revolutionary reflections | The Anti-Poll Tax Federation: Organisation and spontaneity

The anti-poll tax movement was arguably the most successful social movement in Great Britain since the 1970s. In advance of the 30th anniversary of the poll tax riot (31 March 1990), Andrew Stone uses Coventry as a case study to explore the growth and dynamics of the movement. This first instalment investigates the interaction between political organisations and neighbourhood-based activism.

Poll Tax Riot 31 March 1990
Trafalgar Square, 31 March 1990. Photo: James Bourne (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The left has had much practice in analysing and drawing lessons from our defeats. It is refreshing, with the anti-poll tax movement, to have the opportunity to learn from a victory, albeit one with some unfulfilled potential. In 2001 I undertook a detailed local study of the anti-poll tax movement in Coventry and Warwickshire. I interviewed a range of participants, some of whom were seasoned activists, some who were pulled into the campaign through circumstance. I also scoured the local newspaper, the Coventry Evening Telegraph (and its local variants).

Why should an analysis of a single-issue campaign focused on a single city interest the general reader? Firstly, the nature of the battle, which mobilised swathes of ordinary people against a three-times elected Tory government that had come to seem hegemonic. The government was imposing against all cautionary voices an ideologically motivated ‘Community Charge’ that was a transparently regressive form of local taxation – in the notorious explanation of Thatcherite Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley, it was right that ‘a duke would pay the same as a dustman’. Millions refused to pay, or were in serious arrears, many joined local anti-poll tax unions, protested, disrupted council meetings and magistrates’ courts. And London saw its biggest riot in a century.

Coventry was one part of that movement, and examining its dynamics can provide some insights into the wider process of grassroots organising. Then, as now, a mostly working class and relatively ethnically diverse city. By April 1990, the month of the tax’s implementation in England and Wales, people in Coventry had formed 50 local Anti Poll Tax Unions (APTUs).[1] Nine months later, with firm legal sanctions being pursued by the Labour-controlled city council, 35,000 people, or 16% of liable adults, had withheld all payment.[2]

So what was the role of the organised left in the conception, formation and activity of this movement? The most prominent socialist organisation in the Coventry Anti-Poll Tax Movement (APTM), reflecting its prominence in the campaign nationally, was the Militant Tendency. Militant had a strong base of support in the city, especially in Binley, Stoke and Willenhall, and had a Labour MP in Militant-supporting Dave Nellist (Coventry south-east), who played a high profile role in the national campaign. Militant pursued a long-term policy of entryism within the Labour Party, but in the wake of the 1983 election defeat had suffered an extended witch-hunt under Neil Kinnock’s leadership. Less high profile, but also significant, was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The movement wasn’t unitary, with some groups opposed to the Militant-led Anti-Poll Tax Federation (‘the Fed’). The local Nuneaton Against the Poll Tax group, which wasn’t part of the Federation, also involved members of the Communist Party and a Trade Union Action Association. Small groups of anarchists also played a role in a number of actions and local groups.

It would clearly be wrong to reduce the campaign – still less its wider supporters – to these organisations. The 72,000 who were reported to be in arrears in May 1991 (with 26,000 having paid nothing)   attests to a phenomenon that far outreached the active support that these groups would generally enjoy. However, they were still able to influence and inform the ideas and strategy behind the movement.

Opponents of the movement tended to argue that manipulation by shadowy ‘outsiders’ took place. For example, a ‘Public Eye Special Report’ in the Coventry Evening Telegraph warned in the early stages of the movement that it had: ‘its roots in Militant, the extreme left-wing group’.  It later implied that the campaign was ‘being led by fanatics’ whilst Labour Councillor Bob Ainsworth expressed worry about ‘genuine people looking for ways to fight (the tax)… being “sucked into” a campaign where there was scope for them to be used.’  The ‘duped by demagogues’ refrain is a familiar defence of elites under threat, and could easily be dismissed as such if it emanated only from the Conservative government. But the echo of this argument from Labour councillors (for Ainsworth was one example among many) and the Labour leadership (which in May 1990 warned its members not to join the Anti Poll Tax Federations because they were ‘Militant­ led’  demands further analysis. In theory, the Labour Party was in agreement with the movement’s aims. In practice, the dispute over tactics led to a far more antagonistic discourse.

