Poll Tax Riots: 30 Years On

31 March marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Poll Tax riots. The demonstration, called by the Anti-Poll Tax Federation (set up by the Militant Tendency) and supported by local anti-poll tax groups, attracted some 200,000 people and turned violent following heavy handed arrests and charges by mounted riot police. Unrest lasted for hours and resulted in over 300 arrests and over 100 injured. But this was only one spectacular event in a months' long fight which saw off Margaret Thatcher and which ended a year later, on 21 March 1991, with the announcement by John Major (who had replaced Thatcher as PM and leader of the Tory party) that the Poll Tax would be abolished.

By definition this was a tax that affected everyone. Whilst the very rich and those with more than one house were actually better off, the working class majority definitely were not, especially people in council houses and private tenants who had not been rate payers. There was widespread hostility (over 70% of the population opposed it according to opinion polls). In fact, because it attacked the whole class at once (and not each sector as had happened with steel, coal and printworkers, etc.) the Poll Tax inspired a more generalised and active working class fightback than the miners' strike had ever done (for all its militancy, the miners had remained largely self-isolated round their slogan "Coal Not Dole'). In particular, there was a strong campaign of non-payment, and local resistance against bailiffs who tried to seize the possessions of those who had not paid. This was the most substantial evidence that, even after the annihilation of key sectors of the old industrial working class and the demoralisation that followed the defeat of the 84/85 miners’ strike, the working class has no alternative but to fight.

Here we collect our coverage of this anti-Poll Tax movement from old issues of Workers’ Voice, as well as two leaflets distributed in Sheffield (which for the next few years would become the home-base for the CWO). Significantly, these articles reveal the hypocrisy of the left of capital: the Labour Party (which opposed the Poll Tax in words, but enforced it in action), the trade unions (which refused to support demonstrations and even their own members who wouldn’t collect the tax), the Militant Tendency (which offered to hand over names and photographs of Poll Tax rioters to the police), and the SWP (which tried to pressure union bosses to their side). Not much has changed since!

The Poll Tax was just the tip of the iceberg of larger events going on around the world – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the gradual collapse of the Eastern Bloc, as well as the First Gulf War. It was a difficult period for the Communist Left, as the defeats of the 80s meant relatively few newcomers to our politics. In fact, some groups of what back then we called the “proletarian political camp” did not see the Poll Tax as a class issue at all (since it affected everyone). In some ways, it was a turning point for the CWO, as we resolved not to turn our back on the class (and a personal matter, as some of our members were summoned to court over non-payment). As for the Poll Tax, its legacy still lives on in the reformed Council Tax that replaced it – hundreds of people in England are still being jailed for being unable to pay it, while Council Tax arrears are the most common debt problem people approach Citizens Advice about.

Make It Easy On Yourself, Don’t Pay The Poll Tax – Fight All Capitalist Attacks!

From Workers' Voice 49, December/January 1990

The latest Government advertising campaign calling on us to “Make it easy on yourself” (with appropriate music) is a sign of desperation. By getting us to sign direct debits to pay the poll tax they hope to minimise the resistance to its introduction in England.

In Scotland there are now so many refusals to pay that 5 of the 9 regions have already asked for warrants to arrest the sums from wages and bank accounts. Lothian Regional Council admits to arrears of £25 million and has asked for 76,000 court orders against individuals. As the power of the state in Eastern Europe declines, what value is Western ‘freedom’ when a law rejected by a majority can be imposed by sequestrating wages?

The Financial Times, that well-known supporter of government policy, warned in 1987 that “Plans for the destruction of local democracy are now complete … Britain will be more than ever a centrally managed state, with power concentrated in Whitehall.” (17.8.87)

The poll tax is also a result of the continuing crisis of the capitalist system. Its aim is to both cut costs of local government and to shift the burden of payment from the propertied middle class to the working class. A millionaire will now pay the same as a council worker. That’s democracy for you.

But this is only one of a series of attacks on the working class. Cuts in benefits to those who are unemployed, the ending of wage councils for the low paid, the threat of redundancy for those who resist deteriorating working conditions, the rise in homelessness, are all part of the same offensive to make the working class pay for the crisis. According to official figures over 16.5 million are living on or near the margins of poverty.

