Can’t pay won’t pay, 30 years on

Simon Hannah on lessons of the battle to defeat the Poll Tax

It is 30 years since the Poll Tax was introduced in Scotland and this year is the anniversary of the riot in Trafalgar Square that made headline news around the world.

The Poll Tax was Margaret Thatcher’s “flagship” policy, the culmination of a decade of sweeping political, social and economic reforms designed to redistribute power and wealth from the poorest to the richest. The Poll Tax – officially called the Community Charge – was introduced to replace the rates as a way to pay for local government. It was controversial because the Community Charge was a flat tax: every adult paid the same.

The tax was designed to fix what the Tories saw as a grand iniquity: that lots of poor people benefited from local government services but they didn’t have to pay towards them. For the New Right this only encouraged feckless layabouts to vote for high spending Labour councils that would then rinse the middle classes. If the poor had to contribute more then perhaps they wouldn’t be so keen on high spending socialist Town Hall administrations.

In the words of arch-Thatcherite Nicholas Ridley, “why would a duke pay more than a dustman? It is only because we have been subjected to socialist ideas for the last 50 years that people think this is fair”.* In practice many people simply could not afford to pay the new charge, despite various rebates available for the poorest. Tax bills more than doubled overnight. Protests were inevitable.

Whilst Labour opposed the tax in principle, the party proved to be woefully inadequate when it came to resisting the new proposals. Neil Kinnock was hurtling rapidly to the right, desperate to prove to moderate voters that Labour was not a radical party of left wing trouble makers but a sensible party capable of ruling for the common good. When the left, led by Militant alongside other socialists and anarchist groups, began a mass non-payment campaign Labour clamped down hard, suspending and expelling activists. Worse still, Labour councils had to implement the tax – leading to the sight of Labour councillors imprisoning Labour members and voters. Thousands of people were imprisoned for non-payment. Many of those jailed were unemployed, low paid or single mothers with limited finances.

The mass non-payment campaign proved to be hugely effective. The slogan ‘can’t pay won’t pay’ summed up the principle – some people couldn’t afford the new tax; others could but refused to pay on political grounds. Millions of people didn’t pay their bills, causing a crisis for local councils and the government.

The non-payment campaign wasn’t passive. Thousands of people mobilised to guard homes from bailiffs and sheriffs, sent by the courts to recover the debts through seizing goods. When people were in court it meant hundreds of people turning out in solidarity, flooding court rooms, arguing with judges, pulling fire alarms, anything that would slow down the judicial process. When people were imprisoned it meant solidarity rallies outside calling for their immediate release.

The mass protest on 31 March 1990 – the day before the tax was due to come into effect in England and Wales – turned into a full-blown inner-city riot, with the police fighting thousands of angry demonstrators. The scenes shocked the establishment, as did the huge protests outside Town Halls up and down the country as council chambers were stormed by locals to prevent the Poll Tax levels being set.

This was a radical movement of resistance, not just protest. One that didn’t limit itself to a few token marches but actively sought to disrupt the machinery of state and judiciary.

The fight against the Poll Tax not only won (it was scrapped by 1991 after only two years), it also contributed to the downfall of Thatcher. The issue was so politicised that in several by-elections in 1990 previously safe Conservative seats fell to opposition parties; outrage over the Poll Tax was front and centre. No Tory MP felt safe. This, combined with the internal divisions over Europe, led to Thatcher’s resignation in November 1990. She was driven from Downing Street with tears in her eyes as millions cheered up and down the country.

There are many lessons from the anti-poll tax campaign, but a salient one is the role of Labour. When movements erupt that seek to overturn unjust laws, Labour shouldn’t see itself as a party of ‘loyal opposition’ wedded to the parliamentary system. It should be a part of resistance, throwing its political and social weight on the side of the people to stand together against the tyranny of the bosses and their political stooges in government. Labour failed the test of the poll tax movement and then lost the 1992 general election. It doesn’t pay to stand in opposition to the people when the people are fighting back. That wins you no friends.

As the old slogan goes, “better to break the law than break the poor”.

*Cited in Stewart Lansley, Sue Goss, Christian Wolfram, Councils in Conflict: The Rise and Fall of the Municipal Left, Macmillan (Basingstoke: 1989) p. 186

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