The oral testimonies that I gathered suggest a more complex reality than the lurid warnings of the Coventry Evening Telegraph would recognise. One aspect of this was the entry of the ‘non-political’ into activism. Christine, an IBM worker, had been a member of the SWP in her youth but had left by the time of the poll tax:

I remember going to my first (anti) poll tax meeting at Stoke ExServicemens Club. I was used to far smaller gatherings of revolutionary socialists and I couldn’t believe that there was this room full of people, all angry (..) Thinking about it now, it was magical.

You had everything. Every kind of person. People you thought were meek and mild were really angry as a result of it. .. People who hadn’t been involved in anything before used to go and look forward to the meetings. And the next week you’d go and there’d be more people! Revolutionary socialists were completely outnumbered… And the imagination that people showed in campaigning. Some of the OAPs talked about when they were in unions and how that fight came back. But some of the single parents, really young women with babies, had never been involved in political struggles before. And it was  just  astounding  to watch…[3]

Gill, a social worker, also pointed to the involvement of previously ‘apolitical’ people. She cited her sister as an example:

My sister had never been involved in politics. Didn’t have a political bone in her body. And at one point she was secretary of Stoke Anti-Poll Tax Union. She joined the Militant for a brief time… When the tax went she dropped out again. But I think there were lots of people, particularly women, seemed to be more women getting involved, who hadn t got a lot of experience…

We did get some quite eccentric people but we got things done.[4]

The frequent mentions of women’s participation by my interviewees was also occasionally reported by the Coventry Evening Telegraph. It featured Betty Hughes, a 60-year old Labour supporter who had ‘never before been active in politics’, who spoke at public meetings and demonstrations for the Hillfields APTU having been ‘moved to act by memories of life in the workhouse during the 1930s’.[5] It also quoted ‘Coventry mums’ Maxine Bailes and Margaret Brooks. The former, the 27 year old chair of the Canley APTU, argued ‘a lot of ordinary people have had enough and are prepared to fight back.Some are politically motivated. So what, an awful lot aren’t.’ Margaret, who like Maxine did not belong to any political party, considered from her canvassing that ‘it is mostly women, young people and pensioners who feel very strongly.’

Unsurprisingly, these were the groups of people who were being hit hardest financially by the shift from the property based ‘rates’. Young adults living with their parents, often on low wages or suffering from unemployment, were liable for the tax, as were university students, although at 20 % of the full charge. Similarly, although many pensioners were eligible for rebates, some saw bitter echoes of the unpopular Means Test. The added liability of married mothers not in paid employment was ironic considering the Government’s paeans to ‘Family Values’, but single parents often faced even greater hardship as a result. Added to this, the tax was disproportionately affected ethnic minority groups. As the Local Government Information Unit pointed out in 1988, as well as suffering a higher incidence of poverty, on average black adults lived together in larger family groups. They estimated that the net loss for a three-adult household in Coventry would be £222 per annum.[6]

All of these examples added to the belief among wide layers of people that the poll tax was an attack on the most marginalised sections of society. But they were not the sole participants – the Coventry case study confirms Bagguley’s research on the prominence of public sector professionals,[7] with teachers and social workers well represented. As in his case study in Leeds, it appears to have straddled the typical social bases of both ‘old’ and ‘new’ social movements. Here, as so often, the dichotomy often deployed in political science academia between traditional class-based and single-issue campaigns proves overly simplistic.

