Chapter 6: After The Poll Tax, What Is Left?

Betrayal And Power

The defeat of the Poll Tax was one of the greatest demonstrations of 'people power' in modern political history. In many respects it was comparable with recent events in Eastern Europe. But it is not yet certain that it has resulted in lasting changes.

Having beaten back one of the most important symbols of Thatcherism, we certainly have more confidence and we have learnt important lessons about how to organise political struggle. Nevertheless, capitalism has been able to carry on pretty much as usual. The government continues to attack the welfare state; the national taxation system remains heavily weighted in favour of the rich; and the number of people imprisoned, because they cannot pay debts, is still staggeringly high.

The Poll Tax was a symbol around which people were able to focus their anger and action, but the principles which underlay the Poll Tax still remain to be fought. Jim Kelman, a Glasgow based writer reminds us:

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Nothing was ever given freely by the ruling class, not in this country or any other country. When left with no alternative they concede, but when given the chance, what they concede, they retrieve — they fight tooth and nail to claw back.

Jim Kelman, 4th Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Forum, 11 /5/91.

So, we have to make sure that we are able build on the success of this campaign, to address the more fundamental issues of inequality and injustice - issues which relate to a capitalist system based on individualism and greed. The first thing to be clear about is, that we have only ourselves to rely on.
We were not only nakedly attacked by the Tories, but were betrayed by the official labour movement which purported to represent us. Many who were prepared to consider resistance, were instructed by the Labour Party to capitulate:

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This area is Labour, there's no getting away from it. Their fathers voted Labour, their grandfathers voted Labour, it's always been Labour. It probably always will be Labour. Before the tax came in there was talk that they would oppose it. But as soon as the Party said, 'you must pay,' they paid.

Chris Moyers, Mayfield APTU, 6/5/97.

That we succeeded in bringing about an act of collective civil disobedience, which involved over 17 million people, when all the main political parties and most national trade unions were attempting to undermine it, not only demonstrates our collective strength, it also highlights the chronic weakness of the official labour movement. From the very start, they argued that we would never build a community campaign because there was no longer a community. They said that people were only interested in themselves and didn't go to meetings; that people were demoralised by the political defeats of the last decade and would not be prepared to take risks over the Poll Tax and, that people in Britain might demonstrate, but would never be convinced not to pay because they were law-abiding citizens with no tradition of breaking the law:

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The message coming in from just about every party is clearer than it's ever been. Not just from the mainstream but also from the fringe left parties. What they're saying is, genuine social change is not possible, all we have left is compromise and negotiation. Whatever the fight was in the past, it's rear guard nowadays, cling onto what you have in the face of irresistible forces. Only the loonies think otherwise, dewy-eyed idealists and sentimental fools, people who live in a dream world.

Jim Kelman, 4th Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Forum, 17/3/91.

Yet millions of people broke the law for the first time. Local communities turned out against the bailiffs; hundreds of thousands went to meetings; and many more contributed in other ways. Individuals and communities took the risks that the labour movement was not prepared to take.

Throughout the '80s many Labour councillors adopted a pragmatic position, admitting that they were managing the Tories' cuts in services, but arguing that they needed to be there to protect the most vulnerable from the impact of those cuts. The Poll Tax put this argument to the test, because it was those who couldn't pay who needed the services the most. Yet, despite the fact that some magistrates and even Tory councillors resigned (in Oxfordshire 18 Tory councillors stepped down in protest against the tax), only a handful of Labour councillors followed suit.

Few people in the Anti-Poll Tax movement expected local councils to take a lead. However, given that by the autumn of 1990, non-payment was running at over 20% in virtually every urban area (and was much higher in many big cities) some elements in the Labour Party mainstream might have been expected to break ranks and back the non-payment campaign. But not a single council did. All sent bailiffs and sheriff officers to the homes of those who couldn't pay — the same 'vulnerable' people, Labour said, they were there to protect. It is likely that most Labour voters were non-payers since 17 million British people refused to pay the Poll Tax and less than 11 million voted Labour in the 1987 General Election.

Given this it seems politically perverse that the Labour Party chose to attack its potential electorate. It was a strategy presumably founded on the arrogant belief that the inner-city electorate would vote Labour, whatever policies were presented to them. They said that they were forced by law to implement the tax (and would face surcharge and disqualification from office if they refused to comply) but none of them actually tested or even checked this out. Some argued that it would be unwise for them to stick their heads above the parapet after the failed resistance to rate capping, but in reality, it was only Liverpool and Lambeth that resisted that government attack, and they didn't have a mass movement of 17 million people behind them.

