Scotland: A Strategy Unfolds
While the vast majority of people opposed the Poll Tax, there was no agreement on how to challenge it. Between the middle of 1987 and the end of 1988 the Scottish people lined up behind different strategies. Members of the Labour Party and TUC opted for a protest campaign to put pressure on the government not to implement the Poll Tax.
But many in the local communities, the neighbourhoods and the Scottish housing schemes believed that protest would never be enough — that a campaign of resistance needed to be organised. This chapter documents the struggle between these positions — a confrontation between the poorest people of Britain and those who claimed to represent them.
In early 1987, the Labour Party announced a campaign called 'Stop It'. Using tactics which ranged from petitions and legal challenges to information briefings, they sought to change the climate of public opinion and put pressure on the government. Their aim was to stop the Poll Tax before it was implemented:
It would seem to me appropriate for all those opposed to the Poll Tax to unite under the banner of the 'Scottish Campaign Against The Poll Tax'. They aim to stop the introduction of the Poll Tax and that clearly should be everyone's objective. To simply give up the fight to stop the introduction of the Poll Tax and call for a boycott as your organisation does, appears to me to be defeatist.
Danny Crawford, Glasgow City Councillor to Susan Hay of the Anti-Poll Tax Union, November 1987.
Many prominent Labour activists believed that it would be possible to stop the tax simply by voicing their opposition. Given the history of failed confrontation with the government (particularly the battles over rate-capping and the abolition of the GLC), this seemed extremely naive. On the other hand, it is certain that central Labour strategists knew that they had no chance of forcing a withdrawal of the Poll Tax before a general election, and it was to their electoral advantage to see the Tories flounder while trying to implement it.
The Labour Party project throughout the 1980s had been to make themselves 'electable'. It continued to be their central preoccupation throughout the campaign:
This is a party that aspires to be in government. Our aim is to redress the balance in the interests of ordinary people. I don't believe such a party can afford selective amnesia when it comes to the law of the land.
Donald Dewar, Labour MP, Shadow Scottish Secretary, 17/9/88.
The Labour Party leadership feared to cross the line of 'legitimate' protest because they hoped to be in government in the future, and they expected their own laws or policies to be obeyed. They thought it folly to undermine a parliamentary democracy which had been fought over for many centuries — a system which they saw as redressing inequalities in society, and so they rejected a campaign to break the law. But they also knew that they had to be seen to be doing something. A propaganda campaign which didn't challenge their newly respectable image was the only way these objectives could be combined.
The 'Stop It' campaign produced posters, leaflets and stickers, had letters published in the press and its leading light, the MP Brian Wilson, made speeches challenging the fairness of the Poll Tax. But, in its first year, the campaign did little more than that. Its one serious initiative was the 'send it back' campaign, which told activists to return the registration forms and ask awkward questions of the council officers. Its aim was to delay the system and to make 'a legitimate protest'.
Unfortunately, not only was this tokenistic (because the Labour Party very quickly recommended that people register), it was also flawed, because it meant that thousands of people were volunteering basic information, such as their names and addresses, which could be used against them later when they were chased up for non-payment.
At about the same time, an informal grouping called 'Citizens Against The Poll Tax' formed a non-party political protest campaign. Unlike the Labour Party, their campaign aimed to challenge the implementation of the Poll Tax. They suggested that people 'from local groups take part in fun/fundraising activities' in order to raise money for publicity, but they didn't campaign for local groups as centres of resistance. Their emphasis was on letters to prominent politicians and symbolic action:
On the day the local registration officer starts compiling his register, try to get as many local people as possible to take part in a symbolic 'sleep out' or all-night vigil in some public place so that nobody will be home that night.
Citizens Against The Poll Tax were widely seen as:
... a sort of irate, largely middle class element who... just seemed to hang around, they never really got involved with the people who were trying to build the local groups... they had letters in The Scotsman and things like that... they used publicity, that was the way they operated.
Bob Goupillot, Community Resistance Against The Poll Tax, 3/5/91.
