The British Poll Tax: When mass non-payment defeated Thatcher

The following article is from Socialist View, the journal of the Socialist Party. It outlines the history and key lessons of the mass campaign against the Poll Tax that was led by members of Militant in Britain, the forerunner of the Socialist Party. This campaign succeeded in organising mass non-payment of the hated poll tax, with 18 million refusing to pay it thus forced it’s abolition and the resignation of Thatcher herself.  There are many important lessons that can drawn from this campaign, most notably that it was organised on a national basis and with a clear understanding of the kind of strategy and tactics necessary to defeat the attack. The Socialist Party in Ireland is committed to help build such a campaign to defeat the introduction of the household charges in January of next year.

“For the first time a government had declared that anyone who could reasonably afford to do so should at least pay something towards the upkeep of the facilities and the provision of the services from which they benefited. A whole class of people – an “underclass” if you will – had been dragged back into the ranks of responsible society and asked to become not just dependants but citizens. The violent riots of 31 March in and around Trafalgar Square was their and the Left’s response. And the eventual abandonment of the charge represented one of the greatest victories for these people ever conceded by a Conservative government” (Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, p.661).

In 1987 Thatcher was returned to power for a third time. She immediately set about implementing the “community charge”, a new form of local taxation which she proudly described as the “flagship” of her administration. The community charge was quickly renamed the Poll Tax after the infamous mediaeval tax which sparked the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.

The community charge was levied on all adults regardless of their income or personal wealth (at an average of £400-£600 per person).  As the Guardian commented in 1989, “the Duke of Westminster, who used to pay £10,255 in rates on his estate has just learned his new poll tax bill: £417. His housekeeper and resident chauffeur face precisely the same bill”. 

There are more than echoes of this approach in Peter Hain’s arrogant assertion that people in Northern Ireland are not paying their way and must pay more in both water charges and rates.

The Poll Tax clearly penalised the poor and benefited the rich. The water charges will do likewise. The water charge on a household will increase with the price of the house up to a maximum of £770 annually. This maximum figure means that those in the least valuable homes, and with the lowest incomes, will pay proportionally more of their income on water than those in the most expensive houses, with the highest incomes.

The Tories announced that the Poll Tax would be introduced first in Scotland, on 1 April 1989. Prior to the introduction of the Poll Tax everyone outside the ranks of the Tory Party was opposed to it. The real debate was around the issue of how best to oppose it and the debate quickly crystallised around one key issue-whether to refuse to pay.

To Pay or Not To Pay

At that time many working class people looked to the Labour Party, or the trade unions, for a lead. The Labour Party gave a lead eventually, but the wrong one. Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader, claimed it was “a complete distraction to fight the Poll Tax with an illegal campaign of mass non-payment”.  He described Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, and the foremost advocates of organised non-payment as “Toytown revolutionaries” who were crazy to believe they could defeat the Poll Tax and bring down the government through non-payment.

The Labour Party were desperate to avoid any association with illegality and instead launched a “Stop It” campaign in early 1987. This campaign was based on lobbying and collecting signatures on a petition. It was clear that Labour were not going to make a stand.

Kinnock’s position is echoed by the politicians of the sectarian parties in the North today. Whilst in power they agreed to water charges on principle. Out of power they offer verbal opposition only. No politician from the main parties has backed non-payment however and it is extremely unlikely any will do so.

The trade unions wait and see

The Scottish TUC took a “wait and see” approach stating that it would organise “a major non-payment campaign if there is public support for such a move” (Glasgow Evening Times, 5/5/88) and “let’s get to April and then decide what to do”. In practice, waiting to April meant waiting forever – the STUC never backed non-payment.

A number of unions did take a nominal non-payment position. The NUJ conference voted in favour of non-payment for example. No national union delivered significant support for non-payment however and the bureaucrats who head up most unions did their level best to prevent local trade union structures from getting involved in non-payment. Many trade unionists and trade union branches did get involved in local non-payment groups of course and a conference in June 1990 brought together rank and file trade union delegates representing 870,000 workers. During the actual battle, there was only isolated industrial action: at Cranston Hill Social Security office in Glasgow where civil servants struck for a day in protest against instructions to deduct the tax from benefits and at Greenwich council housing department. Widespread industrial action never developed. The real battle took place in the communites, organised by local non-payment groups.