And this is why the poll tax cannot and should not be fought on its own. Throughout history tax strikes have generally failed since the government of the day can pick off the individuals piecemeal (as they will do here). Indeed, the only time a revolt against taxes was successful (and it was the introduction of a poll tax which caused it) was the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 when the Chancellor of the day was killed!

A really successful fight against the poll tax cannot be confined to petitions and demonstrations. It can only be fought by striking back at the political system which produced it. This means for a start the rejection of the manoeuvres of the Labour Party. Many Labour councillors in Scotland have refused to pay on a personal basis whilst the party they belong to stands for respect for capitalist law. In fact these ‘radical’ Labour councillors cannot be trusted, otherwise they would make sure that the councils they lead would have fought the poll tax by refusing to collect it. Their fake radicalism is just a smokescreen to hide the fact that the Labour Party is so far inside the system that it not only cannot lead the real fight against it but actively seeks to prevent militant resistance.

If we are to wage a fight against the poll tax we must link it to the fight against all capitalist attacks. This means linking up strikes, making strike demands with political conditions such as a withdrawal of the tax and creating a movement of such widespread resistance that the ruling class, both Conservative and Labour, will be forced to rethink. There is a great reservoir of class anger but it will not be tapped until every section of workers in struggle receives the support and solidarity of every other section.. The Tory game is divide and rule, our aim must be to unite and fight.

H.M. Govt — Wanted For Poll Tax Fraud

From Workers' Voice 51, April/May 1990

The Poll Tax is a massive attack on the working class. Its introduction means a shifting of the burden of local taxation from the bosses to the working class. But this shift is only part of the attack. According to The Guardian (12 March 1990), the average household will pay 33% more in this year’s Poll Tax than in last year’s rates. Because the bosses tend to live in the better houses this average figure hides a reduction in the bosses’ share of the burden and an even greater increase in the working class’ share. So the average working class family will face an increase far in excess of 33%.

What the Poll Tax was For

Back in the mists of time, when the bosses still believed in the Thatcher dream, the Tories thought up a scheme which would forever banish the Labour Party to the fringes of capitalism’s political spectrum. Believing that the shift which had temporarily reversed the fortunes of British capital was just the start of something big (given enough gin, anyone will believe what’s in their interest to believe!) rather than the end of something piteously small, they looked forward to a home-and-share-owning aristocracy of labour which would vote Tory out of gratitude. To speed the creation of this aristocracy, a wonderful device was designed: the Poll Tax, sometimes known as the “Community Charge”.

The idea was this: the members of the property-owning democracy, including the hoped for aristocracy of labour, would have a common interest in a low Poll Tax because their children would get into the best schools and they could afford to pay for their own text books once they got there; they would be materially unaffected by council rents or lack of repairs to council houses, their elder relatives could be cared for privately, whereas the reverse would be the case for those excluded from the property-owners through their “fecklessness” in being unemployed or poorly paid. If the Tories could have created this permanent division in the working class they would have achieved one of the bosses’ historic ambitions, and would, no doubt, have used this division to push down the living standards of both segments of the working class. If, in addition, they had been able to identify the Labour Party with the disenfranchised, they would have succeeded in identifying the historic interests of the whole bourgeoisie with their own interest.

However, this depended on the gradual introduction of the Poll Tax. This is why the tax was initially intended to be introduced over ten years.

Capitalism’s Crisis Wakes Up the Tory Dreamers

But reality has a way of intruding on fantasies built on fortuitous accidents: British capitalism may well have benefited, in the short term, from Thatcher’s restructuring of the economy with its greater reliance on financial activity, but it is not immune from world capitalism’s unavoidable crisis. Finance capital appears to be profitable independently of industrial production and this illusion is strengthened when national capitals are considered apart from their global interconnection. Nevertheless, wealth does not spring into existence by a miracle wrought by the mere existence of the banking system and a stock exchange. Behind the apparent independence of financial institutions from production there lie mechanisms for draining value from production, such as interest on loans and the export of capital. Internal to capitalist production there is the tendency for the rate of profit to decline, and this means that the financial institutions’ sources of value also tend to dry up. Manifestations of this are debt rescheduling and actual defaults, which have an obvious effect on the profits of the lending institutions.

