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(en) Bitain, Anarchist Federation magazine Organise! #74 - FIGHTING AND BEATING THE POLL TAX: A RETROSPECTIVE

Date Fri, 14 May 2010 08:59:15 +0300


A good deal has been written by anarchists about the defeat of the Conservative government’s Poll Tax (or ‘Community Charge’, its official name) because we were one of the tendencies building the community revolt that resulted in this working class victory. This year sees the twentieth anniversary of the start of non-payment in England and Wales, inspired by mass refusal in Scotland, where implementation had started a year earlier. There was also escalating confrontations with local government, Labour and Tory alike, as councils caved in to government pressure to set rates and collect the tax forcibly, imprisoning even those they knew couldn’t pay.

Anarchists, not least the Anarchist Communist Federation (as the AF was then called), recognised the significance of the anti-Poll Tax struggle. Our members were involved in fighting as a federation and as members of local community campaigns. This is reflected in articles in ten consecutive issues of Organise! and the writing of two pamphlets that set the scene for much of what followed, and which were widely re-published by anarchists and community campaigns. This article is a member’s observations on what we wrote and the context in which we wrote it.

Our first pamphlet, The Poll Tax and How to Fight It, was in print around October 1988 and was inspired by resistance in Scotland, where, for example, 75% of homes in Edinburgh had ‘Won’t Pay’ posters in their windows. In this period we advocated non-registration in Scotland (including mass-sabotage of the process) as well as the non-payment that was to follow. We celebrated the first community anti-poll tax groups being set up north of the border and, rather optimistically as it turned out, we appealed for non-implementation of the tax by council workers, even suggesting what action they could take. It was clear even at this stage that we were going to have a different strategy from the left, who wanted people to cooperate by registering, even if they were going to protest later.

In ‘What lies behind the poll tax?’ (Organise! 14: Feb-April 1989) we outlined exactly what would be in store for our class in England. This article is a little softer on the councils than the pamphlet. The focus is primarily on the tax as an attack on jobs and services. Looking back, it seems that as an organisation we still didn’t quite understand how the struggle would contrast with traditional campaigns that defended state provision. The article missed the fact that the campaign in Scotland already heralded a class on the offensive for the first time since the defeat of the miners’ and printers’ earlier in the decade, and that in many senses the struggle against the Poll Tax had more in common with the widespread inner city unrest of 1980s.

In ‘Poll tax crunch point’ (Organise! 15: May-July 1989) a Glasgow member exposed Labour’s indignantly entitled ‘Stop It!’ campaign against the ‘Tory Tax’, and they advised activists in England and Wales not to be side-tracked by local politics but to work instead for blanket non-registration from the start. They also suggested what kinds of organisational structures were working best at this stage, including resisting Trotskyist attempts to takeover community-based campaigns. We said of the left, ‘watch out for these people, their authoritarian politics will alienate people and destroy effective action’. Again we advocated trying to involve council and other workers from the start as a key strategy.

‘Mass non-payment takes off’ (Organise! 16: Aug-Oct 1989) celebrated the success of mass non-payment in Scotland and bailiff ‘reception committees’ on estates, and also the impetus that the delivery of registration forms in England and Wales had given those embryonic campaigns. We spared no venom in exposing the hypocrisy of the Labour councils, who amongst other things had frozen the bank accounts of 130 people who had refused to register in the Central Region and deducted money from them. Again we advocated and celebrated solidarity activity by council workers, still with little evidence of it taking place, let alone being effective. With hindsight, we read as though we would have simply been uncomfortable not doing so. We were class-struggle activists, and class struggle will inevitably involve the workplace, right? But what we did get right was the centrality of area-community fight back.

In ‘Militant and other parasites on the poll tax struggle’ (Organise! 17: Nov-Jan 1989-90), ahead of most anarchists and most of the Left, we had worked out that class strength in fact lay almost entirely in the community and not in some idealised ‘yin-yang’ ‘workplace-community’ harmony. At the same time we waged war on the authoritarian left and in particular Militant. With horror we realised that this Trotskyist tendency within the Labour Party had ditched its other campaigns to apparently concentrate on a community fight back as well. Having watched with amusement the soap opera that was the Trotskyist Left for some time, we realised and exposed in detail their real strategy in arguing for mass non-payment and simultaneously signing up the unwary in community campaigns to the Labour Party. They were trying to take over the Party by getting kicked out of it. It was mad but true! This article’s insight would still make Tommy Sheriden’s blood run cold, if it’s warm in the first place, and is probably the most important to appear in Organise! in this period.