In Northern Ireland, most trade union leaders initially took a similar position to the STUC, arguing that to organise non-payment meant accepting that the battle to prevent the imposition of water charges was over. In this way they hoped to avoid taking any position on non-payment for as long as possible, though in reality they were opposed. They were thus seriously embarrassed when the conferences of NIPSA, the TGWU and the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) voted overwhelmingly for non-payment.

The leaderships of NIPSA, and NIC-ICTU vigorously opposed the non-payment motions that were put to their conferences. The leadership of the TGWU have argued that the motion, which went through the Irish Regional Conference, is not binding on the union. They may be going strictly by the union rule book in this interpretation but are clearly ignoring the will of the conference delegates.

Just like the STUC, the NIC-ICTU cannot be relied upon to organise a campaign against the water charges. What is necessary is a democratic membership based campaign with groups in every area. Trade unionists, trade union branches and trades councils should come in behind the local non-payment groups and encourage their members to get involved in their local non-payment group.

Organising Non-payment

Mass sustained non-payment of the Poll Tax was not a spontaneous phenomenon. Opinion polls showed that more than 40% of people in Scotland were prepared not to pay in the months running up to the implementation of the Poll Tax. Similarly, when the We Won’t Pay Campaign appeared on Steven Nolan’s radio and TV programmes, text polls showed that 85% and 75% respectively were prepared not to pay.

The question for the anti-Poll Tax movement then, and for the anti-water charges movement today, is how to turn mass sympathy for the idea of non-payment into a solid campaign. As the implementation of the Poll Tax approached, a myriad of campaigns and groups opposed to the Poll Tax, and arguing for a range of tactics, sprung up across Scotland.  A number of campaigns nodded in the direction of non-payment but had no intention of mounting a serious campaign or, if they did, had no clear idea how to build a serious campaign.

“Citizens Against the Poll Tax”, for example, concentrated on providing information on the Poll Tax and making the case against it. It wasn’t opposed to individuals refusing to pay but it didn’t argue for non-payment or organise non-payment. The Scottish Nationalist Party called for 100,000 individuals who could afford to pay to refuse to do so on moral grounds. A number of Labour MP’s called for a “Committee of 100” prominent individuals to refuse to pay.

The Socialist Workers Party simply argued that organised mass non-payment could not work. “The government calculates that a passive non-payment campaign can be whittled down eventually to a level it can manage…activists should recognise a majority of workers are likely to feel they have no choice but to pay. Many will fear the consequences of court proceedings and falling into debt. Some will fear the loss of their jobs if fined” (24/3/90). The SWP encouraged their members to pay the Poll Tax and when mass non-payment became a reality, the SWP were embarrassed because the majority of their members in Scotland had paid the hated tax!

“The Fed”

The key to sustaining mass non-payment was organisation. The anti-poll tax movement was based on active campaigning local groups, linking up across cites, regions and countries. The key structures were the local Anti-Poll Tax Unions. These were democratic bodies, based in local communities, with a paid up membership and with elected leaderships.  Militant in Scotland, Wales and England was the key force behind the organisation of non-payment, though of course other organisations and thousands of independent activists played a vital role.

The We Won’t Pay Campaign is building similar groups to the Anti-Poll Tax Unions, based in every estate, town and village. It is essential that tens of thousands are signed up to individual membership and sign the non-payment pledge, and that thousands of activists become the local organisers of non-payment.

Organised non-payment of the Poll Tax began with a meeting in Edinburgh in December 1987, initiated by Militant. Soon a West of Scotland Anti-Poll Tax Federation was formed. In July 1988, 350 delegates representing 105 groups set up the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation.  Hundreds of public meetings were held across Scotland and activists began going door to door with the aim of signing up a million people to non-payment.

On 25 November 1989, 2,000 delegates representing hundreds of anti-Poll Tax Unions met in Manchester Free Trade Hall to establish the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (“the Fed”).

“We’re Not Paying!”

Twenty thousand marched through Glasgow when the Poll Tax was introduced in Scotland on 1 April 1989. Despite all the bluster of the Tories and the outright opposition of Labour and the trade union tops by August 1989 Scotland on Sunday was reporting that 800,000 out of 3.9 million liable adults were refusing to pay.