If Labour had either resigned or refused to implement the tax, the Tories would have been forced to up the stakes, either by running Labour areas themselves or bringing in un-elected commissioners. This would have provoked even greater anger and would almost certainly have led to wider action (particularly in the workplace). By mid-1990, when it was obvious to all urban councils that non-payment was massive, they would clearly have been in a position to take action with the support of the population.

So they did have a choice! Why is it then that they refused to stand with the people? Many officials of the Labour Party were simply afraid of jeopardising their careers. Some feared losing control to a mass movement which acted both spontaneously and un-predictably — a movement which couldn't be manipulated because of its sheer size. Other Labour Party activists genuinely believed that real power lay with central government. They justified the way in which they cynically laid aside their principles, by arguing

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Confidence And Political Motivation

Recognising the importance of resistance, and realising that the battle had to be fought outside of the labour movement were important steps for activists. But the first priority was to convince ordinary people that it was worth fighting. Often they were cynical about political action because they had been consistently told by the labour movement that they couldn't win. They were also given the impression that the consequences of non-co-operation would be devastating. Many genuinely feared the sheriff officers:

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People who live in this community, they remember the days, as I can remember as a child, where if you didn't pay your rent everything was put out on the street, on the cart, and that was you - in the days of the landlords. I mean I was brought up in a single end, you had no facilities, you lived in one room, you shared your facilities with everyone else who lived in what had been a house and had been sub-let into various small apartments. They remember that, and were never so glad to get a council house.

Linda Wright, Prestonfield Community Resistance, 10/5/91.

Some feared that the homes which they had spent their lives working for, could be taken from them. The political parties colluded in this disinformation. The Anti-Poll Tax movement had to counter it, and convince people that if they stood together they could win. Giving people this confidence was essential, because it was only once they believed that it was possible to create change that they could take action. Unless people have a vision of what might be, and how they might achieve it, it is too painful for them to acknowledge the daily oppression they face.

Anything other than resistance will be a half-way house which simply serves to remind people of their circumstances, while telling them that they cannot be changed. This is why no-one was interested in the Labour Party 'Stop It' campaign. People aren't motivated by 'sensibleness' or spurred into action by 'realism'. They need to know that their imaginative visions might actually become reality. The issue of nuclear war is a persistent illustration of this. People are universally frightened by the possibility of global annihilation but, because the scale of the problem is so big, they see no way of challenging it. It takes on an air of inevitability which is so terrifying that people would rather pretend that the problem didn't exist. They turn over the pages of news-papers or switch television programmes, rather than face reality. When confronted, they may even argue in favour of nuclear weapons because by doing so they no longer have to deal with feelings of impotence.

Papers like The Sun aren't only popular because they are a quick read, people like them because they offer the possibility that life can change. In the tabloid world anything is possible. For those who work in boring jobs, this can be a breath of fresh air. The lotteries and competitions offer a way out of the nightmare of poverty. The images of wealth allow people to fantasise about how life might be. The 'quality' newspapers don't allow imagination. Everything is 'fact'. Our depressing reality is described in detail, but no possibilities for change are offered. Traditional Left-wing politics tends to be the same, failing to understand just how close imagination, confidence and vision are to the process of effecting political change.

The fact that people were not encouraged to build visions was the first hurdle that Anti-Poll Tax campaigners had to deal with, yet as soon as a realistic programme for radical change was outlined, people wanted to know more. Once people were motivated to act, the most important thing was to keep them involved. Prior to the Anti-Poll Tax campaign, many people's only experience of politics was a traditional Labour Party or trade union meeting - the sort of meeting where the top table takes up 90% of the discussion; where the only items discussed are those decided by the executive committee; where half the meeting time is spent discussing procedural motions or the order of words in a resolution; where political factions throw rhetoric across the room in angry and unproductive exchanges. Essentially, boring meetings which stretch long into the night. Hundreds of thousands of people have been to these meetings just once and never returned.

To engage people in a mass campaign, the Anti-Poll Tax Unions had to challenge this culture of organisation. They had to make people feel wanted and included and give everyone a sense that they had a role. In order to sustain a long and protracted struggle, it was necessary for as many people as possible to feel responsible for some aspect of the movement, however small. In the fight against the bailiffs and sheriff officers, the kids hanging around the streets passed on the word as soon as they saw a suspicious-looking character. Parents and pensioners who were not out at work, organised telephone trees and were ready to be outside each others' houses at short notice. They didn't have to go to meetings in order to organise. Information could get passed on in other ways:

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Leeds City Council has a policy of blacking out all the posters of rock concerts and things like that. Somebody from the Hyde Park group thought they made excellent blackboards and started chalking out explanations on how you delay registration in different coloured chalks with little pictures. It really worked. I could see people coming back from the pub standing there for about five or ten minutes reading all these different messages.