Our second pamphlet Beating the Poll Tax (March 1990) again drew its inspiration from Scotland, being published ten months after poll tax demands were sent out there, noting that by December 1989 Lothian council had already admitted that it would have to write off huge amounts of unpaid tax and have to take 100,000 non-payers to court, such was the scale of non-payment and community solidarity. By now bailiffs needed police protection on Scottish estates, as they tried and failed to gain access to non-payers’ homes and were confronted by organised and well-planned collective resistance.

Registration had been sabotaged in England and Wales to the extent that many local councils were months behind schedule in sending out demands. Already Birmingham’s Labour council predicted at least 120,000 non-payers. In Beating the Poll Tax we argued that communities needed to organise not merely outside of the Labour party, councils and union bureaucrats but against them. The pamphlet concludes with a chapter exposing the left for cynically trying to lead the class to an inadequate and misguided conclusion about the Labour Party: that it wasn’t doing enough to support the struggle against the poll tax, when they knew that it was out to destroy that struggle, and throughout the campaign had in fact endorsed successive acts of sabotage by Labour bureaucrats.

Near-terminal damage

As we said in Beating the Poll Tax about Militant, ‘every decision they have made on their campaigning strategy has been based on what they think best serves the interests of their struggle within the Labour Party, not on what’s best for beating the poll tax.’ In that pamphlet we noted that Militant had just launched what we knew to be a front organization, the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation ‘in a bid to stamp their leadership on the movement.’ With hindsight, it is hard not to smile at this understatement, given the almost terminal damage inflicted on autonomous community struggle by the ABAPTF.

Still we were looking to council workers to support non-payment. Desperately trying not to rule it out, we noted that ‘the strength of organised resistance to the poll tax is – currently – rooted in the community-end of the campaign’ and ‘the spread of community-based organisation has not – so far- been matched by a similar level of workplace and industrial activity’ (my emphasis). True, in Edinburgh, council workers threatened to strike if any of them was penalised for non-payment, and we made much of a dole office strike in London when workers refused to become poll tax ‘snoopers’ for the council. But it was clear that it was primarily from the communities that the real resistance was coming.

TUC get off your knees!

The non-emergence of workplace opposition changed the landscape of class struggle as far as we were concerned. The enemy was the same enemy, the state and capitalism, but the industrial defeats of the 1980s had destroyed workers’ confidence in the workplace as a viable arena of struggle, and the unfolding collaboration of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party and the TUC with the implementation of the tax did nothing to help the situation. With only three months to go until the first bills would be issued in England and Wales, we were nervous, but in ‘Labour’s poll tax panic’ (Organise! 18: Feb-April 1990) were able to report on what was already turning into a mass mutiny. As reported in ‘Poll tax fury’ (Organise! 19: May-July 1990) demonstrations took place all over England as local councils set poll tax rates. In many places these were so heavily policed that riots broke out. This repression and resistance to it culminated in the mighty ‘Poll Tax Riot’ in Trafalgar Square on March 31 1990: ‘The Peasants Revolt’ (also issue 19).

Flattered as anarchist organisations were to be given credit by the media for orchestrating the most exciting insurrectionary upheaval since the inner city riots of 1981, we ourselves were genuinely taken aback and in awe of what our class is capable of. Arguably the riot was the product of the thwarted aspirations of the 1980s. On one level, we were merely defending our right to march on the capital without being mown down in a pre-meditated attack by police horses and vehicles. But within minutes of that first wave of batons, it was clear that we had been bottling up something painful and powerful for too long, and that the state had no concept of what it had unleashed. For every blow struck back at the police, and for every shop window and Porsche trashed later in the West End, our real power was most evident in the speed with which barricades were erected, maintained and defended by people who had never met before; promises between strangers to look out for each other were made and kept; people targeted by police were de-arrested, and de-arrested again; and the struggle was generalized in the way that only class-struggle can be generalized: the South African Embassy got torched. There was more laughter than shouting; more hugs than bandages (on our side).

Stand or fall

The level of spontaneous self-organisation amongst the ‘rioters’ genuinely fooled some people into thinking that the people were indeed the puppets of some sinister secret force. But we weren’t. It began as “Stand together, fast, or fall” and a defensive stance against a police charge directed at young and old, male and female, the ‘up-for-it’ and the ‘scared-out-of-my-wits’ alike. It was a point of no return for ordinary people, many, possibly the majority, on their first ever demonstration, certainly in the capital.

