Revolutionary reflections | The Anti-Poll Tax Federation: ‘Mob rules’

Debates about the use of confrontational collective action in the Anti-Poll Tax Movement remain relevant for struggles today, argues Andrew Stone in the final installment of his research into the movement in Coventry. (Part One | Part Two)

Three police officers in riot gear stand infront of a burning building on 31st of March 1990 Keywords: poll tax violence tactics militant action collective action direct action
Police officers in riot gear stand infront of a burning building on 31st of March 1990. Photo: James Bourne/WikiCommons

Any movement of significant potential and potency will have to confront questions about the legitimacy and efficacy of the use of force in achieving its aims. To give one anecdotal example, while researching Coventry’s Anti-Poll Tax Movement (APTM) during the summer of 2001 I was involved in the anti-capitalist movement then at its height. Since the disruption of the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle in 1999, a series of conferences of multinational institutions had been confronted, both physically and ideologically, by a broad coalition including socialists, anarchists, environmentalists and NGOs. In July 2001, what then-Prime Minister Tony Blair denounced as ‘a travelling circus’ arrived in Genoa to protest against the G8 Summit. We were met by brutal state-sponsored violence, which included the murder of protestor Carlo Giuliani, the assault on sleeping activists in the Diaz Pertini school building, and, as I observed personally, the merciless beating of pacifists staging a sit-down protest.

Yet, at least in the run-up to the protests, the media scrutiny around the use of force was squarely focused on the protestors themselves. My own affinity group had an embedded reporter from the Times whose questioning exemplified this perfectly. To be fair his final report was not the hatchet job that many of us feared, although the head injury inflicted on his photographer by the Italian carabinieri may have made him more inclined to take our arguments seriously. It may also, in microcosm, reflect how the demonisation of protestors – what we could call the establishment’s ‘discourse of the mob’ – can be undermined by participation in movements that reveal what Antonio Gramsci described as ‘good sense’  in opposition to ruling class ‘common sense’.

For opponents of the APTM, this image of ‘the mob’ served to synthesise Neil Kinnock’s condemnation of supposed ‘Toy Town revolutionaries’[1] with the assertion of principles of political and legal obligation. The image of ‘sinister, ungracious, marauding yobs abusing councillors and kicking policemen’[2] sought to equate poll tax protest and its leading advocates, implicitly or explicitly, with random criminality, mindlessness, and violence. For activists who had experienced such media and institutional criticism in previous campaigns this was not unexpected, although several of my interviewees did feel its ferocity to be quite rare. But the discourse of the mob also walked a fine line: it aimed to isolate the mass of the movement from ‘extreme’ elements, but in so doing it attacked the strategy and tactics of civil disobedience which the wider movement embraced.

The language used to describe the APTM was underscored with the latent threat of violence – one local newspaper front page warning that ‘Non-payers enlist poll rebel army’,[3] with the military imagery repeated in the  article ‘Crunch time as poll tax factions prepare for war’.[4] The tabloid tendency towards hyperbole means that such headlines should not be viewed in isolation. But the articles that they accompanied, as well as the many public pronouncements of leading figures in local government, were indicative of a more general attempt at vilification of the campaign. The slogan ‘rent-a-mob’ was quickly resurrected as confrontations took place at council meetings setting poll tax bills around the country. After clashes in Bristol and Birmingham anti­poll tax protesters were branded ‘rent-a-mob Trotskyists’[5] by the Police Federation chairman Alan Eastwood. Environment secretary Chris Patten followed up with his hope that ‘democratic local government will be able to continue without violence particularly when it is sometimes organised from the outside.’[6] It was in this atmosphere that Coventry South-East MP Dave Nellist felt it necessary to justify travelling to speak at anti-poll tax meetings: 

Yes, there are people travelling about. But the idea there is a hit squad of several hundred people travelling up and down the country causing disruption at council meetings would be laughable but for a sudden press smear campaign against the [Anti-Poll Tax] Federation… In all the meetings I have been to in the past 26 months I have never filled a car, never mind taken a mob.[7]