The British consequences of all this are clear: Maggie’s miracle no longer works. Not only that, the bosses have known this for a long time, and have been hoping for a subsidiary miracle to bail them out. Of late, they have been aware that this is not and will not be forthcoming: hence the Lawson resignation. As if the high interest rates were not enough, Britain has had its first ever deficit in invisibles (i.e. financial services, etc.). For a bourgeoisie that has staked so much on invisibles this is not just worrying, it amounts to a death knell for the government whose policy this was.

In a crisis the bosses are unanimous on what has to be done: make the workers pay. There are many tried and tested weapons in their armoury that they can use to do this. The Tories, however are going to try out their new weapon.

What the Poll Tax is For

Faced with the intensified crisis, one of the things the bosses need to do is reduce the burden of state spending on business profits. This can be done either by reducing state spending or by making the working class pay more of the burden. Both of these methods are attacks on the working class: the first because what is cut are the services that workers use and the workers in those services are made redundant, and the second because it involves effective wage cuts.

The Tories have decided to use the Poll Tax for this. They have reduced its phasing-in period from ten years to overnight in the hope that they can use it to blame “Labour’s high spending councils” for the general crisis of capitalism. They have even gone so far as to try to recreate last century’s rotten boroughs (Victorian values with a vengeance?!) in Wandsworth (Poll Tax £148) and Westminster (£195). In reality they have cut central government grants (but not in Wandsworth or Westminster!) to make workers pay for the crisis. The general effect of this is made worse by the high interest rates on local government loans — £4.7million to be paid by Ipswich alone (The Guardian, 9 March 1990).

The Labour Party, as a loyal party of capitalism, not surprisingly resents a Tax aimed at marginalising it as being responsible for all the ills of that system. More important, this Tax is both extremely unpopular and unambiguously identified with the Tories. If Labour wants to be taken seriously as an alternative government it simply has to oppose the Poll Tax. However, if we look more closely at the nature of its opposition, we will see that we are justified in calling it a capitalist party.

Firstly, in its public statements it concentrates exclusively on the “unfairness” of the Tax. We do not, of course, disagree that the Tax is particularly unfair (even by the standards of this “unfair”, i.e. exploitative society), but we are for workers fighting any attack on their living standards, no matter what form it takes. In a nutshell, we would oppose a 33% increase in rates too. The Labour Party is more concerned with making sure that capitalism gets it 33%, but “fairly”.

Secondly, how does the Labour Party propose we fight this attack on us? It tells us to wait passively until there is an election, to vote Labour and then wait again until the Labour Party gets round to abolishing the Poll Tax. (Jeff Rooker, Labour’s former local government spokesman, tells that his party will take two years to abolish it! The Guardian, 24 February 1990).

What does the Labour Party plan for “action” amount to? We pay Poll Tax for two years to a Tory government, while they help that government to collect it, and then we pay it to a Labour government for two more years while they work out a “fairer” way to lower our living standards!

Even if we give the Labour Party the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it is genuinely against the form of the Poll Tax, its actions show that it is far more interested in keeping the working class passive than in defeating the Tax. Its interest in the passivity of the working class derives from its nature as a capitalist party. Capitalism cannot coexist with a working class which is conscious of its interests and fights for them. It becomes nervous when a minority of workers begin to develop consciousness and seeks to draw those workers back into a belief that their interests can be entrusted to the system. Bourgeois democracy is the tool par excellence for this job.

Every few years we are given a chance to choose which representative of the bosses we want in Parliament. This is the only time we get to exercise any power over him (and it is usually a man), and the bosses make sure that we only do this as atomised, isolated individuals, unaware of our own power to make collective decisions. When “our” man gets to Parliament, he is under the influence of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie alone. Just to make sure that workers do not have any influence over anything important, Parliament has been reduced to the farce we see on our television screens.

Meanwhile, the bosses use their own economic power over the government to exercise their dictatorship over society. Parliament functions only to disguise this dictatorship.