They were fairly successful at getting publicity for the Anti-Poll Tax cause, but because their campaign was mainly based on providing information they failed to mobilise large numbers of people. Nevertheless, while they acted wholly within the law, they refused to condemn civil disobedience (seeing it as a matter of individual conscience). In the early days of the campaign, they sent information to every Anti-Poll Tax group, including those working outside the law. They also compiled a register of 'those... prepared to take such a stand'. But in offering support to non-payers they seemed to have little appreciation that for many it wasn't a matter of choice. This could be seen as an outcome of their mainly middle class base, where conscience was a more important political motivation than economic necessity.
Real resistance to the Poll Tax began after 'The Community Charge Bill for Scotland' received the royal assent in May 1987. Ironically, it didn't come from any of the major organisations who were to play key roles in the non-payment campaign. A small political grouping — The Workers Party of Scotland — organised a series of meetings in Glasgow. They set up an organisation called 'The Anti-Poll Tax Union'. Its aim was to co-ordinate resistance to the Poll Tax across Scotland. Two of its key activists, Paul Cockshott and Matt Lygate, organised a march from Glasgow to Aberdeen. They visited people throughout Scotland and handed out a pamphlet they had written in April called 'The Poll Tax Nightmare'.
The programme set out by the Anti-Poll Tax Union in early 1987 was very similar to that later adopted by the movement as a whole in early 1988 (and 1989 in England and Wales). Their aim was to 'make Scotland a country free from the Poll Tax'. They saw the Poll Tax as the imposition of an illegitimate British law on the people of Scotland.
The Anti-Poll Tax Union strongly emphasised the need to build networks in order to 'bring the support of one area to another'. They also stressed the importance of information, pledging to produce 'masses of leaflets, posters, stickers etc. and to display and distribute them throughout Scotland'. Their campaign was to be locally organised in the neighbourhoods and the housing schemes.
This was the first mention of a grass roots campaign which involved talking with people, an approach which contrasted strongly with Labour's 'paper' campaign. This local approach was first put into practice in the Maryhill area of Glasgow. A local Anti-Poll Tax Union was formed in April 1987. Members of the union went ‘round the houses and talked to people and, by January 1988, the union had over 2,000 paid up members:
They were the first people to go round the doors. They took these cards round the doors and asked people to pay a donation and pledge themselves to non-payment.
Allan Armstrong, Chair, Lothian Federation APTUs, 6/5/91.
The Anti-Poll Tax Union was also the first group to organise for non-payment, and it was on this basis that people were called on to join the union:
This is a direct appeal from the people of Maryhill/Summerston to the workers in this area. Please help us, we are the large families, the unemployed and the pensioners. This is a cry from the poor who need you and your support... We have formed a branch of the Anti-Poll Tax Union in the Maryhill/Summerston area who are campaigning against this taxation and calling for non-registration and non-payment in protest against this tax.
Letter from the Anti-Poll Tax Union to local workers, May 1987.
The Maryhill Anti-Poll Tax Union didn't last long. While it retained a strong core of non-payers it was unable to sustain its organisational base. Nevertheless, the non-payment platform it put forward, and its focus on local grassroots organisation, set the strategic agenda for the Anti Poll Tax movement over the next three years. It also provided the name 'Anti-Poll Tax Union' which was adopted by most of the local groups in the campaign.
After Maryhill, the focus switched to Edinburgh. In September, the Workers Party of Scotland, along with the Revolutionary Democratic Group (an offshoot of the Socialist Workers Party), set up a local Anti-Poll Tax group in Leith which ran weekly stalls outside the local shopping centre. This was the first Anti-Poll Tax Union to have a continued existence throughout the campaign. Over the next months a group was set up in Stockbridge New Town. This very quickly grew too big and was split to form the Broughton/Inverleith Anti-Poll Tax group. Soon after, groups were set up in Prestonfield, Armdale, Newhaven/Fort, Sciennes /Marchmont, Abbeyhill and Gorgie/Dairy.
A general call for resistance was made in the autumn of 1987 by a coalition of different organisations. The key ones were 'Community Resistance Against The Poll Tax' (libertarian socialists) and the Militant Tendency (on the Left of the Labour Party), although other organisations such as the Revolutionary Democratic Group also played a role. They had different motivations and traditions but were united in a belief that protest was not enough.
The importance of these groupings should not be underestimated, nor the debates which they were engaged in, because, in the absence of the organised labour movement, they provided the political and intellectual ideas which underpinned the resistance strategy. As the movement grew and ordinary people began to outnumber the political activists, their tactical influence diminished, but their strategic influence continued to set the agenda.
