Have I ensured that a world socialist revolution will never happen?
A book by Steve Wallis (www.socialiststeve.me.uk)
Poll tax – defending non-payers
The poll tax came into force in England and Wales the day after the poll tax riot in London on the 31st of March 1990, described in the last chapter. About one million people weren’t paying the poll tax in Scotland, which was roughly a quarter of the adult population. It was a great start, and stories from north of the border proved a great inspiration to those of us in the same situation down south a year later.
The first major activity of the financial year, which started on the 1st of April, was the burning (or binning for those less courageous) of the poll tax bills outside the town halls of England and Wales. Of course we leafleted the estates in advance of this, to advise people what to do when the bills finally arrived, and publicise the bill burning/binning events. Public events were very important throughout the anti-poll tax campaign, since they reassured non-payers that they weren’t alone and sometimes got media publicity. Furthermore, they were a focus around which to mobilise people, encouraging them to get involved in leafleting their local estates. The bill burnings/binnings weren’t massive events but they were a useful part of the campaign.
The “Pay No Poll Tax” posters were also invaluable at this stage of the campaign, and most anti-poll tax union (APTU) leaflets had such posters on one side. One indication of how strong the APTU was in a particular area was the proliferation of such posters in people’s windows. There were a fair number of them in Rusholme.
After the first bills had been sent out by every council in England and Wales, it was possible to get some figures of how strong non-payment was. The APTUs hoped for ten million non-payers, since this would roughly equal the quarter of the eligible population achieved in Scotland. When the official figures finally came out, they showed that about fourteen million people in the whole of Britain either hadn’t paid a penny of poll tax or were in arrears. Of course we trumpeted this figure far and wide, since it showed the massive level of defiance of the unjust tax. The official non-payment figures varied from time to time, and the mass media usually preferred to mention the lower levels of people who hadn’t paid a penny, but the highest level of official non-payment during the campaign was an incredible eighteen million – nearly half the number of people on the poll tax register. Even this was an underestimate, since a large number of people (maybe a million) had escaped the poll tax by disappearing from the poll tax register (and also the electoral register), but, since the councils had other ways of registering people, avoiding payment in this way was rather harder than simply refusing to pay the bills.
It was during this period in the history of the anti-poll tax movement that I came to the decision to join the Militant Tendency. The people who had the greatest influence in my recruitment were Michelle Lundström, Phil Frampton, Ivan Bonsell, Carol Western and Nathan Gould. Phil and Nathan are both black (though fairly pale-skinned) whereas Michelle, Ivan and Carol are white. Michelle was a young local Militant member; I mentioned her great speech after the TUC demo in Manchester in 1989 in chapter YYY. Michelle also made a very good speech at a meeting I attended in Manchester’s city centre shortly before I joined. Phil was the regional secretary of Militant; the region was known as “Manchester/Lancashire” but it was really the North West of England minus Merseyside, which was a separate region due to the historical strength of Militant in Liverpool. [The Socialist Party today is weak in both areas and they are now treated as the same region.] Phil was an excellent speaker and made some of the most inspiring speeches that I have ever heard. He ceased being regional secretary after a faction fight a few years later in which he was (probably fairly) accused of some underhand methods, which I will discuss in chapter YYY. Ivan was a maths student at Manchester University who I first met at the demonstration outside Manchester Town Hall when the level of the poll tax was set; he had not joined Militant at that stage, but instead waited until he went home to Chesterfield at Easter in order to see how strong Militant were in his home town. Ivan was sufficiently impressed in Chesterfield to join there. Ivan was not very well developed politically at the time (although he disputes this view of mine!) but the fact that he had joined encouraged me to make the same step. I have had many more political discussions with Ivan since joining Militant and he is still a Trotskyist (and a member of the Socialist Party); I regarded him as my best friend for several years. Carol was the secretary of Rusholme APTU (RAPTU) and I had a few discussions with her prior to joining Militant. I also had discussions with Carol’s partner, Danny Josephs, who was a Militant “full-timer” (full time worker on very low wages), but he failed to answer the most important questions that needed to be resolved before I joined – the person who answered those questions and finally recruited me, on the 6th of June 1990, was Nathan. In the years after I joined, I had many more discussions with Nathan; in our early discussions he suggested a Marxist book or pamphlet for me to read and we discussed the contents together after I had read it. Nathan encouraged me to think for myself, unlike the way people are encouraged to follow orders in many other supposedly socialist organisations.