‘The Peasants Revolt’ in Organise! 19 took a lot of work. We didn’t want to make excuses for class violence. It wasn’t a last resort. It was provoked, yes, but we could have fled and we didn’t. There were several points when the article resonates with a love of our class and the beautiful destruction it is prepared to unleash when its back is against the wall. And like Class War, who’s individual members suffered far worse in the backlash than ours did, we refused to apologise for the violence (as though it was ‘ours’ to justify anyway). But the article is slightly pious nonetheless and reflects our sense that other anarchists would revel in the violence rather than interpret it accurately and that, as usual, good analysis fell to the ACF. On reflection, we should have admitted that we had had fun too.

The clampdown following this event was extensive of course. Not only were the press and the Met seeking out the identities of rioters, but Labour’s Roy ‘exemplary sentences’ Hattersley and Militant’s Steve ‘we will be naming names’ Nally, were for once of one mind. ‘ The state goes on the offensive’ (Organise! 20: Aug-Nov 1990) comments on police operations after the event and on the establishing of the Trafalgar Square Defence Campaign and the amazing extent to which a working class already struggling financially was prepared to show really meaningful solidarity with the defendents. Outrageously, the ACF even advocated ‘masking up’ as routine on future demos! We were right because, as we reported in ‘Fighting on the poll tax front’ (Organise! 21: Dec-Feb 1990-91) the police would not only attack further demonstrations, starting with one on October 20th, again in London, but would seek to ban them, beginning the criminalisation of protest in Britain. And of course the Met wanted a rematch after the hammering they had received in March. And almost without noticing it, we had stopped calling on fellow workers to act in the workplace and were engaging with those same workers where we actually had some strength; on the streets and in our communities.

But it would be a huge mistake to imply that the riot either marked the anti-poll tax campaign out from other working class struggles or that it was the final straw in terms of the tax itself. It was merely the last great street battle of the era. Ordinary people had been prepared to force the state to show its true, violent nature in the inner-cities and on miners’ and printers’ picket lines too. And when the fuss died down, the community campaigns were still there, encouraging and supporting non-payment; still leafletting, making decisions through well-attended open meetings, sharing information and creating knowledge, seeing off bailiffs, and supporting their prisoners. It was their dogged determination that eventually made the battle too costly for the state.

Our next article, ‘Fighting the poll tax: news from Leeds’ (Organise! 22, March-May 1991) showed the extent to which the system was collapsing under its own bureaucratic weight, in terms of the scale of non-payment and the chaos that ensued whenever the courts tried to get to grips with it. Typical of larger cites, Leeds had around 40 local campaigns and 10 less active workplace campaigns, and practical lessons were being learned in terms of how to approach court cases collectively and learning what powers local councils and bailiffs did and didn’t have. The same issue points to the strain that campaigns were now under to support the people who had been imprisoned whilst keeping our nerve and helping other people keep theirs. Could we continue to keep many more of us from being sent down for non-payment, for ‘rioting’, and for a myriad of other offences? Tyres on bailiffs’ cars were proving very flimsy, and dogs for some reason took a real dislike to bailiffs trousers; custard pies got thrown at city councillors in Nottingham by people dressed as Robin Hood, for heaven’s sake! I remember mainly being exhausted, for months on end, and knowing that my phone number was on hundred of leaflets with a promise that we would come and defend anyone who called saying they had a bailiff at their door (and we did).

Militant opposition

I don’t recall that it was ever necessary for anarchists to actually call attention to the ham-fisted and transparent attempts of Militant to sell out autonomous community campaigns. They poured the party’s energies into dominating the anti-poll tax resistance nationally and have to be condemned because of the amount of time genuine, autonomous campaigns had to put in to try to stop being taken over. They packed meetings, passed resolutions in the absence of autonomous activists (for example, by calling local meetings and not inviting everyone), insisting on hierarchical structures that could be dominated by them, and ultimately establishing the ABAPTF and claiming it represented every anti-poll tax campaign in Britain.

What we did have to do was explain to people in our groups why this was happening, because the significance of the internecine warfare within the Labour Party was not immediately apparent. A counter structure to the All-Britain Federation had to be formed, the ‘3-D’ network, in which significant community fight-back organisations like Haringay Solidarity Group were respresented. But it would be entirely unfair to give the impression that Militant members did no meaningful community work. Many of them worked hard in the interests of ordinary people faced, for example, with appearing in court for the first time in their lives. Some of these genuine activists left the party once its more cynical agenda became apparent to engage in genuine community fight-back.