Their call for resistance differed from the protest calls because its purpose was not solely to express personal morality or to influence opinion but rather to influence events. The actions taken would have a direct impact on the outcome of the struggle and would not be dependent on the results of elections. Resistance meant confrontation. Advocates of resistance believed that the Anti-Poll Tax campaign needed to be built on a direct challenge to implementation, not the false hope that some-one might agree not to implement it.
In the past, campaigns of resistance have included non-co-operation; pickets and strike action; occupations; harassment and sabotage. These have been complemented by demonstrations and other forms of protest in order to create an atmosphere of resistance and build inspiration for action. Modern democracies depend on majority support for a mandate to rule, but they depend on the compliance of a much larger majority to maintain order. If serious dissent reaches more than about 10% of the population then there either have to be concessions or the conflict has to be escalated through serious repression. It is for this reason that resistance can have such a direct impact on change.
The activists who called for resistance came from a different background to most of those arguing for protest or civil disobedience. Many of those involved with 'Community Resistance' were unemployed and had previously been involved with the Unemployed Workers' Centre and Claimants' Union in Edinburgh. The tradition of these activists was self-organisation. Nobody had ever represented them or given them resources in the past, so they had developed techniques of organising outside the official structures. Their philosophy was broadly socialist, but anti-state and not centralist. Their name reflected their community-based approach:
It called itself 'Community Resistance' because it mainly started off doing solidarity work against South African apartheid, and it was called Community Resistance in recognition that it was the communities in South Africa where the revolt was taking place.
Bob Goupillot, Prestonfield and District Community Resistance Against The Poll Tax, 3/5/91.
This tradition was an important influence on the way the local groups later developed. A Glasgow Evening Times article (21/3/91) showed how it was put into practice:
Using tactics modelled on the South African townships, many areas have become no-go areas for sheriff officers with literally hundreds of pairs of eyes on the look-out.
Community Resistance activists rebelled against the bureaucratic models of organisation inherited from the labour movement, these were seen as exclusive and alienating. Their focus was on talking to people and 'doing things' at a local level. They took political inspiration from anarchist and autonomist direct action in Spain and Italy, self-organisation characterised by squatters in London, Berlin and Amsterdam, and the 1968 uprising in France. They stressed the importance of the movement being non-aligned, believing that if the campaign was directly linked to a particular party, faction or organisation, vast numbers of people would not get involved. They felt that the movement should be a reflection of the views of local people, so they emphasised the involvement of people who had never been involved in organised politics before. This led them to distance themselves from the leaders of the labour movement and, unlike other groups, they refused to call on the labour movement to lead the Anti-Poll Tax movement.
Militant activists came from a different background. Many of their supporters in Scotland lived on the most run-down housing schemes. Of all the Left groupings they had by far the strongest working class base. Their political inspiration was more closely linked to the history of struggle in Glasgow and the rent strikes of 1915. Militant's involvement is interesting because they had no real history or experience of working outside traditional structures. But with the growth of 'designer Labourism', and the expulsion of leading Militant activists, their scope for manoeuvre within the Labour Party was extremely limited. This meant they had to build a new political base.
Militant eventually dropped much of their Labour Party activity to concentrate on the Anti-Poll Tax campaign, but this didn't happen automatically. It was only once Russell Taylor (a prominent Militant activist in Edinburgh) got involved in the local campaign in Gorgie/Dairy and was convinced that locally organised non-payment would be the most effective strategy, that Militant started to mobilise. This went against the official Militant position.
Indeed, in Central Region, their official position was to back the Labour Party 'Stop It' campaign. In the end, Russell Taylor won the argument, and once Militant had decided to commit their organisation fully, they began to 'use their whole bureaucratic machinery to establish groups they could control right from the start' (Allan Armstrong, Chair, Lothian Federation APTUs, 3 /5 /91). This raised serious questions about organisation and democracy in the movement which are discussed in the next chapter. But despite taking until July 29th 1988 to outline their strategy in the Militant newspaper, they were the only part of the established labour movement who put forward a strategically coherent policy.
Over the next few months, Militant, Community Resistance and other advocates of resistance debated four main strategies:
- Non-registration: a call on local people to ignore the fines and refuse to comply with the register which the councils were com-piling in order to administer the poll tax.
