Interview: Simon Hannah on the fight to stop the poll tax

Author Simon Hannah spoke to Freedom Press about his new book Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: the fight to stop the poll tax which is published by Pluto Press.


When the poll tax was first launched they trialed it first in Scotland. While the government didn’t seem to learn much from that experience how much did the resistance to the poll tax learn from the Scottish experience?

The introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland is very interesting because on one level the Tories thought they were helping the Scots! There had been a rates revaluation in 1986 which saw a huge spike in the cost of local rates for people – particularly hitting more middle-class Tory voters. In response, the Conservatives accelerated their plans to introduce a flat charge for local government services which they believed would be much cheaper.

The reason for believing that it would be cheaper was that the flat tax would force over spending local authorities to reduce their expenditure or risk an electoral backlash. The initial calculations by civil servants produced a rough figure that didn’t look too financially costly for most people. However, when the Scottish authorities started to release their estimated figures people aimed their anger at the Conservative government.

Michael Heseltine does not have much to recommend him as a politician but he called it right on the Poll Tax. He predicted that it would spark anger at the government, not the councils, and that is what came to pass. The fact it was trialled in Scotland first of all helped channel the rage in an anti-government direction because the Scots saw it as an imposition from Westminster on a country that had only returned a handful of Tory MPs.

The English and Welsh left saw the local Anti Poll Tax Unions and the mass protests in Scotland and drew inspiration from it. Campaigners organised a Red Train to go up from London to Glasgow to join in the protests. When hundreds of people showed up to get the train it was clear this was going to be a struggle across Britain.

The blockading of estates and people’s homes to protect them from court-appointed sheriffs was also a key part of the Scottish struggle. In England, there was bailiff busting but the fight also focussed more on courts and disrupting and frustrating the legal process.

Going into the poll tax the Thatcher government must have been pretty confident. It had a string of victories under its belt after winning a decade of bitter industrial disputes and the Labour Party was embroiled in internal warfare – where had they gone wrong when they launched the policy?

As the Ancient Greeks understood all too well, hubris is a very dangerous thing. Thatcher was flush with success after having crushed the local government left and the unions in her second term and then been returned to power in 1987 with another significant majority. The defeat of the unions at Wapping was the final nail in the coffin of the more militant trade unionism in Britain. So the sense that nothing could stop the Thatcher juggernaut was quite prevalent.

But after the 1987 general election there was a number of problems bubbling below the surface that helped to sink the Poll Tax. First, there were the internal problems in the Conservatives. Thatcher had been the most successful Tory Prime Minister since WW2 but her critics were getting stronger and gathering their forces. Most of the hardcore Thatcherites were gone from the cabinet by the late 1980s, Nicholas Ridley was one of the last and when he was ousted after making some unfortunate remarks in the press. Thatcher seemed increasingly isolated.

In terms of the policy itself it was just hopelessly miscalculated. The Community Charge was more expensive then they estimated, the Tory propaganda blaming high spending Labour Council’s fell flat and they ended up attacking their own voting base with huge bills. People started going to prison in a series of highly politicised trials. Then the movement successfully fought off bailiffs and sheriffs and ending up wrecking countless court summonses which meant that the tax was quite literally unenforceable. The riot in March 1990 made the government look like it had lost control and then a string of by-election defeats and near defeats struck fear into the hearts of the Tory back benchers. Thatcher was ousted in November 1990 and John Major brought Michael Hesletine in to scrap the Poll Tax as soon as was practicable.

So what was the Labour Party’s official response to the Poll Tax?

The Labour Party’s attitude to the Poll Tax is a major theme of the book because it is so illustrative of the entire problem of Labourism. Coming at the end of the 1980s the anti-Poll Tax movement was a mass force of millions of people refusing to pay their tax, some even going to prison for it, alongside mass protests and riots. Labour’s response was classic – they opposed the tax in principle because it was unfair, but they did no practical campaigning around it and once the Community Charge was the law they, alongside most trade union leaders, urged people to pay it.

The crucial battleground was, of course, the Labour Councils who had a duty to implement the Community Charge. The movements demand was for Council workers to not collect it and there were huge protests outside Town Halls when they levied the first charges. When the protests started the Labour Councillors in places like Nottingham called the police and had people charged with assault (for a shaving foam pie in the face of one local politician).

Labour Councillors that defied the instructions from Party HQ to introduce the tax were threatened with suspension and in cases like Lambeth actually suspended. In Lambeth’s case, it was for passing a motion refusing to use bailiffs to collect the arrears. There were also a handful of MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Ken Livingstone and of course Militant supporters like Terry Fields MP who faced the courts for non-payment. Fields even went to prison for non-payment. After he got out he memorably told his comrades “You’ll find more humanity in prison than you will in the House of Commons.”

When the actual implementation of the tax was in total disarray and beset with countless legal problems, Labour MP Bryan Gould mocked the Conservative government in parliament for… not being efficient enough with collecting it.

Labour was so bad because they had an entirely legalistic and constitutional approach to the problem. The left’s response was ‘better to break the law than break the poor’, Labour’s approach is always, ‘a bad law is still a law’. Kinnock and his acolytes made it clear that if Labour wanted to be a respectable party of government then they had to respect the laws of the current government, even if they didn’t agree with them.

There were a number of different components to the anti-poll tax campaign. How would you characterise those different elements and how well they related to each other?