Early March 1990 saw the most ferocious scenes at council meetings, including a riot of several thousand people in Hackney, reported in the Coventry Evening Telegraph as ‘Poll Tax mob goes on rampage’.[8] Tommy Sheridan, one of the leading figures in the All Britain Federation of Anti-Poll Tax Unions, has pointed to the way different forms of local government shaped such confrontations. He suggests that the need to pre-plan protests at ‘big, remote’ regional councils in Scotland militated against the ‘bigger, more spontaneous and more volatile’ demonstrations seen at smaller and more accessible town councils in England and Wales.[9]

On 27 February Coventry protesters heckled from the public gallery, forcing councillors out of the council chamber, to set the rate at a ‘secret location’ (a disused committee room).[10] Similar angry, but non-violent scenes were evident in neighbouring Nuneaton and Rugby the following day.[11] Although such disruption was probably more typical than violent clashes, predictably it was the latter which garnered more publicity. Printer worker Andy implied that the excitement of these battles could act as inspiration for areas of more mundane campaigning: 

In Coventry it was a fairly worthy but plodding campaign. The real dramatic things happened in places like Nottingham and Swindon, where people invaded the council chambers, whipped up the proceedings dressed as Robin Hood etcetera.  And like where I come from in Surrey, 700 people had a mini-riot outside the Town Hall.[12]

The apparently positive reception of rioting that this hints at suggests that some protesters embraced aspects of the discourse of the mob. If nothing else, the discourse displayed that the campaign was significant, and perhaps protesters saw, in the fear it attempted to arouse in the public, a reflection of the mood of the ruling class. Andy also believed that the arrogant attitudes of ‘the most Tory areas’[13] could act as a catalyst for trouble. This was partially borne out in Coventry and Warwickshire, as the closest that the county came to violence – during rate-setting meetings at least – was in leafy Royal Leamington Spa, where about a dozen protesters were involved in a scuffle with police. This resulted in six people being detained, who were all later released without charge.[14]

The national protest at Trafalgar Square on 31 March 1990 then became one of the prime focuses for APTM in Coventry, as it did nationally. The local Federation sent around five hundred people on coaches (with many more likely making the straightforward journey by car or train themselves), compared to ‘a thin smattering of people’ attending a Coventry city centre protest organised by the local Labour group, which was designed to undercut the more militant alternative.[15] It was vital to the APTM that the rioting that occurred was not seen to delegitimise poll tax opposition. Violence had not been unexpected, but perhaps the scale of it was. Even on the day of the protests in London and Glasgow, the police were saying that they hoped ‘to contain pockets of left-wing activists who may try to disrupt the marches with violence’.[16] Perhaps ‘contain’ was a euphemism, given the evidence of significant police provocation.[17]Andy’s experience of the protest was one that was unnecessarily plunged into violence:

At about one o’clock I was getting a bit hungry, so I just wandered up Charing Cross to get something to eat. I came back and the first thing I saw was a police van driving at quite high speed through the crowd with a man riding on the bonnet. And an older man, perhaps in his fifties, with his feet on the bumper, desperately trying to hold onto the sides, or the windscreen wipers, or something to stop himself falling under the wheels of this police van. Then I knew something was up.[18]

One Coventry protester was reported to have been arrested, ‘assistant litter liaison officer’ Daniel Cooke, a 22 year old council worker. When on his way back to his coach, seeing the heavy-handed treatment of another demonstrator at Victoria Embankment, he objected, and was arrested himself.[19]

