a rival meeting (of twenty regional delegates who they claimed represented the movement) for September 1st. This meeting went ahead and set up a steering committee to organise a national conference for November.
Two days later, 200 people representing around 360 groups met at the Polytechnic of Central London to discuss how to respond. They were furious at Militant's overt attempts to hijack the movement, but felt it was too dangerous to set up an alternative federation and split the movement. They agreed that activists should attend the conference in November and argue an alternative political perspective, but by now most people were fairly cynical because it was obvious that Militant was planning to bus in the whole of its active membership to the conference. Because of this it was decided to set up a group called 3D (which stood for Don't Pay, Don't Collect, Don't Implement) to provide information, technical advice and support for the movement, and to co-ordinate that political activity which the All-Britain Federation would not support.
This was not to be an alternative federation, but it did become (along with other groups such as the Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign) an alternative centre of national leadership, holding regular activists' workshops and publishing a bi-monthly newsletter. Over the next months, Militant's 'conference steering group' wrote a draft constitution for the federation and determined who should be allowed to attend the conference. Most non-aligned groups argued that delegation status should be restricted to Anti-Poll Tax Unions because they were the ones fighting the struggle. But Militant selectively chose to allow other groups to be delegates. Labour Party and trade union branches could be delegates, but not SNP, Green Party and SWP branches (all of whom, unlike the Labour Party, had policies supporting non-payment).
Their argument was that these groups were 'not part of the labour movement'. As a result, of 1,600 delegates who attended, 546 were from 'other labour movement bodies' — and the vast majority of these were Militant supporters. Even the 'Youth Rights Campaign', a Militant youth organisation was allowed to send delegates. Because of this extraordinarily brazen manipulation, the All-Britain Federation lost what little trust remained of the majority of Anti-Poll Tax activists. Large numbers of non-aligned groups refused to send delegates and, in some regions, virtually all the Anti-Poll Tax groups opted out.
In the Eastern Region, for example, none of the major cities, such as Norwich sent delegates from local APTUs. Despite what had happened, an olive branch was offered to Militant, when 3D included Tommy Sheridan (a charismatic orator who was the Militant chair of the Scottish Federation) on their slate for the three national officers. Militant, once again, declined to support a united front and elected themselves to 13 out of 16 national executive places, including the three national officer positions. Sham Singh, Ian Greaves and I (the three non-aligned executive members) attended national committee meetings — mainly in order to get information out to the rest of the movement, but by then all hope of an effective All-Britain Federation had disappeared.
By the time of the second national conference a year later, the number of delegates had dropped from 1,600 to 1,350, while the number of Anti-Poll Tax Unions had trebled. Only 639 APTUs were represented out of a total of well over 1,500 known groups. In the South West Region, of 150 Anti-Poll Tax Unions, only 47 thought it important enough to send even one delegate to the conference, despite the fact that the campaign was at the height of activity.
This lack of respect was strengthened because the All-Britain Federation failed to provide the support the movement needed. Its biggest failure was the lack of information sent out to groups. For example, there was supposed to be a regular newsletter. Ian Greaves (the Yorkshire representative) and I agreed to edit and produce it, but only three were distributed in the first year. We produced another four, but they were either not distributed or not printed by the national officers. They had been 'locked in a room in London' or 'a van had broken down on the motorway'.
These problems were bound up with the fact that Militant was a political organisation with a wider political agenda. They didn't produce information from the All-Britain Federation because they wanted the Militant newspaper to become the voice of the movement. I was told numerous times by Militant members to stop complaining about the lack of information because if people wanted it they could read Militant. This was not an argument which carried much weight with ordinary members of local APTUs waiting for information. These newsletters were the only point of contact most local groups had with the All-Britain Federation, so it is not really surprising that it so quickly became marginal to the movement — most non-Militant groups had no evidence that it existed.
Another example of mismanagement which arose from their determination to work alone was the organisation of the national demonstration on March 31st 1990 (described in detail in the next chapter). Militant executive members estimated that there would only be 20,000 people on the demonstration. The three non-aligned delegates said that it would be more like quarter of a million. This massive mismatch of views can be explained by the difference in group organisation which I described earlier in this section. For, in those areas where the public were meeting regularly together, there had been increasing demands for action for some months. In the Militant controlled groups (where the work was done by the executive), there was not sufficient contact with the public for officers to know what they felt.
Given that Militant was basing its assessment solely on its own groups, it is not surprising that it misjudged the mood. The result was that they underestimated the resources which were needed to go into organising the demonstration and failed to collect any money from the 200,000 demonstrators who were there.
The future activities of the federation could have been financed for some time to come if only 10p had been collected from each demonstrator. Instead the event made a £12,000 loss and the federation was unable to properly finance any future activities. This is a clear illustration of why a diverse (but united) political leadership will always be stronger than a sectarian one.
So, in failing to command the respect of the larger movement, the All-Britain Federation simply became a co-ordination forum for Militant controlled groups. In this respect the Labour Party was right when it sent out its memo to all Labour Party Branches telling that the All-Britain Federation was no more than a Militant Front. What the Labour Party failed to realise was that the All-Britain Federation was virtually irrelevant to the movement. As a 'federation' it had no direct control over its member groups. It could pass policies and take initiatives, but it was up to the local groups whether they wanted to take part in the them or not. Local groups had the power to do and say what they wanted and the majority of groups who didn't like the way the All-Britain Federation was organised simply ignored it.
Given this, the problems of the All-Britain Federation were never seen as important enough to warrant splitting the movement. The Anti-Poll Tax campaign was not seriously damaged by political manipulation in the federations because it was a resistance campaign. Unlike protest campaigns which are dependent on media impact and electoral success, this campaign was solely dependent on the actions of local people organised into local groups. Because there were so many people involved, the political factions simply didn't have the numbers to make a difference at a local level. And because people felt that they were in control, they stayed involved. This made the movement strong and highly resistant to political corruption.