There are a number of constituencies in a mass movement like the anti-poll tax movement. The vast majority of the 17 million people that didn’t pay their Community Charge were not involved in the movement in any direct way – they just refused to pay. A number of these were Tory voters living in the south of England, who were mostly hostile to the socialist left. However they were also utterly opposed to the Poll Tax as a huge expense and also an attack on civil liberties. That allowed the left to set the agenda for a mass movement of non-payment.

The radical left itself that led the movement operated at two levels, in the various national organisations, whether it was the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF) or the 3Ds (Don’t Register, Don’t Pay, Don’t Collect), and in the local Anti Poll Tax Unions (APTUs). Militant dominated the ABAPTF whilst other socialists were involved in the 3Ds. There were largely disputes over tactics in as much as Militant wanted to focus almost exclusively on non-payment whereas other socialist groups still held out hope that the organised working class could get involved and stop the poll tax collection on a local government level.

The Anarchist movement at the time initially focussed more on non-registration, on making the case that people should just refuse to give their details over to local councils. The problem with that tactic was that non-registration could lead to people dropping out of the safety net in terms of benefits or your right to vote. Anarchists also really kicked off at Militant’s domination of the national federation. They wanted to focus more on building local groups outside of the control of Militant, which led to political clashes in various places and splits of APTUs.

One of the biggest flashpoints was in response to the events in Trafalgar Square in March 1990 after the riot. Militant condemned the police violence but also made some unfortunate comments about the protestors, claiming that some ‘trouble makers’ had behaved irresponsibly and that they would find out who it was an hand over their names to the police. Whilst this investigation never happened, it drove a wedge between Militant and the rest of the movement who were furious with these comments.

There’s a lot of focus, understandably, on the Trafalgar Square riot but I think it is less well remembered how many protests were taking place all over the country and how many people were finding themselves arrested. How important do you think that physical response was in bringing down the tax and ultimately Thatcher?

The key point in the book when it comes to social movements is something that I picked up from Danny Burns’ account of the Poll Tax Rebellion that came out in the early 90s. Burns was from a more anarchist background but was still elected onto the National Committee of the ABAPTF so he had a very interesting angle on it. He makes the point which is so crucial to understand that there is a difference between protest and resistance. A protest movement has demonstrations and lobbies and petitions (these things are very important and people shouldn’t sneer at them as they are the bread and butter of a mass movement) but if you want to stop something or change something you need resistance.

Resistance in this context means gumming up the works of the system, actually preventing the operation of the machine. The Poll Tax wasn’t stopped through protests it was stopped through mass non-payment, people trashing court proceedings, disrupting council meetings, fighting bailiffs. Resistance isn’t just direct action, it can also involve mounting disruptive legal challenges to frustrate key elements of the law. Essentially anything that actually breaks up the smooth running of a system or structure. This is why strikes by workers are different from a demonstration by workers, a strike is a resistance, it interrupts the labour-capital dynamic and can force the bosses to make concessions.

What do you think the legacy of the poll tax was for radical movements?

Following on from the previous point, if you compare the anti-poll tax movement to the anti-Iraq war movement which was largely a protest movement (with a handful of notable exceptions) then you can see a crucial distinction. The strategic differences in terms of the nature of the social movement are still worth considering.

The legacy of the anti-poll tax movement is a very complex one because whilst it was a movement that actually won, and in doing so finally brought down Thatcher, because it was limited to a single issue movement nothing emerged after it. Most notoriously Labour threw away the 1992 election, partly because the Conservatives (who had just been forced to scrap their hated tax) managed to paint Labour as the party of ‘tax and spend’ – ridiculous!

There were big debates within the movement over whether working-class action in the workplace should be more front and centre or it was better to focus only on the non-payment strategy. This debate cuts right to the heart of the modern problem for the left. We can want the working class to take action as workers, but they rarely do, and a combination of the anti-union laws and hugely bureaucratic unions means workers are effectively demobilised from joining any political struggle via action in their workplaces. But this lack of industrial militancy means that it is harder to turn a movement like the anti-poll tax fight into a fight against capitalism more generally.

Whilst there are important lessons we can learn, we have to be aware that the politicians also learnt valuable lessons, for instance, the ‘big bang’ introduction of the Poll Tax in 1989/90 was a huge mistake. The original plan was to slowly phase it in between 1989-2000 to acclimatise people to the new reality. If they had done that then who knows, we might still have a poll tax today? Certainly, with something like university tuition fees we can see how that approach works, you introduce a small tuition fee, then you top it up then you hit them with a much bigger one years later. The 2010 student protests were still considerable but the principle of the tuition fees and government loans and student debt had already been firmly established in the public eye.

One important thing to consider is the constant search for the ‘new poll tax movement’ – pundits and sometimes the left keep a watchful eye out for a government policy that might produce a similar movement to the 1989-1992 one. However, the poll tax was specifically a domestic policy that impacted on everyone – that is why there was the basis for mass non-action. The Bedroom Tax, for instance, was never going to become the new poll tax because it primarily impacted only on a section of council tenants. Why would huge swathes of the middle classes come out for that? There is of course a question here about whether you can get a mass movement primarily from empathy for people in a certain situation, but that is very rare. There is no mass movement of resistance and opposition against the horrors of homelessness for instance.

Nevertheless the anti-Poll Tax movement stands as a hugely important moment in the history of Britain. It was a true mass movement with a huge emphasis on culture (gigs to raise money for legal funds), direct action and serious organising in working-class communities. The overall non-payment was very broad, loads of middle-class people refused to pay the tax (which was of particular concern to the Conservatives) but the movement was led by socialists and anarchists and looked very much to a working-class history of popular resistance, rent strikes, laughing at judges and fighting bailiffs that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Interview by Jim Jepps