- Non-payment: the main plank of a resistance strategy — a call on individuals to refuse to pay. People were not asked to do this in isolation, they were encouraged to organise in local groups and were reassured that they would be defended whenever the councils tried to recover the debts.
- Non-implementation: a call on local councils not to implement the tax. It was argued by some that they should lead the struggle by setting illegal budgets and if necessary they should resign en masse.
- Non-collection: a call on trade unionists not to collect the tax. This was particularly aimed at the local government union NALGO whose members would be administering the tax, and the civil servants union CPSA who would be dealing with rebates and benefits.
In November 1987, Community Resistance held a conference on the Poll Tax, at the Glasgow City Hall. This conference supported both non-payment and non-registration. But, when the role of the trade unions and Labour councils were assessed, people were not optimistic that either would actively support the campaign:
Councillors who refuse to prosecute will be surcharged by the government, so there is no point in trying to 'persuade' them. Is there anything to be gained by forcing statements in public from councillors saying they'll oppose, to show them up later? This would just give them the role of the leaders of the opposition, their capitulation (which is inevitable) would weaken other responses. We should appeal to council staff to obstruct offices, but this will probably be unsuccessful given the past record of union opposition.
Conference minutes, 14/17/87.
In retrospect, this analysis proved shrewd, as many of the councillors who did pledge themselves to opposition later implemented the tax, and the unions did almost nothing.
Delegates also discussed how complementary direct action tactics could be used. Occupations would both gain publicity and provide a basis for negotiation; council meetings could be disrupted; local schemes and neighbourhoods could be made into no-go areas for the sheriff officers. Discussion of the use of petitions was revealing. Many activists were strongly against:
because petitions lead to people getting the impression that they have done their bit and the people collecting the signatures will do the rest.
Others felt that petitions could be used as an opportunity to talk to people and persuade them to join local groups, but they were not seen as an end in themselves. Local organisation was stressed. The conference concluded that:
Self-organisation in the schemes is better than staying city-centre based. Look at where things are most likely to start. Leaflets and posters should be seen as leading to the formation of local groups, then to public meetings. To get the ball rolling we should either all concentrate on the areas we live in, or focus on areas where we have good contacts, and get these areas to act as a catalyst for others.
Conference minutes, 14/11/87.
The principles agreed at this conference were extremely important. They affirmed the embryonic strategy of the Maryhill Anti-Poll Tax Union, and confidently assessed the organisational needs of the future mass movement.
Militant followed suit in December 1987 when they set up an organisation called 'Labour Movement Against The Poll Tax' and, along with other Labour Left activists, they too called a strategy meeting in the Leith Town Hall. This meeting also discussed the four key strategic proposals of non-payment, non-implementation, non-collection and non-registration. Non-payment remained relatively uncontroversial and was accepted by virtually everyone at the conference, but important debates ensued over the issues of non-registration and non-collection.
The Revolutionary Democratic Group argued in favour of non-registration, suggesting that while it would not actually stop the tax, it would give confidence to the movement and would give it something concrete to organise around in the period before the Poll Tax was introduced. Militant argued that mounting a major non-registration campaign involved huge risks because, if the campaign failed, people would become disheartened. This, they thought, would prejudice the non-payment campaign. They also argued that there was no point in exposing people to huge fines for non-registration if this was not going to bring down the tax.
Underlying the Militant perspective was their link to the Labour Party. Because one of their prime objectives was still to elect a Labour government, Militant supporters strongly resisted a campaign which would involve people in losing their vote because they were not on the electoral register. Community Resistance activists were split on the issue. In the end, the conference decided to support non-registration and as a result, many local groups took actions against the Poll Tax `snoopers' (who were employed to compile the registers) but a full-scale campaign against registration was not mounted.
The other key debate at this conference was about the viability of a non-collection strategy and the role of the trade unions. Both Community Resistance and Militant were prepared to support a combined campaign of non-payment, non-implementation and non-collection (although Militants' emphasis was much more on non-payment). Others, primarily The Socialist Workers Party, argued that:
Community organisation stands in stark contrast to the power of workers organised in the workplace. Community politics diverts people away from the means to win, from the need to mobilise working class activity on a collective basis. And by putting the emphasis on the individuals will to resist, difficulties and defeats will be the responsibility of the individual alone... The biggest danger for socialists is to ignore this dereliction of duty and substitute individual non-payment organised through community campaigns for mass working class action.
