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30 years since the huge anti-poll tax demo... And how mass non-payment of the tax was built in working-class communities
On 31 March 1990, a massive demonstration surged into central London. It was the culmination of months of organisation and defiance of the Tory government's hated poll tax by millions of overwhelmingly working-class people.
The peaceful start to the march became a 'riot' in Trafalgar Square and the surrounding streets when baton-wielding riot police tried to forcibly break up the rally. Images and film footage of protesters being beaten, but also of protesters fighting back, were beamed around the globe.
Many capitalist media commentators in retrospect said the demo itself led to the Tory Thatcher government abandoning the poll tax. This is echoed by some on the left. However, while the demo undoubtedly shook the government, months of mass non-payment involving millions of people had effectively killed off the tax. This is borne out in the memoirs of Tory ministers at the time.
The fine detail of how anti-poll tax unions were built on working-class estates in virtually every city, town and even in villages, is the real story of how the tax was defeated.
This critical tactic of mass non-payment was the key demand that Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, campaigned for in the months preceding the demo.
The following article by Elaine Brunskill beautifully captures the mood and exhausting legwork of how mass non-payment was built in working-class communities. In a companion piece, Steve Nally - who was secretary of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation - relates what happened on that fateful day, 31 March 1990.
Working-class warriors who took on Thatcher's hated poll tax - and won!
Four of us sat around a table in our local pub. This was the first time in my life I'd been involved in any campaign. We were young, working class and angry at Thatcher's proposal for a poll tax. This was an arrogant Tory prime minister attempting to push us further into poverty.
I was a mam with two young children, and about to become one of an army of millions who would fight this rotten tax - and we would win! But sitting in the pub that night, with a Militant member in our midst telling us our task was to build a mass campaign of non-payment, I liked his enthusiasm, strongly felt something had to be done, but wasn't immediately convinced it was possible. However, nobody else was showing a lead, so I made the decision to get stuck in.
Everything began to snowball quickly. We booked a hall in our local school, printed off thousands of leaflets, talked to our families, friends and neighbours.
Everyone agreed something had to be done. All the while the Militant members were stepping up to the challenge - I was watching them, and was impressed.
Our first public meeting was phenomenal. I was in the audience, and it was standing-room only. One of the local councillors spoke. He was politely received when he talked about the pernicious role of Thatcher.
However, the most applause came for Militant's stance of mass non-payment.
The councillor retorted that we'd be sent to jail. Then the call went out - who was prepared to go to jail? Everyone, including me, put their hand up. That night our local Anti-Poll Tax Union (APTU) was forged. We all signed up.
Each stage of the struggle threw up challenges, but we faced up to them. One of our first hurdles was to ensure the courts were tied up dealing with non-payers. However, instead of the usual town centre court being used, non-payers were summonsed to another, which was far harder to get to.
To make sure everyone got along we put on coaches from the local housing estates. These buses were always crammed with local residents and their kids - there was always a carnival atmosphere.
Crèches were organised in the court's car park. To this day my son is still mates with one of the kids he met in the crèche!
Sandwiches and soft drinks were sold at the court entrance to raise money for our campaign. Instead of rubber stamping thousands of cases through a day, the court had to deal with hundreds of us. They were completely overwhelmed.
We became savvy with the law. Some of us became McKenzie's Friends (a lay person giving support in the court). At one stage we were told the next person up as a McKenzie's Friend would be arrested on the spot (the courts were acting illegally doing this). I was the next one up.
As the police moved forward to arrest me I was surrounded by others from our local APTU. They threatened to arrest us all, but didn't have enough cells! We were fearless!
Then the jailings began. Disgracefully the first person in England to be jailed was a pensioner from South Tyneside. We were shocked that a Labour-controlled council was leading the attack against us. What could we do?
Again it was Militant members who came up with a strategy. To raise awareness we would occupy the South Tyneside Labour leader's office. A couple of Militant members, alongside a group of women from South Tyneside APTU, were joined by us women from Gateshead APTU. This was a military operation.
We stormed into the leader's office, slammed the door shut, and then barricaded ourselves in.
We'd already tipped off the local media something was happening. They were contacted from a local phone box - no mobile phones then! This stunt gave us loads of publicity - we were turning the screws on the Labour council, and they were squirming.
The same council also jailed a Militant supporter for non-payment. We retaliated by asking everyone we knew to phone every South Tyneside councillor - at 6am in the morning! We told them the poll tax prisoner would be getting his wake-up call, so we thought they should have one too! We demanded they stop the jailings.
Another threat, which many feared more than being jailed, was the bailiffs - who, if they gained entry to a property, could seize and sell off a person's possessions, usually at a fraction of their value, to pay the poll tax and court fines. The women from Gateshead APTU became 'Bailiff Busters'. We were scary!