By the next issue, ‘A fairer tax?’ (Organise! 23: June-August 1991) it was over. The poll tax was dead! Re-reading an article warning against over-celebration (‘yes, we have got rid of the poll tax, but we are still being ripped off. There is no such thing as a fair tax’), makes me wish we’d had the energy instead to reflect the joy and pride we had in our communities at that point. We just moved on to the next struggle. Twenty years on, we still haven’t caught up on the sleep (and it shows). But looking back on the struggle against the poll tax brings a ready smile to the face of any comrade who was part of it.

Revolutionary potential

In 2010 we seem closer than ever to the culmination of Thatcher’s dream of destroying class, collective identity, and undermining societal-bonds and responsibilities that the state and the market do not control. And no one needs Organise! to tell them that Thatcher’s dream has formed the basis of Labour’s ideology too. So it is important to reflect on the defeat of the Poll Tax not only as a celebration of a past victory for the working class in a period in which other mass struggles were crushed by the state, but as a struggle which had some of the key ingredients for social revolution within it. It really was that significant.

These elements include a working class expressing its self-interest in explicitly class terms. For example, at no stage was an alliance between community and business leaders on the cards, even though local businesses too were outraged at the principle of the new Uniform Business rate (UBR), and the CBI warned of mass bankruptcy and redundancies. It became clear also that the success of government boils down to its willingness to use violence and physical coercion against us. That’s quite a wake-up call. Through this came an understanding of the importance of well-coordinated local and national networks capable of offensive and defensive action. Above all, for many working class people this was our first experience organising within non-hierarchical, decentralized yet highly effective and well-coordinated community campaigns, all the more empowering because they won! And common cause with other struggles emerged, for example with the prison riots of the period. Anarchists who can identify these elements are the ones best placed to be able to devise strategies for ‘making- revolutionary’ the current struggles we are involved in.

A realistic understanding of the potential of workplace resistance was also achieved, involving the recognition that the ‘workplace’ was still dominated by ties to the unions and TUC which were adamantly against the non-registration campaign, let alone non-payment. A whole article could be devoted to poor old Christie Campbell of the Scottish TUC, and what became known as the ‘tea-break against the poll tax. And in an attempt to reconcile the unreconcilable – supporting both implementing and resisting the tax - he advocated a 12-week refusal campaign, after which people would pay, even though his opposition to the tax stemmed in part from the reality that people simply couldn’t pay. Needless to say, people still didn’t pay! And the legislation allowed people 3-months grace anyway! But through this process the danger of the stifling, parasitical grip of Trotskyism on community campaigns became apparent: they don’t only want control of the factories and town halls, you know.

The class for itself

It is important to be clear about the extent to which the fight against the Poll Tax transformed working class culture. Even anarchists had little tradition of fighting local councils as part of the state, and they did so this time not so much from the predictable libertarian perspective of opposing taxation, but from the point of view of refusing to accept that central government alone was responsible for the tax, poor services and lack of funding and the councils merely victims. This attitude has informed anarchist attitudes to the local state ever since.

“Ding dong, the wicked witch is (nearly) dead”

Finally, re-reading our 1988 and early-1989 material now, it seems as though for ages we didn’t actually believe the struggle would be won! We seem to be trying to make it seem worth fighting and resisting mainly so that the working class could move on confidently to the next struggle (as it did). Fortunately, the working class does not look to political organisations for permission to win! But something that is a key role of revolutionaries is to help our class remember that it can and has won, because for some reason it tends to forget. By the time we published Beating the Poll Tax we were more confident. We noted that crushing the tax would increase the class’s confidence and enable it to do away with the system and ‘create a society in which we are able to exercise real control over our lives…to organise our lives for mutual benefit not for a small class of employers or property owners…The fight against the poll tax remains one battle in an on-going class war’. And then we did win, and it was worth so much more than that, because ‘ the community’ - in the many ways we seek to define, recover and celebrate it - has stayed at the heart of struggles since.

All that remains to be said is “See you in Traf. Square the Saturday after you-know-who croaks her final death rattle”. In the mean time, some further reading:

For our two pamphlets, an index to Organise! issues covering the poll tax period, and the articles noted above:

http://www.afed.org.uk/org/polltax/

Cl@ss War Classix (Durham) have reprinted the special edition produced by Class War in the period leading up to March 31st 1990. For some local colour, see

http://thesparrowsnest.org.uk/scans/polltax/
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This article was written using The Sparrows’ Nest anarchist archive in Nottingham.
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