I cannot remember all the questions that I was pondering when I was considering joining Militant. They partly concerned how a future socialist society would work. I also had doubts about Militant’s role in the Labour Party – why was it necessary for a revolutionary socialist organisation to use the method of “entrism” (i.e. infiltration) within a reformist party like Labour? It was explained that this was because working class people tended to look towards Labour as a party that reflects their interests before coming to revolutionary conclusions. In the past, many workers joined Labour and most of Militant’s recruits came from the Labour Party or (more often) its youth organisation, the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS). Since I had had illusions in Labour in the past, I was won over by these arguments, at least in part. I agreed with the viewpoint that Militant had to be part of a broader organisation that didn’t define itself as being “revolutionary” – however, due to the Labour leadership’s record in opposing the Liverpool council struggle and the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s, and their continuing opposition to non-payment of the poll tax, it was already clear that Labour was not the ideal “broader” organisation in which to operate. At the time I joined, this was already clear to most Militant members, and little activity was conducted inside the Labour Party at that stage. I took virtually no part in proceedings within that party, either before or after I joined Militant.
One of the sayings in Militant was that it was necessary “to earn the respect of the working class”. You can only do that by proving yourself in action – you should be the best fighters in all aspects of life, in order to persuade working class people that you are worthy of their respect. Militant had to earn my respect by its members proving themselves in action. They did so by their continued and resolute leadership of the anti-poll tax movement, while lesser organisations like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) tended to flit from one campaign to another. My brother, Sean, was already a member of the SWP, but I never seriously considered joining that organisation because it had not proved itself to be serious. The SWP members in RAPTU had been reasonably consistent, but it was Militant that was playing a far more significant role in Britain as a whole. You can have all the correct ideas in the world, but if you cannot prove yourself in action then you are not a serious organisation.
If you refused to pay when the first poll tax bills arrived, you were sent one or more reminders. If you still refused to pay, the only option for the council if it wished to recover the money was to take you to court to get so-called “liability orders”. Here councils faced a dilemma: if they took a lot of people to court at once, they could run out of time to process all the non-payers which would be portrayed as a victory for anti-poll tax protestors; if, on the other hand, they took a small number of people to court, they would not appear to be serious about tackling non-payment. The councils hoped that the mere threat of legal action would persuade most non-payers to pay up, or at the very least allow the liability orders to go through without attending, whereas the APTUs encouraged non-payers to turn up to have their say in court. If enough people turned up, they could clog up the court system and make the poll tax unenforceable. The penalties for getting a liability order were fairly low in comparison to the total cost of the poll tax, so non-payers were not easily encouraged to pay up simply by being threatened with going to court – especially when news of court victories for non-payers filtered through the media. Furthermore, poll tax non-payment was a civil offence so you did not get a criminal record for refusing to pay it.
The APTUs did not merely encourage people to turn up – we provided advisers in court known as “MacKenzie’s friends”. Under an obscure part of the law, attendees in magistrates’ courts had the right to be represented by a “friend” who need not be legally trained – this ruling was presumably established when somebody called MacKenzie was taken to court. This was particularly useful since a member of an APTU could act as a MacKenzie’s friend in order to discuss everything with the attendee while the court case was going on – in order to string the case out as long as possible or occasionally to win the case.
The first attempt to take people to court for poll tax non-payment, which happened somewhere in the south of England, resulted in a massive victory for the non-payers. The MacKenzie’s friends managed to ensure that each case lasted for ages (about half an hour) and the remaining cases, including those of people who hadn’t turned up, were adjourned. This inspired non-payers elsewhere, and similar victories were achieved in other council areas. The first court cases that occurred anywhere near Manchester were at Warrington, about half way between Manchester and Liverpool. I went along on that day, and joined in a demonstration of hundreds of people outside the court. We were jubilant at the end of the day when the remaining cases were adjourned.
These early victories in the courts were high-profile events, and other councils learnt from these councils’ mistakes. Manchester is an important city, and like other such cities, court cases were delayed until after most of the other places in England and Wales. It is obviously easier to mobilise people who are due in court in large cities, so Manchester City Council delayed its court cases until a time when the poll tax was less in the news. When it finally did take people to court, it took a very small number of people to court at once (about 50 at a time) until the anti-poll tax campaign was no longer going strong (after its abolition). It was of course important that APTU members attended court, in order to advise other non-payers who turned up, both before and during the court sessions. I was a postgraduate student at the time of the poll tax, so I attended important events but did not often attend court – there were full-timers and unemployed people who could attend more regularly. It was largely them who acted as MacKenzie’s friends, and they were trained by other MacKenzie’s friends who had already been through the experience of representing someone. I never represented anyone in court, except myself when my case came up years later. When this finally happened, I achieved a minor victory using a ruling that computer evidence was inadmissible in court – which was later overruled by a more senior law-making body (probably either the High Court or the House of Lords). A few other non-payers turned up on that occasion to contest their cases, and I advised them before they went into court, but the law had been changed to forbid MacKenzie’s friends so I was unable to represent them. After achieving that adjournment, I was not informed when my case was due to be reconsidered and the liability order went through uncontested – so I missed out on the satisfaction of losing a court case! If the poll tax had still been on the statute books then I would probably have objected, but I didn’t think it worth contacting a solicitor about such a minor matter at that time.