Militant organiser Dave Griffiths combined mild criticism of the police – ‘lots of innocent people got crushed in the melee and the police were a little bit rough with them’,[20] with a condemnation of ‘anarchists’ for their role. This defensive and divisive position, was one which the less rabid sections of the Labour leadership could at least half-support, to deflect Conservative suggestions that the violence originated from their own (albeit ‘Militant-duped’) ranks. So when Tory councilor Lillian Milligan accused Dave Nellist and fellow Labour MP John Hughes of organising ‘an affray’ at the demonstration, Nellist pursued legal action,[21] eventually receiving costs and a nominal £5 in damages, which he gave to an educational charity.[22]

The largest riot in London for a century led David Waddington, the Secretary of State, to demand to know of the Labour opposition if they expected

those whom they seek to influence to draw a neat distinction between one sort of lawbreaking and another? Do they expect the people who they seek to influence to break the tax not to be encouraged to break policemen’s heads?[23]

George Galloway MP responded that to compare ‘someone peacefully withholding his tax with someone smashing masonry over a policeman’s head’ was a ‘wholly specious equation’.[24]

Local activist Dave Cowell sought to reinforce this distinction, writing that the Coventry contingent

included families, disabled people, and a man who carried a dog in a rucksack on his back. The atmosphere before the outbreak of violence was almost Carnival. The people of Coventry should be proud of their behaviour. Their participation was dignified, peaceful and clearly effective. The violence which disrupted Central London should not be allowed to become the only talking point. The demonstration was probably the largest public protest this century. The violence was a side issue, and only that. Those who choose to beat policemen and loot shops will frequently use peaceful demonstrations for their own ends. The Anti-Poll Tax Campaign will not be deflected by the attempts of politicians to attach a label of encouraging violence to those who espouse civil disobedience. The two concepts are clearly separate. [25]

During the parliamentary debate Sir John Wheeler MP called for an investigation into the protest which sought to explain ‘why so many young people came, (and) whether some of them were paid’.[26] Rarely can such an unabashed explanation of the ‘rent-a-mob’ taunt have been proffered – a complete failure, or refusal, to understand the motivation of protest, which sees it as only explicable in cynical, market­driven terms.

Tommy Sheridan, among many others, believes that the Metropolitan police were under political instruction to incite aggression in order to discredit the movement.[27] If that was the case then it was a tactic that seriously backfired. A MORI poll indicated that between March and April 1990 opposition to the poll tax rose from 65 to 72 per cent.[28] Whether or not policing methods were seen to have been provocative, the government was widely understood hold or at least to share blame for the social unrest that resulted from the poll tax. One letter to the Coventry Evening Telegraph stated: 

I suggested recently in a letter that this country would be in turmoil unless there was cohesion between government and people. Mrs Thatcher is running the country as if it were her fief, and the inevitable result was seen in the centre of London last Saturday. The responsibility for what happened rests entirely with her style of government.[29]

Andy added:

The media pushed a line massively that the poor police had been assaulted and they wheeled out this policewoman who was in tears and she’s been battered and had sticks thrown at her, etcetera. But on my return to work, people knew I’d gone, but no-one said anything derogatory to me. They were just, like, ‘what happened there, then?’ People didn’t follow the official media line. The politicians’ and the media’s line was beginning to fracture. It clearly wasn’t the case that the argument about rioters and lawlessness was having the resonance with ordinary workers…[30]

Another interviewee, Pat, agreed:

I don’t think that it got that much adverse reaction. People were pretty shocked, but I think that generally it added to the feelings against the poll tax. People in the campaign were pretty clued up.[31]

This assessment of the prevailing mood appears to have given confidence to the movement. And despite Militant’s less-than unconditional defence of protesters, Dave Nellist effectively critiqued police methods in ordering riot squads and mounted divisions to clear a sit-down protest (which is generally not a position conducive to acting violently), comparing it to ‘a military operation’.[32]