How We Can Fight the Poll Tax

What we must not do is wait. This would only tell the bosses that they can do whatever they like with us and cause us to fall into demoralisation. Our anger must be used to build on the already strong campaign of non-payment, no matter how often the Labour Party tells us to respect the bosses’ law. This means that we must defend anyone who is faced with the bosses’ attempts to steal their property to pay their bills.

In addition we must defend those workers who refuse to collect the Tax and strike against any bosses who comply with court order authorising wage deductions for non-payment.

This may well not be enough. To hit the government where it hurts, we need to hit the bosses who stand behind it. This means strikes directly against the Poll Tax, rather than just against its effects. No doubt the government will denounce the strikes as being political, and the Labour Party will remind us that such strikes are against the law, but this will only be an attempt to demobilise us. Besides, it is the government which is showing us that politics and our domestic economy are intimately linked!

This does not mean that we support the SWP’s strategy of forcing the union bureaucracy to start strikes:

They [activists] need to recognise that most workers, still cowed by ten years of defeats under the Tories, aren’t confident enough to act without official backing from union leaders … That means using every opportunity to step up the pressure on labour movement leaders to demand they match their speeches against the poll tax with calls for action.

Socialist Worker, 24 March 1990

It is true that many workers lack confidence. It is not true that this lack of confidence can be overcome by using the union bureaucracy. Union bureaucrats only ‘lead’ strikes when they respond to already existing mass pressure from below. And then they lead them to defeat, either directly or by throwing away what was won in struggle at the negotiating table. The last ten years is replete with examples of this, and the ambulance workers case is only the most recent. (The bureaucracy, in the shape of Poole, opposed their struggle at first, then “supported’ it – but only in words – and finally sold them out.)

Socialist Worker’s advice would result in the most active workers throwing their efforts into improving the union bureaucracy’s image (by implying that they could be won to the struggle), instead of galvanising other workers. The only way to overcome workers’ lack of confidence is to go to them directly, and this is what we stand for.

How is it supposed to increase workers’ confidence by encouraging them to surrender control of their struggles to the union bureaucracy? It is necessary that workers control their own struggles, through mass meetings which debate the real issues facing them, and which exert direct democratic control over any delegates or strike committees elected by them on the basis of instant recall. These are the elements of proletarian democracy.

And After the Poll Tax…

It is certainly possible for the Poll Tax to be defeated. But capitalism’s driving force is not the maliciousness of the Tories or even of the bourgeois political parties as a whole (although they can certainly be malicious), but the thirst for profit, especially in the face of crisis. If they lose the Poll Tax, they will have no choice but to attempt other attacks on us. We, on the other hand, would have no choice but to fight back using the lesson we learn in this struggle.

Although temporary victories have immense value (they enable us to survive for a start!), if the working class really wants to have a decent life, it must defeat capitalism as a whole, and run society in its own interest, the interest of the vast majority. This means the transformation of society through the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat, which will involve every worker in running the whole of society, and eventually lead to the abolition of classes, to communism.

The Poll Tax Struggle Goes On

From Workers' Voice 52, June/August 1990

The battles with the police during the poll tax demonstration of 31 March and the rioting which followed were an expression of elemental anger at this tax. They expressed the anger of some of those who have suffered the hardest blows from Thatcherism, those working for poverty wages, the unemployed, the young, the homeless. For the last decade Thatcherism has singled out these sections of the working class and attacked them mercilessly because they cannot fight back. By doing this it has attempted to drive wedges through the working class and divide workers to prevent any general fightback to increased exploitation and lower living standards. By marginalising the poorest and weakest sectors of the class it has also driven down the basic level of wages.

The poll tax is simply the latest in a series of attacks including higher rents, lower social security payments, the rundown of the health service, and forcing the young to work for starvation wages. On the 31 March, in response to police provocation, the anger boiled over and the centre of London was turned into a battlefield.

Though rioting cannot on its own achieve a better society, it expresses a will to combat the injustices of this society, which could become a will to fight for a new social order.

Those who are fighting for the interests of the working class, while they may point to the limitations and weaknesses of rioting, cannot condemn it or fail to defend those captured by the police. The London events have revealed the real nature of many of those who claim to defend the interest of the workers – class enemies posing as friends.