If a liability order was granted by the courts, the council had the ability to recover the poll tax debt using bailiffs, or by taking it out of the person’s wages or benefit. Part of the struggle against the poll tax was to try to get council workers or administration workers in large companies to refuse to collect it. One of the slogans of the movement was “Don’t Pay! Don’t Collect!” The All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF) organised a conference on this subject in Liverpool, which I attended (as a visitor rather than a delegate). However, because workers’ jobs were on the line if they refused to collect the poll tax, this part of the struggle was largely unsuccessful. Additionally, councils avoided taking the poll tax out of wages or benefits en masse, while the anti-poll tax campaign was at its height anyway, because that could have provoked a backlash, and maybe non-collection would have become an important issue if councils had acted in such a way. If you filled in a form that asked you to provide details of your employment, then they probably would have taken it out of your wages, but most people ignored such forms, just as they had generally ignored the summonses to court. Some employers, presumably including Manchester Metropolitan University, which I was working for when I got my liability order, informed councils of all their employees. I got the poll tax, plus some penalties to cover liability order and administration costs, taken out of my wages without filling in such a form.
The councils’ preferred collection method was to use bailiffs. They hoped that news of bailiffs being successfully used against some non-payers reaching the mass media would persuade other non-payers to pay up. However, the APTUs combated this by spreading news of the law – in particular informing people that you didn’t have to let the bailiffs into your home if they turned up on your doorstep. Furthermore, we provided hotline numbers to phone if you were ever threatened by the bailiffs, and set up telephone trees so that activists could be mobilised at short notice.
Scotland had proved a vital battleground between non-payers and bailiffs – or “sheriff officers” as they are known north of the border. On every occasion on which APTU activists had been informed of a sheriff officer’s visit, activists had been mobilised at the non-payer’s house or flat and the officers had been repelled. In Scotland, if the sheriff officers were allowed in and removed goods to cover the cost of the poll tax, they could conduct what was known as a “warrant sale” of the goods in the street. They were so successful that the first time a warrant sale was attempted was in 1992, in Glasgow. Tommy Sheridan, the Chair of the ABAPTF, had been banned from attending demonstrations in a particular area by a court order known as an “interdict”. Tommy was defiant, and despite the fact that the warrant sale was in the area he had been banned from, he attended. Tommy ripped up the interdict in front of the large crowds of people and TV cameras, and the huge mass of people present prevented the warrant sale from going ahead. For this “crime”, he was given a six-month jail sentence.
Buoyed by the successes in Scotland, we looked forward to similar opportunities in England and Wales. My first such opportunity was in the town of Barry in South Wales, a few miles away from Penarth where I lived towards the end of my time in school. I was attending a summer camp in the Forest of Dean in the West Country, which is reasonably close to South Wales. Militant members organised a camp every summer, primarily for young people but also attended by older people and families. That year it was organised in the name of the LPYS, but the camp continued after the demise of the LPYS, in the name of other youth organisations in which Militant members had a controlling influence, and eventually in the name of the Socialist Party which Militant had become. Having never attended any similar activity to the one in Barry, I jumped at the chance of getting stuck in, at the end of a week of discussion, debate and partying.
Our minibus arrived in Barry at the home of the person threatened with the use of the bailiffs, where we joined local campaigners (including, incidentally, my father Max who still lives in Penarth, and who I got on reasonably well with at the time but now hate for reasons stated in chapter YYY). As the day wore on, it became clear that the bailiffs weren’t coming to us; therefore, we went to them! We found a bailiffs’ van parked outside some council offices, and some of us (but not including me) disabled it. Various techniques were used in the anti-poll tax campaign to disable bailiffs’ vans, usually letting tyres down, slashing tyres or putting superglue in the locks. I’m unsure which disabling technique was used in Barry, but it was probably of the letting tyres down variety since the van was spotted moving later in the day. We set off in pursuit, and indulged in a fairly high-speed chase, until the van was safely outside the town boundary. Vehicles were posted at every entrance to the town in case it came back, but it didn’t so the bailiffs were safely repelled for the day. All in all, an exciting day and a great morale-boosting victory!
