Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: the fight to stop the Poll Tax

Updated: Apr 9

Neil Faulkner reviews Simon Hannah’s new book on the mass working-class struggle that beat the Tories 30 years ago.

14 April 2020.

‘The Demo’ – as it became known – was the centrepiece of the three-year struggle against the Poll Tax. As usual, no-one is quite sure how many people were there, but it was probably around a quarter of a million.

The police – ‘Maggie Thatcher’s Boot Boys’ – had spent ten years tooling up, and psyching up, to attack working-class demonstrations and picket-lines. Their greatest victory, five years earlier, had been the defeat of the miners, one the strongest battalions of organised labour in the world.

That victory had broken the back of union organisation across Britain. Other strong contingents of workers, like the printers and dockers, had afterwards gone down to defeat. The Thatcherite juggernaut seemed unstoppable, and the police were cocky, bullying, used to dishing out violence.

It started shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon. The demonstration was angry and militant. The police were pushing people around. Missiles were thrown. Then the police starting launching full-scale attacks – truncheon charges, cavalry charges, even driving vehicles into the crowd.

The Poll Tax protestors fought back, and Trafalgar Square erupted into the biggest street battle between the police and the British working class in a century.

The demonstration was so huge, the violence so extreme, the outrage so visceral that the thing spilled out into a dozen massive surges through the streets of the West End. I found myself with several thousand going down Regent Street, where posh shops were bricked and a Rolls Royce – which happened to come out of a side road into the main street at the worst possible moment – was engulfed in a hail of missiles.

One felt that ten years of accumulating class hatred – for the Tories, the rich, and the police – had suddenly exploded in the middle of London.

A struggle rooted on every estate

But this was not just a demo and a riot. It was the most visible expression of a deep social movement that had penetrated into every working-class community in Britain. At its height, some 14 million people were refusing to pay their local taxes, the resistance organised by a nationwide network of Anti Poll Tax Unions (APTUs).

The APTUs went door-to-door signing up non-payers. They mobilised when people were hauled before the courts and when bailiffs were sent onto the estates. They organised local demos at town halls when councillors met to vote on the tax – sometimes invading council chambers and breaking up meetings, or battling the police in the streets outside.

Simon Hannah narrates and analyses the whole history of the struggle against the tax. But he does much more than this: he explores the role of the diverse political forces in play during the struggle, and reveals with crystal clarity the absolute centrality of working-class struggle from below.

Because the truth is this. The Labour leadership, almost all Labour MPs, and the great majority of Labour councillors opposed the Poll Tax Revolt. They argued that people should obey the law.

The trade union leaders were little better: the great majority took no effective action and left rank-and-file members in local government who wanted to boycott the tax in the lurch.

The official leadership of the labour movement failed totally the test of the Poll Tax crisis.

For the tax was a naked attempt by a vicious class-war government to shift the burden of local taxation from the better-off to the working class and the poor. It was that simple: because that is what it meant to shift from the old system of local rates based on property values to a new system based on head count. As the saying went at the time, ‘the duke would pay the same as the dustman’.

Once it was in place, the chances of shifting it would have been slim. Once the ruling class has won a victory, the whole balance of forces shifts in its favour. It was necessary to smash the tax before it could bed down and become the new normal.

The politics of mass struggle

Hannah brings out clearly the central role played by revolutionary activists on the ground. This was an extraordinary experience for people used to being on the margins of politics. Suddenly, we found ourselves at the head of a movement of many millions – people who couldn’t pay because they were too poor, and people who refused to pay in solidarity with their class.

The revolutionaries had this role thrust upon them because the traditional reformist leaders of the working class had lined up with the Tories and the media to denounce the resistance.

Not that the Left necessarily got everything right. Another strength of Hannah’s study is the way he puts the various left tendencies under the spotlight. The Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party) were absolutely right to stress non-payment as the key tactic, but were wooden in their bizarre denunciation of street clashes.

The Socialist Workers Party stood in solidarity with working-class youth fighting the police, but were completely wrong to argue that non-payment couldn’t win and that only industrial action by council workers could defeat the tax.

The Anarchists emphasised the power of independent rank-and-file organisation on the estates, but fetishised violent confrontation with the police, almost as an end in itself, in a way that threatened the broad reach of the movement into the wider working class.

This book could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. Not just because of the anniversary – though it is indeed a fitting celebration of a great working-class victory, which not only smashed a regressive tax, but also led to the downfall of a hated Tory leader. More important than this, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay is a book for now.

I say this for two reasons. First, because neoliberalism has ramped up exploitation at the point of consumption and reproduction – in the form of rents, taxes, fees, charges, prices, interest payments. Workers are ripped off at work, and then ripped off again and again when they pay for the goods and services they need, or get into debt in the effort to do so. Community-based struggle is likely to be as important, or more important, than workplace struggle in the period ahead.

Second, as we argue elsewhere on this site, we are heading towards economic and social collapse. Our rulers will attempt to make working people pay the price of the coronavirus crisis. But at the same time, among working people, there is a growing mood to demand change, to fight back, to refuse any return to neoliberal ‘business as usual’.

This book is a manual of resistance. Buy it, read it, and arm yourself with the lessons of our history as we prepare for the struggles to come.

Simon Hannah’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: the fight to stop the Poll Tax (Pluto Press) can be ordered here.

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