by Allan Armstrong
former Chair of Lothians Anti-Poll Tax Federation and co-Chair of first Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federation Conference
It is twenty years since Thatcher’s Tory government tried to impose the Poll Tax upon the people of England and Wales. The Poll Tax had been introduced a year earlier in Scotland as a test run for the abolition of Domestic Rates throughout Britain. (Even the Tories had more sense than to try to introduce the Poll Tax in Northern Ireland in the context of the ongoing Republican resistance there!)
Officially termed the Community Charge, the Poll Tax amounted to a flat rate tax that individuals had to pay regardless of their income. Previously, local authorities raised revenues through the Rates, which related to the value of people’s property. This meant it was a redistributive tax. However, under the Poll Tax, a cleaner living in a one bedroom flat was to pay the same as the lord living in a stately home. The queen didn’t have to pay a penny.
What gave the Tories the confidence to test out the Poll Tax in Scotland, where they enjoyed so little support, and to extend it to England and Wales? Over the previous few years, the ‘Iron Lady’ had been able to ride rough shod over once powerful left-wing institutions – Labour controlled local authorities including those of Edinburgh District Council, Lothian Region and Greater London Council. Industrial action, undertaken by trade unions to defend their members’ pay, conditions and jobs, culminated in the Great Miners’ Strike in 1984. Although this heroic struggle involved thousands of miners and tens of thousands of supporters, Arthur Scargill always looked to the Labour Party and the TUC to deliver the knock-out blow. The miners waited in vain and the NUM went down to defeat in 1985.
The Tories now felt invincible. Seeing no further than the official bodies of the Labour Movement, they felt they could take on the whole of the working class without any fear of concerted opposition. Just to rub it in, they first chose Scotland, which Labour had long considered its own private fiefdom. The Tories, though, had the measure of the official opposition.
To begin with, the Labour Party and the Scottish TUC promoted the ‘Axe the Tax’ campaign and organised the first marches. However, a Scottish Labour Party Special Conference, held in March 1988 in Glasgow, refused to back non-payment. This marked the end of official Labour opposition. However, what the Tories hadn’t calculated for was the possibility of our class organising independently of the official movement. And this is exactly what happened.
Workers, householders, pensioners, students and others, along with political activists, got together in their communities to create Anti-Poll Tax groups. These joined together in various regional groups, and the Scottish and the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federations. They were committed to a non-payment campaign, and involved themselves in direct action against sheriff officers, bailiffs and others trying to enforce the Poll Tax. In many areas this also brought them into conflict with Labour councils, which became the Tories’ principal agent on the ground enforcing the hated tax.
What soon became clear was that the local Anti-Poll Tax groups, with their regularly weekly or fortnightly meetings, and their usually monthly regional meetings, formed a far more extensive and better-supported network than the Labour Party with its ward, district and regional meetings. The political basis of a new independent political movement was there for any serious socialist who was prepared to see what was before their eyes.
Furthermore, whilst the SNP leadership opportunistically took advantage of the mass movement to win a stunning by-election victory in Glasgow Govan on 10th November 1988 (with a 38% swing), their vision was confined to making further electoral gains in Scotland. The regional and Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Federations though saw the necessity of spreading the action to England and Wales, on the basis of internationalism from below. Speakers were sent south.
The levels of non-registration and non-payment in Scotland, coupled to the ever-widening ‘no-go’ areas for sheriff officers (and Labour Party canvassers!) brought about levels of civil resistance not seen since the mass Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland. However, it was the knock out blow, delivered in the very heartland of the UK state by the riot in Trafalgar Square on March 31st, 1990, which prompted the ruling class to ditch both Thatcher and the Poll Tax. This was truly a stunning victory for independent class action. So what did the left learn from this?
In the 1980s, the SWP was locked into its own leftist version of Labour’s ‘New Realism’, called the ‘Downturn Theory’. Therefore, once the Labour Party and the TUC backed down over the Poll Tax, the SWP thought the game was up. It rejected non-payment as a strategy, and even had some members paying up. One year later, its leader Tony Cliff heard a near-riot down the road from his home in Hackney. The resistance had never gone away – indeed it had grown from strength to strength. But by now it was too late for the SWP. They have remained committed to making sterile demands on Labour and trade union officialdom, coupled with their attempts to promote bureaucratic party-front organisations, as sources for recruits.
The other major British left organisation, Militant, after the bruising experience of trying to takeover the Labour Party in Liverpool, began to question its previous strategy. It wasn’t easy for them. A Militant member-sponsored motion to the East of Scotland Anti-Poll Tax Federation called for it to be a condition of membership that you supported the Labour Party! Even the Militant leadership opposed this. Nevertheless, when local groups agreed to put forward Keith Simpson, the recent
Musselburgh Labour councillor and Militant member, as an independent Anti-Poll Tax candidate in 1990, both Militant and the SWP opposed them. The local groups went ahead nevertheless, and Keith won over 20% of the vote. Scottish Militant eventually learned some lessons, and put forward candidates in Glasgow and Strathclyde in 1992, winning four District and one Regional seat.
Following this, in the process of attempting to make their break with the Labour Party, Militant has become divided between those in the Socialist Party who want to create a new Labour Party with the support of Broad Left trade union officials, and those in the former International Socialist Movement in Scotland, who wanted to develop a wider, more open and democratic socialist alliance. The highpoint of this strategy was the Scottish Socialist Party’s winning six MSPs in the devolved Holyrood parliament in 2003. Virtually the whole of the left in Scotland (including even Militant and the SWP) were united in the one party, and the opposition to the Iraq war was at its peak.
Since then, the left, including the SSP, throughout the UK has been in retreat (aided by the antics of the SP/IS and the SWP, which have also pursued their ingrained sectarianism in the Socialist Alliance and Respect). ISM has dissolved itself and there is no longer any shared strategy amongst ex-members about how to rebuild principled socialist unity.
However, the success of the Anti-Poll Tax campaign highlights the necessity to build independent organisations for our class. Sometimes this will mean continued work in sections of the official movement – there were Labour Party and trade union branches, which supported the Anti-Poll Tax Federations. However, in such cases, the main job is still to try and win their memberships over to independent class politics.
Furthermore, there is another vital lesson for us today. Class struggle in the late 1980s was at a low ebb after the defeat of left Labour-led councils and, in particular, of the miners. Nobody anticipated the success of the Anti-Poll Tax struggle. Today, in the face of massive attacks in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Credit Crunch’, many workers still feel cowed. However, they also feel very angry.
The massive rejection of the Social Democratic/Left Green Alliance government’s banker bailout in the referendum in Iceland, and the major strikes and confrontations between workers and the Greek Socialist government and state forces, show how quickly the mood can change. Trade union leaders, however, only want to renegotiate the draconian cuts, not to oppose them on principle. Success means reviving independent class organisation and building internationalism from below on an even wider basis.