Despite the apparently limited success of the government’s attempt to delegitimise the campaign, a paranoid atmosphere engulfed the local press in Coventry, echoing the line taken in most of the national media. Every protest was trailed by the issue of violence. This was understandable for the May Day protest, which passed by peacefully, because it was the first major local mobilisation after the Trafalgar Square protest. But the Coventry Evening Telegraph’s reaction to a relatively minor incident in Rugby two months later, when two protesters were arrested for disrupting court hearings, was vastly overblown. The editorial thundered:

The pictures of poll tax protesters who caused a rumpus at Rugby magistrates court yesterday told all that was necessary to know about them. They’re the usual anarchist malcontents who attach themselves to any cause that will give them a platform to justify their anti-social behaviour…The silly people pretending to occupy the moral high ground by refusing to pay, by misbehaving in public and by threatening others, haven’t a reasoned argument among them.[33]

The message was reinforced with the front-page headline ‘Police warn demo: Keep it peaceful’[34] when Coventry magistrates began hearing poll tax cases. But perhaps the most absurd example of this hysteria was the pillorying of Reverend Martin Wright, for producing a leaflet on the subject which contained a woodcut print with a scene from the Peasant’s Revolt. This, Conservative councillors insisted, was inciting people to violent protest, as the peasants depicted were holding spears and scythes.[35] As no scythe or spear attacks have subsequently taken place in Coventry, one can only assume that he was unsuccessful.

When Coventry magistrates decided to bar some protesters from court, Mrs C.S. Hood, the treasurer of Keresley Village APTU, responded angrily to incessant misrepresentation by the Coventry Evening Telegraph:

I resent your headline ‘Court to kick out rowdy tax yobs’ (21 July). To call us yobs is quite uncalled for… I’d never been cautioned or sent out of court before, nor had a lot of other people, but we were all refused admission to the court… Your headline almost reminded me of the days when we supported miners on the picket lines and were called slags. Words won’t hurt us when the cause is right.[36]

Sometimes the reaction of campaigners was to make defensive statements to pre-empt the issue. On several occasions, for instance, Mary Colyer of Nuneaton and Bedworth Against the Poll Tax warned ‘militant infiltrators’ to stay away.[37] A more positive way of dealing with the issue was displayed by Dave Griffiths’s appeal for trade unionists to volunteer to steward the May Day march.[38] This pointed to an organisational solution designed to increase, rather than limit, participation.

Ultimately, the lurid demonisation of the movement was undermined by the visibly coercive methods that the state was using to collect the tax. Jack Sprung, for instance, was 68 years old when the bailiffs were sent to his house.[39] He was part of a group of ‘bailiff-busters’ who sought to prevent the council’s intimidation – or ‘encouragement’ in the council’s words.[40] These were trained squads of ordinary people, mobilised through phone trees, who would converge on the liable property when required and lawfully refuse the bailiffs access. This included a squad of ‘forty to fifty’ students from local Warwick University, who signed up for the task after Militant activist Rob Windsor spoke at their APTU meeting.[41] Students, as well as pensioners and the unemployed, who were more likely than full-time workers to be available during the day, could be especially central to this activity.

Coventry council were particularly efficient in the granting of liability orders – by 30 September 1990, when Birmingham had only granted 204, Coventry had issued 13,675 – which rose to 21,000 by December.[42] Perhaps in response to the pressure from the movement, they were more circumspect in the use of further sanctions. The controlling Labour group on the council soon ordered a ‘softly, softly approach’ to minimise political embarrassment.[43] Pat believed ‘they were pretty wary… of making martyrs of people… they didn’t demand any exemplary punishments.’[44] However, they did inadvertently create a martyr out of activist Bob Phelan, who had a fatal heart attack while police carried him out of court for protesting at the imposition of liability orders. The council sanctioned the adjournment of the next day’s hearings as a mark of respect, although court staff outraged campaigners by offering defendants the chance to go ahead anyway. Only one did, the rest walking out with protesters.[45] The Coventry coroner prevented Dave Nellist’s attempt to get a full investigation into the death, ruling it out on the grounds of ‘natural causes’.[46]