The leading figure in the Fed, Tommy Sheridan, was expelled by a vindictive Labour Party in September 1989 at a time when cracks were appearing in the Tory Party.  In October 1989 Chancellor Nigel Lawson resigned. He later cited the Poll Tax as an important factor in his decision to get out.

As councils met to set Poll Tax levels across England and Wales in early 1990, there demonstrations in every area.  The Sun newspaper tried to say it was all simply a rent-a mob of violent trouble makers being bussed from one place to another:  “The Militant Tendency is Labour’s own Inter-City Firm”.

On 1 April 1990 the Poll Tax was imposed in England and Wales and millions more joined the non-payment army. On 31 March  200,000 marched against the Poll Tax in London and 50,000 in Glasgow. There was serious rioting in London as “agent provocateurs” planted by the state sparked off a confrontation with the police. The riot hit the headlines but was not ultimately important in the defeat of the Poll Tax.

A total of 18 million people (approximately 50% of eligible adults) refused to pay the Poll Tax. The Tory government threw everything at non-payers, but could not break the movement. Local councils took legal action but the tens of thousands of cases quickly clogged up the courts. Thousands attended court in person on the advice of the Federation and argued their case, or otherwise frustrated legal action: “1,500 people, mostly women and children, turned up at Southwark court and occupied the building. It was absolute chaos, the courts couldn’t handle the numbers. The crowd didn’t move until the court declared all 5,000 cases adjourned” (Counter Information, February 1991).

By the end of 1991, 9,556 court hours had been consumed by Poll Tax cases and 152,275 non-payers had turned up in person. 2,000 warrants for arrests had been issued but three out of four police forces were refusing to arrest anyone. A total of £5 billion was owed by early 1992.

On 7 December 1991, the first non-payer was jailed, Bryan Wright from Grantham. In total 117 people (0.00065% of non-payers) were jailed by 46 councils (26 controlled by Labour) but it soon became clear that the law could not break the movement.  This figure for jailings was far short of the 300 a year who were jailed every year on average for non-payment of the rates prior to the introduction of the Poll Tax.

The government tried bringing in bailiffs (in Scotland 41,000 houses were “visited” by bailiffs but the Fed ensured there was not a single sale of goods), wage arrestments and benefit reductions but nothing worked. Most non-payers were not molested in any way.

Soon “the state was reduced to the futile mass production of threatening letters which were increasingly ignored by an angry and confident population” (Danny Burns, Poll Tax Rebellion, 1992).

The end of the Poll Tax

Throughout 1990 the government made a series of tactical retreats with concessions on the Tax for various groups, but they were clearly in disarray and retreat. On 22 November 1990 Margaret Thatcher resigned and working class people celebrated.

Thatcher was replaced by John Major who announced a “fundamental review” of the Poll Tax. In his first Budget new Chancellor Norman Lamont announced a £140 reduction in all Poll Tax bills to be paid for by an increase of 2.5% in VAT. Soon however John Major had to admit that nearly 18 million were not paying and that the game was up.

On 21 March 1991, it was announce that the Poll Tax was to be abolished in March 1993. Not surprisingly once its end was announced non-payment levels went up!

When Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet met for the last time, it debated the mess it had got itself into. Historians and politicians often emphasise the central importance of Europe in Thatcher’s downfall. Her autobiography is clear about the centrality of the Poll Tax.

She quotes one of her close allies, Cransley Onslow; “He…did not believe that Europe was the main issue: it would not be crucial in a general election. Most people were worried about the community charge and he hoped that something substantial could be done about that. I intervened to say that I could not pull rabbits out of a hat in five days. John McGregor supported me: I could not now credibly promise a radical overhaul of the community charge, no matter how convenient it seemed.

“

The lesson of the struggle against the Poll Tax is clear. Mass non-payment works, even against a government as seemingly impregnable as that of Margaret Thatcher, but only if it is organised.

In Thatcher’s own words “the eventual abandonment of the charge represented one of the greatest victories for these people (the left and the “underclass”) ever conceded by a Conservative government.” Anyone in doubt about the effectiveness of organised mass non-payment should consider her words with care.