It was this diversity which appears to have encouraged the belief in the existence of a much wider layer of passive support that many of my respondents commented on. The most measurable aspect of this are the levels of what Andy, a printer, described to me as ‘passive non­payment’.[8]. Tom and Dean, a computer programmer and an art therapist, were students at Coventry University at the time:

Tom: ‘I think people realised early on, when they started not paying it, that there was no way that they were going to be able to get money off people, because it was on such a large scale that it was impossible to administer(..)’

Dean: ‘You felt quite safe in taking that stance – that most of the country was with you – you didn’t feel that radical.’[9]

Christine recounted with affection how her friends’ son of four, Ryan, had been listening to the news when he said: ‘But I thought you didn’t have to pay if you didn’t want to’, because, she considered, ‘it was that widespread’.[10]

‘Passive’ is not the best way to describe the act of non­payment. Considering the penalties that it could entail, for many it required a positive act of will. What underlay this will, however, was not subjective persuasion or coercion by militant ‘extremists’, but the objective material situation of poverty and over-stretched budgets. Tracey, a teacher whom I met by chance when I went to interview her friend, Christine described how, while in training at Warwick University, she was forced into non-payment:

It came on top of a terrible few years of soaring interest rates. Most people saw their mortgages go from something they could afford to something they could barely afford. Our mortgage in those years doubled. So the pressure that put on (…) And I know that was common for a lot of people. I know one friend who had her house repossessed, and others that had to sell their nice house for a much smaller house…

This wasn’t a protest... ‘we won’t pay’ and all of that. It was just a question of being totally broke and trying to work out what we could not pay. Had to pay the mortgage. Had to pay the utilities. And then hopefully corning to some sort of an arrangement over the poll tax…[11]

Christine considered that the act of law breaking did concern people, but said ‘I worried about it more than the people who really couldn’t pay – because that’s a luxury thought, isn’t it? “Oh dear, I’m breaking the law” – if you can’t do anything about it.’[12] Tracey was only vaguely aware of the campaign in Coventry and was even unsure if her friends and fellow students at the time were in a similar position: ‘I’m not sure. It wasn’t something I particularly discussed. Not having enough money and being broke was not something I really wanted to talk about.’[13] For those who were involved the local ‘Fed’ provided a confidence-building atmosphere of mutual support. Christine sounded somewhat paternal in describing her attendance at protests:

I went partly because I’d got some experience of going on demos before, and I wanted to go with these pensioners and single parent women… .It was part of the whole confidence thing – ‘oh, I’m  getting scared  now, I’m  going to pay it’, and I’d say ‘come to the Council House, there’s a rally tonight, and see what people say.[14]

That many people should look to activists of the left to give them this confidence perhaps seemed most sinister to Labour politicians who felt instead a pessimism about the efficacy of collective action. Labour Councillor Nick Nolan wrote that the Poll Tax had created ‘a great mood of resentment’, but one which the ‘vast majority of law-abiding people in this country will contain until the electoral opportunity arises to release it’.[15] His leader, Neil Kinnock, agreed, saying (in a quote that hasn’t aged well) that people did not deserve to be ‘exploited by Toy Town revolutionaries who pretend that the tax can be stopped and the government toppled simply by non-payment’.[16] Most of my respondents considered the Labour Party as an organisation to be ‘irrelevant’ to the poll tax opposition (a point Christine, in particular, returned to several times). Even Tracey, who had only good words to say of Neil Kinnock, who she thought ‘would have made an excellent Prime Minister’ commented of the poll tax: ‘To be honest, Labour didn’t really present much of an opposition at all.’[17] This is not to imply that Labour Party members were not involved, only that they were not involved as Labour Party members. As Andy commented ‘Some were in the Labour Party, but that was never an issue one way or another.’[18] The loose sense of Labour affiliation this suggests is further illustrated by Gill, who had already told me that she was in the Labour Party during the campaign, then described herself as ‘not being a member of a political organisation’.[19] The trade unions were similarly peripheral. Andy described how:

We did try to link it up with the trade union movement. We did argue with people to take resolutions to their union branch. We did argue that it is a working class issue and therefore it should be a trade union issue. But the trade unions, even more than now, would toe the official Labour Party line. Everything was geared towards the election in a couple of years time.[20]

Pat, an SWP member on incapacity benefit, described the anti-poll tax meetings thus:

They did attract people who had never been involved in political activity before and that was reflected in a willingness to embrace new ideas and ways of doing things and an openness... And an enthusiasm and the belief was there that we could scrap the Poll Tax, and an awareness about how wide the opposition was.[21]

This openness to strategy and tactics should not be equated with the cynics’ view of a ‘stage army’ of duped independents. As Bagguley writes of the campaign nationally: ‘It must be emphasised that for different reasons Militant, the Labour Party and the Conservatives have significant interests in exaggerating the role of Militant in organising anti-poll tax groups.’[22] Many non-aligned individuals were elected to posts in the district’s fifty plus APTUs. More crucially, (for these posts generally only covered the most basic administrative functions) as grassroots organisations the APTUs depended on the activism and initiative of their members. For example, Gill told me how the Earlsdon APTU came to rely on the activity of a slightly eccentric man called Graham:

We had one person who used to make a phenomenal amount of money. He’d been a salesman in his past life, and he just used to knock on peoples’ doors constantly, day in, day out. And people used to give him money. And he’d come to the groupwith bags of money. And he’d never been involved in politics… He did that ‘cos he’d got the gift of the gab.[23]

Socialist organisations could either stifle or stimulate such characters. Which option they chose was not predetermined. Although Militant members held most of the positions at the Federation level (Secretary, Chair, etc.), there were inevitably tensions if they attempted to be too hegemonic. Gill was critical of them in this regard, saying of the Federation:

I think we had a good relationship with the SWP in Earlsdon. But the main party were Militant and they had control of a large part of it (the APTF), and used it as a way of recruiting. And it got really unpleasant towards the end of the campaign. City-wide anti­poll tax meetings... where you felt it was an organised attempt to intimidate people definitely taking place.[24]

Such tensions suggest that alongside the unity of action, there were vibrant debates about strategy and tactics, and not the manipulated conformity that the movement’s critics might suggest. Perhaps it is also significant though that Gill considers relations to have become unpleasant ‘towards the end of the campaign’ when the unifying goal of defeating the tax was in sight but conflicting additional goals of political prestige and recruitment were also at stake.

The success of the Earlsdon APTU, one of the few without significant Militant involvement, suggests that such lapses into sectarianism were counter­productive. Earlsdon is one of the more affluent Coventry wards, yet Andy provided me with a membership list of exactly 150, their candidate Toni Cardinali, achieved – on a non-payment platform that broke party policy – the best Labour vote for the ward in a local election,[25] and they filled an entire coach to go to the Trafalgar Square protest.[26]

This doesn’t mean that socialist organisations played a predominantly negative role, however.  Much of the early groundwork for the movement was laid by small groups of activists spreading information about the tax’s financial consequences. These activists were predominantly from political organisations. Even as awareness grew, their experience of previous campaigns could provide a confidence and assertiveness that emboldened the whole movement. For example, Pat described how he had gone to a meeting at a Bedworth Labour club early in the campaign:

They’d invited some Labour members of Warwick County Council to speak…It was pretty packed. There must have been 250 people there, solidly working class… The speaker laid into the Tories, talking about how undemocratic it was and so on, but then went on to talk about how the opposition shouldn’t encourage non-payers. And you could see that she could see that she was losing the meeting. So whether by strategy or incomprehension she laboured the point…After a while it became evident that she wasn’t going to stop speaking. She didn’t want a situation where it was opened up to the audiencepeople were getting more and more restless. Until the people in the row behind megot up and walked out. At which point I thought: ‘If something doesn’t happen soon the whole audience is going to walk out’. So I just cut into what she was saying, as politely as possibleand she was forced to respond. And I came back again, and the meeting was now a discussion. And everyone was putting up their hand, or just speaking, and she’d completely lost control of the meeting, and people vented their anger[27]