Coventry courts were responsible for ten poll tax imprisonments, and perhaps one hundred suspended sentences,[47] but mainly after the campaign was won. Nevertheless, the threat of such action had been present throughout. Wage and benefit deductions only added to resentment at the coercion of enforcement. The discourse of ‘the mob’ used to delegitimise the social expression of this resentment, the APTM, was a paranoid characterisation of ‘the other’. The movement expressed a wider public outcry about the tax, an alienation which the government, the media and the majority of Labour councils failed to comprehend. The campaign was not predominantly one of violence, but of force. Non-payment was an undeniably coercive instrument, but it was not violent. Council pickets, court protests, bill burning and bailiff-busting were important actions which often caused disruption, and occasionally violence, but they were ultimately ancillary to the main purpose of making sure that the council, in Pat’s words, ‘couldn’t get all their money back(..) or ‘ours’, rather’.[48]

The Anti-Poll Tax Movement was one of the largest and most effective protest movements in British history. With active campaigning of barely two years it was also one of the most rapid. If the Chartists’ battle for the vote was a war of attrition, then the APTM was blitzkrieg. But like any social movement it also contained an element of guerrilla warfare. The experiences of the movement in Coventry – of creating grassroots networks in the midst of hostile local government and press – were not in any sense exceptional. The presence of two Labour MPs in the city who supported non-payment was unusual – only 29 did so in all[49], but not crucial to the movements’ strength or direction.

The ‘moral economy’ of this movement was one that denounced the tax as unfair and the legislation that enforced it as unjust and draconian. Damon Gibbons, a 21 year old activist in the Leamington APTU, summarised this in his court defence: ‘I do not see non-payment as an offence, but as a duty. The poll tax law is a class law, and inside the law the council has acted wrongly. Outside it, it has acted barbarically.’[50] Historical precedents of mass opposition, such as the Peasant’s Revolt and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were cited to assert legitimacy borne of tradition in the face of inequitable legislation. Labour councillor Nick Nolan attacked this appeal to the past as ‘rent-a-reply’, believing it to be an attempt ‘to justify all kinds of dodgy measures by unsound references to past occurrences’.[51] He claimed that the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ name had been severely misused in support of the campaign, as they had loathed violence, and were ‘driven into lawlessness by hunger and the struggle to raise their families’.[52] While clearly poll tax protestors did not suffer the same level of absolute level as the Martyrs, both were compelled by material circumstances into illegality, and both faced state coercion for reasons that were widely contested.

The appeal to historical antecedents of the campaign was important because both parliament and the legal system placed great stock in the role of tradition in their own legitimisation. The ideas deployed by campaigners in response were generally heard and debated at meetings and rallies, or sometimes distributed as leaflets. They were therefore most significant in their relationship to the living narrative of the struggle against the poll tax, and critiques that focused solely on their historical veracity somewhat missed the point. Their instrumentalist nature opened them up to condescension from the likes of Councillor Nolan, but they were effective nonetheless. Dean commented:

I think it’s not true that people weren’t aware of the historical precedents for personal tax in this country, because I remember very clearly talking to my mates and my family (and them) saying that the English are a very lethargic and apathetic people but when pushed, especially over this kind of issue, there was a sense that this wasn’t going to happen.[53]

Most of my interviewees believed that the poll tax had been the major cause of the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Dean told me ‘everyone I knew felt that the people had got rid of her on the issue of the poll tax’.[54] Gill thought it a combination of that and ‘her own arrogance’.[55] Pat believed that campaigners saw it as a victory for the movement, but he was not sure if it was seen so more generally.[56]They were all surprised and disappointed at the Conservative Party’s subsequent re-election. Christine recalled:

I thought after the poll tax Labour were bound to get in – but Major did. I thought how can all that genuine anger, that sudden comprehension that that’s what society’s all about – about keeping poor people poor… surely, Labour would get in. I didn’t think Labour would change the world, or anything, but it was staggering that the Tories could get back in.[57]