Workers' Enemies

The party which has roundly condemned the demonstrations and called for the savagest sentences on those arrested at the London demonstration is, of course, the Labour Party. The reason for this is that the Labour Party is simply the bosses' left wing party, a loyal party of capitalism which fundamentally supports the general aims of the Tories. The most important of these aims is to make British capitalism profitable again, and this means increasing the exploitation of the workers and lowering their living standards. As the latest policy review shows they support and will retain most of the Tory anti-working class laws (e.g. criminalising secondary picketing). The party maintains that the way to defeat the Poll Tax is to vote Labour in 1992. Though many workers believe this is it is completely untrue. The Labour Party wishes to keep alive the lie that workers can advance their interests through parliament. They pretend that workers’ struggles should be directed to parliament because they know that this is the way to defuse and defeat these struggles. The truth is that we live under the dictatorship of the capitalist class. Over a hundred years ago the British ruling class decided that they had nothing to fear from democracy. After all with control of the media they could ensure that only those parties which supported the continued existence of the capitalist system could be elected. Labour was only accepted into the fold once it had supported the war effort in the First World War. Parliament is therefore just a device the ruling capitalist class use to disguise who really rules.

What do they offer us for the Poll Tax? Even if Labour were elected in 1992, they would only abolish the tax after two further years (i.e. 1994) before they brought in their own tax. In other words we have to pay the tax for the next four years! Meanwhile the Labour councils continue to collect the tax and prosecute those who can't or won't pay. The trade unions have not supported the demonstrations. They called for "legal" protest and supported the lies of the Labour Party. The particular unions involved in the collection of the tax, e.g. NALGO, have refused to support their members who won't collect the tax!

The left fringes of the Labour Party, e.g. Militant, have similarly revealed their anti-working class character. The Militant leadership of the "Anti-Poll Tax Federation" announced after the London battles that they would hand over names and photographs of the rioters to the police. To put it plainly they offered to help the bosses mercenaries in their job of oppressing workers and forcing us to submit to the injustices of capitalism. On the edges of the fringe of the "labour movement" there stands the SWP. Arguing that workers are not confident enough to take on the bosses on their own, they say that we must pressurise the union bureaucracy into leading the struggle against the Poll Tax. This argument falls down on at least two counts: firstly, the union bureaucracy has no interest in promoting the kind of autonomous struggle that has a chance of success; rather, if such a struggle existed, they would attempt to lead it back onto the terrain of the bosses' legality and parliamentary niceties. Secondly, how do you put pressure on the bureaucracy if working class struggle does not already exist? The whole argument about pressurising the bureaucracy leads to the channelling of such workers' confidence and combativity that exists into a campaign to bring the struggle under the control of the enemies of class struggle. The SWP's way forward is a dead end. This is the so-called "labour" movement, the so-called "friends of the working class". The Labour Party screws the tax out of us, the unions isolate anyone who won't help the bosses screw us, and when we dare to defend ourselves the so-called "left" wing of the Labour party denounces us to the police! The real aim of the so-called "labour" movement is to undermine real resistance to this tax. Any fightback needs to be outside of and against this labour movement.

The Fightback

For most workers there is no choice of whether to oppose this tax. They cannot pay and are forced to fight. The most effective way to defeat the tax would be through a campaign of strikes against the tax. For those workers in work this is the way forward. The demand should be the abolition of the tax for all workers and the strikes should be organised to do the maximum damage to the bosses' economy. Such a campaign should be organised outside of and against the unions.

At the same time a defensive guerilla campaign should be conducted against the tax. We should not pay the tax and obstruct the authorities at every stage when they try to get it out of us. We should support organised local resistance to the bailiffs when they try to seize the possessions of those who have not paid.

The Future

Although this is a particularly unjust tax it is simply another of the injustices of capitalist society. As long as capitalist society exists the bosses will continue to attack us as this is the only way they can restore falling profit rates and so the only way the system can survive. To end these attacks once and for all the working class needs to destroy capitalism and create a communist world. This has nothing to do with the state capitalist system which is collapsing in Eastern Europe, but is production for human needs planned and organised on a world scale by the working class. Defensive struggles like those against the poll tax need to become part of a more general struggle to destroy capitalism and give the working class the programme for building communism. The first step towards achieving this is the creation of a political party which unites those who are most conscious of the need to end capitalism and build a classless society without exploitation. It is to this end that revolutionaries must intervene in the Poll Tax struggle.