Ian Greaves, Leeds Federation APTUs, 11/5/91.

This immediate form of organisation also meant that people weren't patronised by those who had political experience. In the local groups, people didn't need permission to act, they just had to get on the phone to their neighbours and get something going. People stay involved in political campaigns if they can contribute in the way that they feel is most effective. Very often this is not by sitting in boring meetings. People have different experiences and skills, so they need to operate in different ways to be effective. This means that political movements have to accommodate a great deal of diversity. Because of this, most of the successful Anti-Poll Tax Unions operated on a principle of parallel development.

Rather than trying to assert majority control or spend hours reaching consensus, people were allowed to get on with what they thought was most important. Everything could be done in the name of the Anti-Poll Tax Union, which existed to co-ordinate activity against the Poll Tax, not to specify its exact nature. Underlying this approach is a belief that it is not necessary to have a single uniform direction or strategy to be politically effective. Indeed, sometimes strategies which appear to be contradictory can actually reinforce each other. The Anti-Poll Tax movement encompassed an enormous range of approaches:

• People who were not prepared to break the law.
• People who threw petrol bombs at Poll Tax Offices.
• Mass door to door leafletting
• The bugging of computers.
• Harassment of bailiffs and council snoopers.
• Occupations of courts and council chambers.
• Technical legal challenges in the courts.

The activities of those who were not prepared to break the law were not undermined by the actions of the few who chose to throw fire bombs. Likewise, those who chose to leave Trafalgar Square peacefully, were not tarnished by those who chose to fight back against the police attack. The occupations of the courts didn't prevent those who wanted to argue legal technicalities, and those who chose not to attend meetings but to take action on their own, didn't undermine the collective decisions of those who met in the APTUs. The movement was not damaged by this diversity, it was strengthened by it. It created a feeling that everyone, from every walk of life, was involved in this campaign in some way, and that meant it was strong.

Political Leadership

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In spite of the lack of central leadership, there was a remarkable consensus across Britain about the sorts of direct action to take. In other words, we didn't need a central leadership to tell us what to do — given the existence of oppression and injustice, people's response has a logical momentum of its own, and people behave consistently in struggle.

Glen Burrows, Bridgwater APTU, June 1991 .

The Anti-Poll Tax campaign had no unified political leadership and yet it was extraordinarily successful. In most political movements instructions and information travel up and down the organisational hierarchy; key decisions and debates are carried out by regional and national executives. What was unique about the Anti-Poll Tax campaign was the degree of direct interaction and decision-making which occurred at a local level. There was, for example, no need for a policy directive to establish the various strategies of non-co-operation. People understood the need for it — many had no choice.

This is illustrated by the fact that it was sometimes in the places where the Anti-Poll Tax Unions were weakest that resistance was strongest. For example, St. Pauls was almost the only area in Bristol which couldn't sustain an Anti-Poll Tax group. Local people didn't feel the need to set up new groups because, as in many inner city areas, they already had strong networks of solidarity, and there was already a high level of general hostility to officials of any sort. So the bailiffs didn't dare walk down most streets, let alone attempt distraint. By the end of 1990, three times as many people had turned up to court to contest their cases from St. Pauls than any other area. The neighbouring Anti-Poll Tax Unions provided information and helped to create a visible atmosphere of defiance, but the consensus not to co-operate resulted from local communication through informal networks.

In this situation the most effective leadership will not tell people what to do — they usually know what needs to be done — but will give people the confidence to do it. This means providing information and ideas so that people can make choices, and helping them to set up groups so that they can share experiences and provide each other with solidarity. It means leaders making themselves dispensable and making groups so autonomous and strong that they don't need external direction. This leadership depends on trust, and trust is dependent on the personal and political integrity of leaders. It can only be maintained through openness in decision-making and it is only possible where people are consulted so that they continue to feel involved in the process.

When a group is seen to want 'control' it is not trusted. This is why Militant failed to gain the trust of the movement despite the hard work of many of its activists. Open leadership and support was not provided by the All-Britain Federation, but wherever it was needed, a multitude of new organisations emerged to fill the gaps. Soon a host of national newsletters were available. These included 3D and Refuse and Resist. Workshops and day schools were organised to bring together activists from across Britain on a regular basis.