Socialist Workers Party pamphlet, 1988.
The Socialist Workers Party didn't believe that the community had the political and economic muscle to tackle the government. They thought that because the working class had struggled through a difficult period in the '80s, it would be impossible to confront the state through extra-parliamentary activity. This perspective led them to stress requests for both Labour and Trade Union leaders to act on behalf of the working class - fortunately it was not widely shared within the movement as a whole.
Both of these early conferences stressed the importance of local organisation in the tradition of the Maryhill Anti-Poll Tax Union and, from the end of 1987 both set out to form local Anti-Poll Tax Unions throughout Scotland. The two political ideologies which underlay the Community Resistance networks and the Militant Tendency, became the dominant ideological strands in the movement. Militant was particularly influential in Dundee and Glasgow. Non-aligned groups (inspired by Community Resistance) were strongest in Central Region, Aberdeen, the highlands and the borders. Edinburgh had a fairly mixed influence throughout the campaign.
In January 1988, most of the existing Edinburgh groups began to network together, meeting regularly in the Edinburgh Unemployed Workers' Centre. The various Anti-Poll Tax Unions, Community Resistance groups and other Anti-Poll Tax organisations agreed to form the Edinburgh Federation of Anti-Poll Tax groups — the first city-wide federation in the UK.
From this point the non-payment campaign began to build, and local groups were formed throughout the whole of Edinburgh and Glasgow. By July 1988, Strathclyde had also formed a federation, its founding conference was attended by 330 delegates from 96 organisations. By April 1989, when the Poll Tax was implemented, Glasgow had over 50 local Anti-Poll Tax Unions and Edinburgh over 40.
But, the growth of this community-based Anti-Poll Tax movement didn't go unchallenged by Labour politicians. In January 1988, Neil Kinnock addressed the Scottish local government conference, in Edinburgh. He denounced non-payment as 'fruitless' and 'a policy of despair'. He suggested that to adopt such a policy would be to enter 'a sort of dreamland' (The Guardian, 30/1/88). At this conference Kinnock tried to boost the 'Stop It' campaign, by calling a press conference at which he became the first signatory to a national petition against the Poll Tax. The petition read:
We the undersigned believe that the Poll Tax is a fundamentally immoral tax, that it is unjust and unfair, that it will generally discriminate against those least able to pay, that the government must change its mind and the Poll Tax should be abandoned.
That the government must change its mind! —Who was living in dreamland? The Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) decided it too had better do something.
'People like Campbell Christie (the STUC General Secretary) could see that things were happening from below and decided that they needed to pre-empt it.
Allan Armstrong, Chair, Lothian Federation APTUs.
He was acutely embarrassed to learn that there was already a 'Stop It' campaign in existence. On January 6th, he admitted 'I wasn't aware of what stage 'Stop It' was in their campaign' (Labour, the Assembly and the Poll Tax, 1988). This major Labour Party campaign which was supposed to be leading the opposition to the Poll Tax had apparently gone unnoticed by the Secretary of the Scottish TUC- not a great testimony to its impact. Until the March 1988 Labour Conference, no 'Stop It' action had actually taken place. After the conference the STUC took over the campaign and attempted to put some life into it. According to a Labour Briefing pamphlet of the time, one conference observer commented that:
The STUC had brought more drive and ideas in an afternoon than 'Stop it' in a year. Those who have experienced STUC campaigns may find this statement surprising, but it appears to be warranted.
In April, Campbell Christie tried to set up an umbrella campaign which would include dissident Tories, church groups, the SNP and everyone else. The SNP refused to join because the STUC was not prepared to support any form of non-payment campaign, and days before the new 'Stop It' campaign was due to be launched, the Scottish National party (SNP) stole the initiative. The SNP national executive endorsed a position of support for a non-payment campaign. They dismissed Labour's non-registration platform as a 'failed campaign'. The SNP's policy vice-chair Kenny MacAskill stated 'We now have the moral obligation to lead the non-payment, Anti-Poll Tax movement' (Glasgow Herald 16/5/88).