Another method of tackling the bailiffs is to occupy their offices. If you are lucky, you can destroy their files in the process – this happened most spectacularly in a high profile incident in Glasgow; the occupiers were prosecuted under the catch-all law of “breach of the peace”. I was not involved in an occupation of a bailiffs’ office and (as far as I can recall) attempts at that in Manchester ended in failure. However, I did take part in an occupation of the office of the top council official responsible for collection of the poll tax at Manchester Town Hall. We got some media coverage and had made our point, so we left before the police arrived.
After the bailiffs have made sufficient attempts to recover the poll tax via bailiffs or arrestment of wages or benefits, the council could take the non-payer back to court for committal proceedings – i.e. to try to get him or her sent to prison. This was a very costly way to deal with non-payers, and the bill for the year was written off for someone who went to prison, so it was only used in exceptional cases to make an example of some people and frighten others into paying up. The law was and still is different in Scotland, and it is not possible there to be sent to jail for a civil debt, so the committal proceedings in England and Wales were a new stage of the campaign.
Since councils can only use committal proceedings against a fairly small number of people, they tended to use them against prominent anti-poll tax campaigners. These campaigners often became important spokespeople for the movement or used their full name on leaflets or at meetings, so it was fairly easy for councils to pick on such campaigners. Thus a high proportion of people who were jailed for non-payment (about 40) were members of Militant. This compares to a handful of people from the SWP, which wanted to use some of its members as an example to others, but was reluctant to commit too many of its resources towards fighting the poll tax. After the Iraqi regime invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, the SWP started to prioritise anti-war work and its anti-poll tax campaigning was put on the back burner to a large extent. In contrast, Militant’s reputation was riding on the success or failure of the anti-poll tax movement and it was vital that Militant continued to make fighting the poll tax its number one priority. However, Militant should have had more of an influence in the early days of the anti-Gulf War movement, and I attended one large anti-war demo in London in the autumn of 1990 at which the Militant presence was pitifully small. When it became clear that the Gulf War was becoming a reality, at about the start of 1991, Militant gave anti-war work a higher priority, but the damage had already been done – if you are not present in significant numbers when a movement is developing, then you are taken less seriously when it has developed.
One of the leading anti-poll tax campaigners, who was also a Militant member and went to jail for non-payment, was Andy Walsh. Andy did not attend his committal proceedings, and if he had been an ordinary non-payer Trafford Council would probably not have chased him any more. [In general, Labour councils were even more vicious than Tory ones in their enthusiasm for prosecuting non-payers, but Trafford’s council was Tory-controlled at the time.] However, since the council wanted to make an example of him, they got a warrant for his arrest, and sent him to jail. I attended a demonstration outside the prison where Andy was incarcerated for poll tax non-payment. We sung anti-poll tax songs, plus Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Please release me” (changing the words), to keep up Andy’s morale and also influence the other prisoners. Andy later became a founder of and leading spokesperson for the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA). IMUSA defeated the attempt of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports to take over Manchester United, but couldn’t stop US businessman Malcolm Glazer’s takeover in 2005 despite Andy’s efforts (he became a leader of the Not For Sale Coalition which linked IMUSA to other groups opposed to the takeover).
At the time I joined Militant, three of its members were Labour MPs – Terry Fields in Liverpool, Dave Nellist in Coventry and Pat Wall in Bradford. Pat died shortly after I joined, but the other two remained Labour MPs until they were refused permission to stand for Labour again in the 1992 general election. Militant insisted that any of its members who got elected to Parliament became “a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage”. All three MPs lived up to that pledge, as do the Scottish Socialist Party MSPs in the Scottish Parliament today. Furthermore, Terry took his commitment to the working class a stage further – he went to jail for 60 days, in Walton Jail in Liverpool, for refusing to pay the poll tax. I attended a demonstration in Liverpool in support of Terry’s stance. I returned to Walton Jail in 2001, when some asylum seekers were on hunger strike due to their inhumane treatment. The Independent on Sunday was campaigning on this issue at the time, and I was featured prominently in a photograph on the front page of that newspaper the day after the protest.
None of these attempts to intimidate non-payers failed to stop the momentum of poll tax non-payment, and the poll tax ultimately proved uncollectable – and therefore non-payment led to the poll tax’s abolition as well as the resignation of the main person responsible for its implementation: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. However, the poll tax may not have been defeated had it not been for another event in which I participated – the People’s March Against The Poll Tax. I will talk about that march in the next chapter.