No to War! No to Imperialism! …And NO to the Poll Tax!

From Workers' Voice 53, September/October 1990

Five months after the introduction of the Poll Tax it is estimated that 20% of those registered have not paid. In some areas, mainly in the inner London boroughs, the default rate is as high as 37%, and these figures do not include those who have avoided registration. It is obvious that millions of people are boycotting what is probably the most vicious anti-working class tax in modern times.

As we have stated before in Workers Voice the Poll Tax is more than an alternative bureaucratic measure for raising local government revenue, but is designed to shift the burden of taxation from the Tory voting middle classes (previously high rate payers) on to the working class. In other words, workers are being asked to pay more for declining services.

Having been unable to persuade vast numbers of people to pay up voluntarily, local authorities are now using the courts against non-payers. Throughout the country numerous demonstrations and protests have occurred both inside and outside the courts. Whilst we do not criticise these actions in themselves, it is necessary to point out the limitations of these protests from a communist perspective. It must be remembered that the courts are not a forum where workers can challenge the state on equal terms. The entire legal system is designed to favour the capitalist class and its state. There is no legal defence to non-payment of the Poll Tax so that although courtroom protests can serve a useful propaganda function, they can only delay the legal procedure and do not ultimately prevent the issue of liability orders which enable the state to collect the tax by force.

Only Working Class Solidarity Can Resist the State’s Attacks

Workers cannot succeed on a battleground chosen by the bourgeoisie where all the rules are determined by the state. As with anti-strike legislation, the only effective opposition by workers takes the form of mass actions outside of and against the legal framework. There have been encouraging examples of workers organising to resist the bailiffs who are empowered to seize goods to pay the tax, and this type of resistance should be spread to every working class neighbourhood if serious opposition to the Poll Tax is to be maintained. Also, strike action should be organised against bosses who agree to implement attachment of earnings orders against workers’ wages.

The high point of the anti-Poll Tax campaign was the mass demonstration in London at the end of March, which was the largest political demonstration in Britain in recent years. Unfortunately there was no political leadership to galvanise the anger and resentment against the Poll Tax into a mass campaign of opposition. By insisting on remaining within the law, those false friends of the working class, the Labour Party and the unions, successfully diffused the protest movement leaving workers to fight on as vulnerable and atomised small groups and individuals. Now the anti-Poll Tax movement is fighting a rearguard guerrilla action as the mass protests have, at least for the time being, been subdued.

Whether the present non-payment campaign will be sufficient to cause the Poll Tax to be abandoned remains to be seen. Inevitably next year’s Poll Tax bills will be considerably higher. (Not only will workers be asked to pay for this year’s revenue shortfalls and the interest on local authority borrowing to cover these shortfalls, but will also be asked to pay for the giant bureaucracy needed to administer a tax which is inherently expensive to collect.) This may create a fresh impetus for anti-Poll Tax struggle.

Whatever the outcome, it is important that communists do not fetishise the Poll Tax issue which must be seen as part of the ruling class’ overall strategy to make workers pay for capitalism’s crisis. In the final analysis workers need to struggle against all attacks on their living standards, whether these take the form of the Poll Tax, income tax, wage cuts, speed-ups or unemployment. Such a generalised struggle can only be waged outside of the Labour Party and the unions who represent the left wing of capitalism. Only working class solidarity can resist the state’s attacks.

The Anti-Poll Tax Struggle is Part of the Class Struggle

From Workers' Voice 54, November/December 1990

The Scene

A wet Friday afternoon outside the specially designated ‘Poll Tax’ court in Sheffield. Regular as clockwork the Courts’ entrances are locked so that nobody can get into the public galleries during the poll tax cases. Gradually a quiet, solemn queue of people summoned for non-payment forms alongside the wall. Respectable working class mainly, in well-ironed clothes and polished shoes; occasionally the odd student.