The Scottish National Party resented the imposition of regressive English laws on their country and used Scottish Nationalism as a powerful driving force for their campaign. The growing resentment of the Scottish people had been demonstrated by the General Election results, when the Tories had lost another eleven parliamentary seats in Scotland, and were reduced to just ten MPs. The SNP linked the fight against the Poll Tax to the fight for independence which they argued justified a call for civil disobedience.
Their approach was based on a long tradition of protest-oriented civil disobedience. This approach can be exemplified by the campaigns mounted by the peace movement in the early '80s. Then thousands of activists climbed into military bases; sat on runways; explored bunkers; some damaged military equipment. Most activists involved didn't expect that militarisation would end as a direct result of their actions or that they could physically prevent Cruise missiles from operating. What they wanted was to influence public opinion; to make arms control an electoral issue; to force the Labour Party into commitments, such as abandoning Cruise and Trident missiles. Civil disobedience was a way of expressing personal moral dissent. The individual was able to say 'you may go ahead with this policy, but not in my name, I will not co-operate'. This was the underlying position of the SNP in relation to the Poll Tax. So they called for 100,000 people who could afford to pay the tax, but were morally opposed to it, to pledge themselves to non-payment:
If 100,000 Scots are prepared to say no to paying the Poll Tax, that is going to put unbearable pressure on the Tory's position in Scotland. Our judgement is that would be enough to make the government back down.
Kenny MacAskill, Vice Chair, SNP, Scotsman, 12/1/88.
Although their tactics were more radical than Labour's, their strategic aim was similar to 'Stop It' in that it was geared towards changing the government's mind — civil disobedience used as a form of protest. Indeed, this largely middle class protest was dubbed the 'Can Pay, Won't Pay' campaign, to contrast it with the APTUs 'Can't Pay, Won't Pay' campaign.
The major problem with the SNP campaign was that its work was focused largely within its own ranks and, while many of its members were involved in the local Anti-Poll Tax Unions, as a national organisation its major role became to legitimise non-payment, not to organise it. Nevertheless, it did contribute towards a groundswell of acceptance for the strategy.
The launch of the SNP campaign was a setback for the Labour Party and STUC, who could see that they were being undercut. But the STUC decided to push ahead with its own proposals anyway. Its 'six point plan' included:
- Sending Poll Tax forms back.
- The disruption of parliament.
- Mass appeals against having names put on the register.
- Pressure on local authorities to give the new tax only minimum support.
- Two massive public rallies — possibly this June and October.
- A major non-payment campaign if there is public support for such a move.
Glasgow Evening Times, 5/5/88.
By this time Campbell Christie was unable to dismiss non-payment completely. In launching the STUC campaign he was forced to sit on the fence:
This tax will have a drastic effect on people throughout Scotland and drastic action is needed. We will press ahead with a non-payment campaign, but only if there is a mandate from the public.
This was a scenario that the Labour Party desperately wanted to head off. But the pressure for non-payment was growing. A Mori poll published in The Scotsman (11 /3/88) had indicated that 42% of the Scottish population were prepared to support a non-payment campaign and the new Anti-Poll Tax Unions were beginning to exercise a powerful influence. At the Scottish Labour Party Conference in Perth the month before, heavy lobbying from the Anti-Poll Tax Unions led to a decision to postpone the debate on the Poll Tax until September. The Labour establishment feared that they might end up committed to a campaign of non-payment, if a vote were taken at that meeting. They were particularly worried about the effect on their own supporters of the near doubling of the SNP vote from 11.1% in 1984 to 21% in the district elections on May 12th.
But Kinnock had made it clear in January that the Labour Party would not get embroiled in 'an illegal campaign' and as far as the leadership was concerned, that position was not negotiable. This was demonstrated by the way in which Robin Cook, Labour's Shadow Health Secretary (a prominent supporter of non-payment), was 'silenced' by the party. An agreement was hammered out, in which he 'agreed not to make any further comments encouraging non-payment or to discuss this with the press. But in return it was agreed, albeit reluctantly by some of those present, he himself would not have to pay it' (The Scotsman, 19/8/88).