The bulk of the Labour Party and trade union leadership, that insisted throughout that non-payment could not work, and that the poll tax would only go when the Conservatives lost the next election, was thus wrong on both counts. Though it failed to wrest power from those responsible for the tax, the APTM achieved its objective of its abolition. Many activists entertained wider goals of social transformation, and the movement raised the prospect that the growth of social liberalism that reached its apogee under Tony Blair could be reversed. Instead it became a victim of its own success, and the relative speed of its success combined with the social distancing employed by the official labour movement and the embattled state of the left made it difficult for socialists to generalise its victory. Nonetheless the movement wrote a new chapter in the history of dissent to authority, a store of knowledge and experience to be invoked by campaigners in future in the way that the APTM invoked Wat Tyler or the Tolpuddle Martyrs. ‘The mob’ won – not through mindless violence but through grassroots solidarity and creativity. As Jack put it: ‘The poll tax is an example of what they can get away with unless sufficient people take up the campaign… There is that ability to do things, to bring about change, and this proves that it can be done.’[58]

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References:

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

[2] Coventry Evening Telegraph (CET), editorial, 7 March 1990.

[3] Leamington and Warwick Evening Telegraph (LWET), 24 March 1990.

[4] CET, 26 June 1990.

[5] CET, 7 March 1990.

[6] As above.

[7] As above.

[8] CET, 9 March 1990.

[9] Tommy Sheridan, A Time to Rage, Polygon (Edinburgh, 1994), p116.

[10] CET, 28 February 1990.

[11] CET, 1 March 1990.

[12] Interview with Andy, 29 July 2001.

[13] As above.

[14] LWET, 8 March 1990.

[15] CET, 2 April 1990.

[16] CET, 31 March 1990.

[17] See Tommy Sheridan, A Time to Rage, Polygon (Edinburgh, 1994) and D Burns, Poll Tax Rebellion, AK Press (London, 1992) for some revealing accounts to this effect.

[18] Interview with Andy.

[19] CET, 2 April 1990.

[20] CET, 2 April 1990.

[21] CET, 4 April 1990.

[22] CET, 17 May 1990.

[23] Hansard, 6th series, vol.170 ‘London March (Disorder)’, 2 April 1990, pp893-902.

[24] As above.

[25] CET, 7 April 1990.

[26] Hansard, as above.

[27] Tommy Sheridan, A Time to Rage, Polygon (Edinburgh, 1994), p126.

[28] Cited in P Bagguley, ‘Protest, poverty and power: a case study of the Anti-Poll Tax Movement, Sociological Review, 43, no.4, (1995).

[29] CET, 4 April 1990.

[30] Interview with Andy.

[31] Interview with Pat, 4 August 2001.

[32] CET, 4 April 1990.

[33] CET, 29 June 1990.

[34] CET, 11 July 1990.

[35] CET, 28 March 1990.

[36] CET, 25 July 1990.

[37] For example, in CET 6 November 1990.

[38] CET, 7 April 1990.

[39] Interview with Jack, 29 June 2001.

[40] CET, 9 May 1991.

[41] CET, 7 February 1991.

[42] CET, 20 December 1990.

[43] As above.

[44] Interview with Pat.

[45] CET, 28 September 1990.

[46] CET, 2 October 1990.

[47] CET, 14 July 1994.

[48] Interview with Pat.

[49] Hansard, 6th series, vol.170, ‘Opposition Parties (Financial Assistance)’, 27 March 1990.

[50] CET, 23 January 1991.

[51] CET, ‘Don’t look to history in search of handy scapegoats’, 22 March 1990.

[52] As above.

[53] Interview with Dean, 23 June 2001.

[54] As above.

[55] Interview with Gill, 1 August 2001.

[56] Interview with Pat.

[57] Interview with Christine, 27 July 2001.

[58] Interview with Jack.

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