These were far more practical than national federation set-piece conferences which only discussed motions and amendments to motions, once a year. Other organisations such as the Poll Tax Legal Group emerged to provide technical specialist support. The TSDC filled the gap which was left after the inflammatory statements made by Tommy Sheridan and Steve Nally about Trafalgar Square demonstrators. Because of the grass roots nature of the Anti-Poll Tax movement it was able to support the emergence of different centres of national leadership, encouraging those with specific skills or expertise to organise autonomously. Local Anti-Poll Tax Unions were able to choose which national initiatives to support and from where they got the information and technical support that they needed. This prevented the core of the movement from stagnating, because people moved to where the strongest energy for action lay. If there had only been one highly centralised focus of leadership, the campaign would have been more vulnerable to attack from the state and the media.

It is easy for them to mount smear campaigns against individuals who have been delegated authority (Arthur Scargill was the classic example of this) but it is virtually impossible to attack a localised mass movement with no leaders. In the Anti-Poll Tax movement no national individual or group had constitutional power, and most had limited influence. When the media attacked Steve Nally for stirring up riots, it made no difference, because most ordinary activists didn't even know who he was. Yet, despite this, organisations such as Militant persisted in their belief in centralised forms of leadership.

Even though over 17 million people had refused to pay the tax, and 200,000 had demonstrated in March 1990, the All-Britain Federation was prepared to negotiate with the TUC about calling a joint demonstration which jettisoned the banner of non-payment. This implied that they thought it was more important to win the support of the labour movement leaders, than to keep the support of those on low incomes who were already behind the non-payment campaign. Once again we see a failure to understand where political power lies. Indeed, if the labour movement had taken up the leadership, it is likely that the Anti-Poll Tax movement would have fallen apart. As Bob Goupillot from Prestonfield suggests:

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The important thing about the Anti-Poll Tax campaign, that made it different from all other campaigns, is that old thing of self-activity. People stopped waiting around for the Labour Party and trade union leaders. They said, 'Well we don't really know what to do, but we'll have a go,' and they worked it out, and they got organised. The thing we must avoid at all costs is leading our struggle, which we have built, back into those channels which have been leading us up the garden path at least since 1945. As soon as people accept the leadership of those people they will wind the struggle down, back into safe constitutional channels, and that worries me. I remember people shouting 'Neil Kinnock give us a lead!' — that's illusion building not resistance building.

Bob Goupillot, 4th Scottish Anti Poll Tax Forum, 11/4/91

When responsibility is handed over to leaders, people expect them to do the work and relinquish the personal and collective responsibility which gives them power. This is the sad history of many potential revolutionary struggles in Britain.

The Importance Of Community

The Anti-Poll Tax campaign was launched from local communities because it was in these communities that there was still mass involvement. Over decades, capitalism has fragmented society, breaking people up so they no longer come together to organise. Home ownership broke the tie of a shared landlord; weakening work-place organisation prevented people from sharing their work experience; breaking up local shopping streets and creating shopping-centres literally stopped people meeting in the streets.

Yet, while capitalism has been extremely effective at breaking up communities of workers, it has also created a potential for strengthening neighbourhood communities. This is because those who are less well-off have increasingly been locked into run-down inner-city areas and sprawling suburban housing estates. The Mayfield estate is a typical example:

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Our area is mostly made up of housing schemes. There isn't a big shopping area. It was a mining community but then they closed down the pit, so there's a high unemployment rate in this area. The centre of Mayfield is the Labour Club, everything goes on in there. It’s a built up area, there's not a lot of play for the kids. There's a small community centre, nothing else around here. But we pay high bus fares if we go into town.

Chris Moyers, Mayfield APTU, 6/5/91.

It was these conditions which provided the basis for solidarity during the Anti-Poll Tax campaign. On the Mayfield Estate, ten miles or so from the centre of Edinburgh, bus fares were too expensive for people to travel regularly out of the area. People were isolated with little to do. But this meant that when a high-profile campaign came along, everyone wanted to participate.

People didn't have to make an effort to become involved in these communities, they were already involved. They went to the local shops and talked to each other every day; they used their community centres; they talked to their neighbours across the garden fence; parents met each other outside the school gates, in the nurseries and playgrounds — they organised collective child-care for their children; people met and talked at the local laundry and did their washing together — they went to the local pub or the football match together. Networks of families and friends; lollypop men and women; local mini-cab drivers; milkmen and postwomen interacted daily.