In September, the STUC called a week of action against the Poll Tax, the centre piece of which was an eleven-minute stoppage on the 13th, during which the Scottish people 'were asked to demonstrate their anger by stopping what they were doing to sign petitions, sound car horns, ring church bells and join local campaign initiatives' (The Scotsman, 19/8/91). They printed 500,000 window bills and mailed material to 3,500 organisations. The STUC said it would escalate its campaign against the Poll Tax if this event was successful. But it was difficult for anyone to take an eleven-minute stoppage seriously, and the lack of response enabled delegates at the special Labour Party conference on the Poll Tax in Govan to argue that this indicated there was no support for non-payment.
The conference, held on September 17th, endorsed the Labour National Executive position by a two to one majority. The Evening Mail reported (18/9/88):
The majority of delegates in the hall seemed to support non-payment, but the vote was carried by the block vote of the big unions and the constituencies.
This signalled both the conservative role that the trade unions were to play and highlighted the distinction between the leaders and officials of the Labour Party, and many ordinary Labour Party members who backed non-payment throughout the campaign. Following the substantial defeat of a non-payment position at the Govan conference, a number of 'dissident' MPs decided to set up a Committee of 100. This was to be made up of 'prominent Scots' who would refuse to pay the Poll Tax. The main movers of this campaign were the MPs Dick Douglas, John McAllion, and Maria Fyfe. At the press conference, on the 23rd of September, Dick Douglas defended his position:
I know what it is like not to eat. I watched my mother grow old before her time, worrying about where her family's next meal was coming from. I was born into a life of extreme poverty in Govan. I joined the Labour Party because its main aim is to protect people who are in difficult circumstances. I'm compelled, because of my background, to take this particular stance: not to pay the Poll Tax. The Poll Tax is the most vexatious and class-ridden piece of legislation I have ever seen. There will be many who cannot pay it. The only way I can demonstrate to my constituents that there is no shame in not being able to pay this tax is to stand beside them.
He saw the launch of the Committee of 100 as the first step in a campaign in which they would build:
a kind of pyramid structure with local groupings of prominent non-payers located in different parts of the country.
The Glasgow Herald, 19/9/88.
It was a non-party political campaign and got qualified support from the SNP: 'A committee of 100 is not as ambitious as our army of 100,000 non-payers, but... we would welcome anyone moving towards the non-payment position, whether it is 100 Scottish bigwigs or whatever.' The committees never really got off the ground because they had no strategic direction but, like the SNP initiative, they added legitimacy to the campaign of non-payment and indirectly helped to build the local Anti-Poll Tax Unions.
On November 10th 1988, the Govan by-election further rocked the Labour establishment. Jim Sillars, an SNP vice-president who campaigned on a platform of non-payment, overturned a Labour majority of 19,509 to win by 2,500 votes. It was clear to all but the Labour Party that they lost because they had done nothing to oppose the Poll Tax. By this time their campaign had run into the ground. They hadn't organised a single demonstration against the tax and most Labour councils were already committed to collecting it.
On April 1st 1989, when the Poll Tax was implemented in Scotland, the STUC did manage to organise an official protest march in Edinburgh. This was attended by 30,000 people, but it was only this big because of a mass-mobilisation by the Anti-Poll Tax Unions. Once the Poll Tax was implemented, the protest campaign had nowhere to go. In November the STUC held a miserable demonstration in Glasgow for which there was virtually no official organisation. It ended up in a car park with no sound system for the speakers. This was their last significant gesture of opposition to the tax.
Can't Pay, Won't Pay
As the protest campaign diminished, the resistance campaign grew. By March 1989 over 15,000 non-payers had marched in Glasgow under the banner of the Anti-Poll Tax Federation and support for non-payment was mushrooming. Labour policy-makers had failed to grasp that for most people non-payment came from the harsh reality of their economic experience, not a theoretical commitment to resistance. The arguments were overwhelming.
People couldn't afford to pay. Many were living well below the poverty line and had no room to manoeuvre. Paying the Poll Tax would mean not paying something else. This would result in increased rent arrears; mortgage defaults; electricity and telephones cut off; or borrowing from the loan sharks. The choice for many was whether to eat and clothe their children properly or pay the tax. Given this, strong moral pressure was placed on those who could afford to pay to stand with those who could not. Activists argued that it was not tenable for those who were secure to protest against the Poll Tax while others with no choice but to resist, faced poindings and warrant sales (and in England and Wales the prospect of being dragged through the courts and threatened with imprisonment).