Merely having the belief not to be cowed into submission by a confident politician may have inspired many people at that meeting to join the campaign. Indeed, Pat told me that:

When the meeting broke up at least half of the people came over, spoke to us, shook our hands, saying they were really glad that we’d begun to argue with herAnd that was with no Left there having agitated (previously). Just real working class anger, being really pissed off with the Labour leadership for not giving a lead.[28]

A local group was set up, and by the next meeting, 350 were in attendance and five local councillors had pledged not to pay the tax.[29]

Most of the actions which took place – the petitioning, the bill-burning, the court pickets – had precedents in earlier campaigns, the lessons of which socialists were able to relate to the APTM. Structures were generally informal, in the shape of local ‘activists meetings’. Although APTUs kept ‘membership lists’ (they were more like phone trees), and generally asked for donations when ‘recruiting’, the looseness of organisational affiliation could be said to confirm Parkin’s observation that mass movements have ‘supporters’ rather than members.[30] However this does seem to characterise the dynamic as one where the majority cheer on a minority, which doesn’t reflect how the poll tax initiated so many new people into activism. Socialists were not in a position to provide diktats to the movement. As such heavy-handed tactics had failed the far more established Labour Party and trade unions, they were unlikely to work for fringe organisations. Rather they had to prove their methods in practice. But those methods were dependent on the mass involvement and support that eventually brought down the tax. Bums, who with anarcho-syndicalist sympathies is not averse to criticising the actions of left-wing organisations, summarises their role well:

The importance of these groupings should not be underestimated, nor the debates which they were engaged in, because, in the absence of the organised Labour movement, they provided the political and intellectual ideas which underpinned the resistance strategy. As the movement grew and ordinary people began to outnumber the political activists, their tactical influence diminished, but their strategic influence continued to set the agenda.[31]

Notes

[1] Coventry Evening Telegraph (CET), 10 April 1990.

[2] CET, 13 March 1991.

[3] Interview with Christine, 27 July 2001.

[4] Interview with Gill, 1 Aug 2001.

[5] CET, 29 June 1989.

[6] Local Government Information Unit, The Poll Tax and Black People: Poll Tax Facts 11, July 1988 (in NUS Poll Tax Survival Kit). For more evidence of the tax’s effects see: Labour Research Department, The Poll Tax: What it will mean for people in England and Wales,  (London: Blackfriars, March 1990), pp. 22-6.

[7] Paul Bagguley, ‘Protest, Poverty and Power’, Sociological Review, 43 (1995), 705.

[8] Interview with Andy, 29 July 2001.

[9] Interview with Tom and Dean, 23 June 2001.

[10] Interview with Christine.

[11] Interview with Tracey, 31 July 2001.

[12] Interview with Christine.

[13] Interview with Tracey.

[14] Interview with Christine.

[15] CET, 22 Feb1990.

[16] Quoted in The Guardian, 10 March 1990.

[17] Interview with Tracey.

[18] Interview with Andy, 29 July 2001.

[19] Interview with Gill.

[20] Interview with Andy.

[21] Interview with Pat, 4 Aug 2001.

[22] Bagguley, ‘Protest’, 701.

[23] Interview with Gill.

[24] Interview with Gill.

[25] CET, 13 April 1990.

[26] Interview with Andy.

[27] Interview with Pat.

[28] Interview with Pat

[29] CET, 3 April 1990.

[30] Frank Parkin, Middle Class Radicalism: The Social Bases of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, (Manchester: MUP, 1968), p. 10.

[31] Danny Burns, Poll Tax Rebellion (London: AK Press, 1992), p. 31.

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