Sometimes these community links became visible forms of public life — like tenants' associations — agitating against injustice. Sometimes they remained hidden to the outside world, but they were always there. The Anti-Poll Tax Unions were able to tap into these networks because they were run by ordinary local people who were trusted. Because they were locally based, it was possible to organise practical resistance. This relied on quick communication, a good knowledge of the local area, and people who were close at hand to provide direct support. Likewise, to keep the community confident, people had to know that their neighbours were still not paying, and that they were not on their own. This was information which could only be transferred through informal local networks. Local people understood this, and as the Anti-Poll Tax campaign grew so the links between different parts of the community developed:

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See in this area, there's still gang warfare which goes on between all the local communities. But now the likes of myself, I can go into the youth centre in the area and they recognise me because of the Poll Tax struggle, and they'll speak to me. Before, a guy walking down the road and there was ten or twelve of them standing there, they would jump on the guy and give him a doing, give him a hammering. Whereas I can walk in there and speak to them and they'll speak to us cos they know that we're fighting not just for ourselves, we're fighting for the next generation.

Jackie Moyers, Mayfield AM, 6/5/91.

On estates like Mayfield, there was little for kids to do other than hang around. But the Anti-Poll Tax struggle gave them something, other than each other, to fight. Similar changes came about on the Prestonfield estate in Edinburgh:

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We have a method of putting out boards. At the top of the avenue; at the end of the streets; at the bus stop—focal points. It's amazing most of these notices remain, the kids in this estate didn't bother about the boards. I could put them out, go to work and come back and they would still be there.

Sadie Rooney, Prestonfield Community Resistance 10/5/91.

This demonstrated an awareness and respect for the Anti-Poll Tax campaign. People of all ages realised that they should be fighting on the same side against a common enemy. So, not only did the community provide the base for the struggle, but the struggle strengthened the community. There are many examples of the way in which this happened. Women based at home became the backbone of the campaign, often taking on most of the organisational and political tasks. For some this was the first time that their work in the community had been explicitly valued. Many women (as in the miners' strike) were profoundly changed by the campaign:

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Myself, I don't know what will happen after the Poll Tax. I just cannot see me returning to being just an ordinary housewife. I want to go to college in September, and I hope to take politics and sociology.

Chris Moyers, Mayfield APTU, 6/5/91.

Other changes took place in the neighbourhoods:

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The barriers of age, sex, and race began to crumble. Ali, the local Asian shopkeeper allowed us to stick a huge notice-board in his shop window. The local launderette took leaflets. Some people became noticeably healthier. Mary McInnes, one of the oldest members of the Prestonfield group, who occasionally needed a ventilator to breathe, and at first needed a lift to meetings, literally ran up the street to be at Paul Smart's house before the sheriff officers.

Bob Goupillot, Prestonfield Community Resistance, 7 3/8/91.

But it was not only people who changed, there was also a change in perception. Before the Anti-Poll Tax campaign, debt was something people were ashamed of. Proud working class families paid their debts and if necessary went without food in order to do so. After it, many realised that the bills they were being asked to pay were not reasonable or legitimate. And people began to apply the same criteria to other bills as they had to the Poll Tax:

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You've got prescription charges, you've got rising rents, you've got bus fares continually rising; you've got low wages — there's a lot of poverty. I only bring home about £93 a week. If you take the Poll Tax and the rent and electricity off £93 you're not left with much. In fact if the rents continue to rise, then I'll not be paying the rent. It's as simple as that. I mean, you can't get blood out of a stone.

Sadie Rooney, Prestonfield Community Resistance, 10/5/97.

As a result of this change in perception, some groups started to extend the struggle to include all debts. In Edinburgh for example, local Anti-Poll Tax groups mobilised against an eviction for rent arrears on April 9th 1991. This may be an important avenue for future action. There is no reason why there should be any difference between a sheriff officers’ action for non-payment of the Poll Tax, and one for non-payment of rent, electricity or anything else. Because the informal networks of the community have not been as weakened as the labour and trade union movements, they will remain, for sometime, the strongest base for political action.

This will require new forms of community-based resistance, which focus on more than on a single issue. There are already examples of successful community resistance campaigns. A few, like the Somerset Community Defence Campaign have been operating since the miners’ strike. Such organisations are likely to be important vehicles for radical change in the future, becoming part of a new politics of the Left. Society will not be fundamentally changed by attempts to influence the parliamentary process (as exemplified by the Labour Party), or by setting up small groupings to be the vanguard of a revolution (like Militant and the SWP). The organisations which take on the struggle will need to be decentralised and diverse, based upon participation not representation. They will need to be founded on a politics of mass-action which has the power not just to protest but to resist oppression and create change. The Anti-Poll Tax movement may have been the start of that process, but there is a lot more to come.