Waiting for the Labour Party to win the next election was not an option. Nobody could guarantee that they would win and people couldn't afford to wait three or four years. They would be facing bailiffs or sheriff officers within months. Even if the Labour Party did get elected, they seemed in no hurry to abolish the tax. Official Labour Party policy stated that it would take at least two years to abolish (and that was after the general election). Martin Luther King once wrote:
For years now I have heard the word 'wait'. It rings in the ear of every negro with piercing familiarity. The 'wait' has almost always meant never.
Martin Luther King, Why We Can Never Wait, 1964.
Many people saw similarities, and having witnessed the half-hearted 'Stop It' campaign, some didn't believe that the Poll Tax would be abolished even if the Labour Party came to power. The arguments in favour of non-payment were also forged out of the bitter experiences of the '80s. The miners had been heavily defeated in 1985 and many thought that if they couldn't defeat the government then no one could. It was clear, from a very early stage, that the trade unions would not be prepared to lead a campaign against the Poll Tax. Likewise, many local councillors who had watched Liverpool and Lambeth councillors fined and disqualified from office in their attempted to resist rate-capping, were reluctant to get involved. It was obvious that it would be a waste of time petitioning central government. The GLC had the support of more than 80% of Londoners, but it was still happily abolished by the Tories. The ambulance workers produced a petition of over 6 million signatures - the biggest petition ever - and this was totally ignored. So, the campaign had to be led by the community and non-payment was a strategy which couldn't be ignored because the government had to recover the money.
The precedents for civil disobedience were strong and examples were cited in all the early Anti-Poll Tax meetings. Women would not have the vote if the suffragettes hadn't broken the law. Trade Unions would not have gained the right to strike. In Eastern Europe many would still be under totalitarian rule if they hadn't broken the law. America, the so-called bastion of democracy, fought for its independence under the slogan: `no taxation without representation'. There were also direct precedents for resistance of this kind. In Scotland the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915 were an important inspiration and in England the story of the peasants revolt against the Poll Tax in 1831 was told in virtually every meeting.
Calling on these traditions was an important part of explaining why non-co-operation was needed, so too was the use of the strike as an analogy. People generally accept that if an employer imposes working conditions which are collectively unacceptable, then the work-force has a right to withdraw its labour. Even after Thatcher's union reforms the right to strike is still accepted as an important democratic principle, where the majority of the work-force is in favour. The imposition of the Poll Tax seemed similar. The vast majority of people considered the Poll Tax unacceptable and consequently believed they had the right to withdraw their co-operation.
Unlike the rich (who use creative accountants to avoid paying taxes) and large corporate companies (who owe billions to the treasury), most of the people who joined the non-payment campaign were 'honest, law abiding citizens' who had never broken the law before. For them, the Poll Tax was the last straw — an exceptional imposition on their lives which had to be dealt with by exceptional means. Because of this, virtually everyone who actively opposed the Poll Tax came behind the strategy of non-payment. As Allan Armstrong (Lothian Federation Chair) said:
Everyone was in complete opposition to the 'Stop It' campaign which was seen as a complete waste of time, so non-payment was never an issue.
This is verified by my own experience in the South West of England. In February and March 1990, just before the Poll Tax was implemented in England and Wales, Robin Clapp (Press Officer of the Avon Federation of Anti-Poll Tax Unions) and I (Secretary) spoke at over 80 public meetings, organised in local community centres and workplaces. Most of these meetings were attended by well over 50 people, some by over 200. Often strategy was discussed for the first time at these meetings. Yet, after we had put the arguments and asked at the end of each meeting how many people would be paying, only two or three said that they would. Some must have shifted a long way to get to this position:
'I've been a Conservative voter since the time of Macmillan, but I'm proud to stand up at this meeting and say that I will refuse to pay this tax!' This pledge from a local publican met warm applause at a 40 strong Anti-Poll Tax meeting in Ilchester. He went on to offer free use of a pub room with tea and coffee laid on for future meetings of the non-payment campaign.
Somerset Clarion, May 1990.
Despite this, the Labour Party continued to oppose the campaign. By the end of 1988, with no credible campaign of their own they were indistinguishable from the Tories in their attacks on non-payers. But non-payment continued to grow. By April 1990, official figures for Scotland showed that nearly a million people hadn't paid a penny, and tens of thousands of people were organised into local Anti-Poll Tax Unions.