This entailed real attention to detail. I was one of the women at the top of a 'telephone tree'. If anyone was threatened with the bailiffs they could ring one of us, we would then call a few more, who would ring a few more (much easier now with social media).
Then we had to let people know about our telephone tree. We knocked on doors, had stalls and street meetings. We gave advice on what to do if the bailiffs came (including never let them in your house).
It didn't take long for our first call to come through. The bailiffs were going to a woman's house - could we help? By the time the bailiffs turned up there was around 20 of us waiting for them. This emboldened the woman. She answered the door holding a baseball bat, with all of us standing by her side.
The bailiffs looked petrified! This wasn't the reception they were expecting, she was supposed to be frightened of them! Word quickly got around that the bailiffs could be fought.
As support grew for the campaign it became increasingly difficult for the authorities to act against us. Some of the activists from our local APTU were caught flyposting by the police. It was at a bus stop, but the police backed down from doing anything because everyone in the queue supported the posters being put up.
Maggie! Out! Out! Out!
When Thatcher opened a new building at Newcastle College two of us managed to convince the police we were her biggest fans. We were paraded up to shake her hand, but shook our fists and shouted: "Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!" To our surprise we weren't arrested. They probably decided it would just give us more publicity.
There's many valuable lessons to be learnt from the anti-poll tax struggle. Just like Thatcher, Boris Johnson thinks he is invincible. We have to be ready to reach a new generation of working-class fighters who will undoubtedly move into action on a whole host of social, economic and political issues.
All these years later, myself, and others involved at the time, are immensely proud of the militant stance we collectively took. We were working-class people who became anti-poll tax warriors. Our motto - "Better to break the law than break the poor" - still resonates today.
An historic demo of the mass non-payment anti-poll tax movement
The All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (APTF) demo against the poll tax on 31 March 1990 in London (a separate demo was held in Glasgow) was an important part in building a mass non-payment campaign. A campaign that eventually embraced 18 million non-payers, and broke the 'Iron Lady' prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her hated tax.
The Militant-led APTF and local anti-poll tax unions had played the key role in organising it by distributing over 1 million leaflets and posters as well as filling 1,000 coaches and a few trains.
Alongside clogging up the courts, busting the bailiffs and defending those facing jail (see main article) the central London demo was the culmination of months of huge lobbies of councils across England and Wales that involved tens of thousands of people - building on the success of the big anti-poll tax movement that had already existed in Scotland (the Tory government had introduced the tax a year earlier as a 'test run').
On a sunny spring day the demo marched from Kennington Park in Southwark to Trafalgar Square, with well over 300,000 protesters flooding the streets of central London. Tens of thousands had travelled hundreds of miles to join what was a carnival of working-class protest adorned with homemade banners, along with thousands of APTF and Militant placards.
Trade unionists marched beside pensioners who marched beside families with children. Londoners untypically walked miles to get there because the buses were full. Attendances at London football games that day were down as many fans joined the demo. There was even a 'Bikers Against The Poll Tax' contingent!
The demo poured into Trafalgar Square to welcome speeches by left Labour MP Tony Benn, Dave Nellist (then a Militant-supporting MP) and others. The Square echoed to the chants of "No Poll Tax! No Poll Tax!" It was a festival atmosphere that reflected the growing confidence of the campaign and the feeling that on this front the Tories had finally bitten off more than they could chew.
The demo was 'people power' on a grand scale, something which the Tory government and Metropolitan Police could not tolerate. So yet again the police saw fit to brutally attack a mass, peaceful, working-class demonstration.
This was a regular feature of life under Thatcher. Miners, printers, travellers and students had all faced similar treatment during the 1980s. However, the weight of numbers on the demo meant that the usual lies about 'violent protesters' fell flat.
Too many people had been there and could report back that it had been peaceful until the police were unleashed. Many returned home later that night unaware that the demo had been attacked as they had left early to catch coaches.
There are many versions as to how the events in Trafalgar Square started but just one unalterable fact; the police on horses, and riot police wielding batons, viciously attacked the 80,000 present in the square. Defenceless protesters were battered and one woman was trampled over by one of the many police horse charges that took place. They even drove vehicles into the crowd.
No wonder demonstrators fought back to defend themselves and others. Even to this day the images of police attacking peaceful protesters on a sunny day in London are truly shocking.
These police actions continued for many hours across the West End, and in particular against the vast number of youth who had been forced to live on the streets of London due to Tory cuts to youth benefits.
It is viewed by many as the one event that beat the poll tax, when in reality it was one of a series of many acts that played their part as the battle unfolded. But critically, the demo had made its point.
Mass non-payment was being built, millions would refuse to pay and the events of that day showed the strength of the growing movement, its true roots and its exuberance.
In The Socialist 25 March 2020:
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