Gradually too a parallel group of about the same number (50 or 60) of demonstrators assembles for the regular protest. A motley crew, tee-shirts and anoraks mainly; a trio with drums and cymbals represents one of the local anti-poll tax groups. Strange, only two banners here when there are over twenty groups in the city. Where are the others?

Most have obviously been here before. “Have you come to help us love?” One is obviously the organiser: brief case, megaphone. He yells advice down his megaphone at the silent queue.

“Ask for a Mackenzie’s friend.”

“The City treasurer will be there before you go in to try and persuade you to pay weekly. Don’t agree, you’ll probably have to pay more that way.”

“If you’re working they might impose a liability order: Don’t worry — they don’t know what to do with them, they’re all piling up on a desk in the Town Hall.”

Quite useful really. A sort of Militant Citizens Advice Bureau. But isn’t this the class struggle? Oh yes. Here’s the megaphone again. (“Can’t stay long this week, I can’t get any more time off work.”) The queue is now blasted with “This is an iniquitous Tory tax” tirade followed by a tuneless ditty to the effect that we’re going to get the Tories out and the familiar refrain of “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out.” Nobody in the queue joins in. At this point a CWO member is moved to remind the queue that it was a Labour Council that had brought them all to Court. Two or three wry smiles, nothing more. Afterwards a solitary individual among the demonstrators buys Workers' Voice. The ‘organisers’ with the megaphone ignore it, like nothing happened.

The Ritual

“Hey up, they’re opening the doors.”

“We should be allowed to go in. It’s illegal to close the public gallery.”

A new chant is taken up: “Let us in, let us in …”

The queue watches.

Meanwhile the drums and cymbals go in search of the appropriate court room window. They must have found the right one: five or six police officers emerge. After a quiet word with the ‘organiser’ the drum rolls and cymbal clashes cease. — They must have been disrupting the court or something!

“Here’s the first one out.” (Megaphone informs the queue.) “A student. She told them she wouldn’t sign a payment order. She preferred to have her case heard in court — and they tore her summons up. Did you hear that, they tore it up.”

The militant demonstrators respond with a new chant: “We want justice, justice …” But isn’t it better to have your summons torn up? Do they really mean there can be justice from the capitalist court?

The queue remains silent.

The ritual continues. “Let us in, let us in.” Someone is let in — a mother with toddler who wants to use the toilet. Another original song is struck up: they’re going to build a bonfire and put Maggie on top with the Poll Tax in the middle.

The queue watches silently.

The Hypocrisy

When Labour’s local government spokesman, David Blunkett, got up at the Labour Party Conference to say that “non-payment of the poll taxis not and should not be the issue” but that “the poll tax, fairness and democracy are the issues” he was only repeating the hypocritical gobbledegook that Labour reserves for every occasion when it is asked to stand up for working class interests.. It is all part of the hypocrisy necessary to keep alive the myth that a party which takes part in the management of the capitalist system can also defend workers against it. The poll tax is no exception. When it is a question of words — like “fairness”, “democracy” — Labour say they are against the tax. When it’s a question of deeds – organising resistance against the tax or defending the non-paying workers they’re for the Poll Tax. When it comes to issuing summonses or preventing the exercise of “legal rights” in court Labour Councils are no different from the Tories (and as “democratic”.)

Militant, who are supposedly leading the anti-poll tax struggle and who operate from inside Labour, are even more hypocritical. They don’t believe in Labour’s programme yet they want to use workers’ illusions about Labour to build up their own movement. As a tactic this is not just hypocritical, it is stupid for it depends on fostering the very illusions in Labour which have prevented a more class conscious movement. In practice such dishonesty only reinforces workers’ cynicism with politics in general. People in Labour-controlled areas who are being taken to court for non-payment of a so-called Tory tax know more about the nature of Labour than Militant will ever tell them. The poll tax is just the latest of countless issues where Labour has shown by its deeds that it is on the bosses’ side. The problem is convincing the working class that there can ever be a political party for it which doesn’t sell out — saying one thing and doing another.

The fact is that Militant is just another capitalist racket. They are not interested in developing a class conscious movement of workers but in developing their won power under the skirts of the Labour Party and on the backs of the workers they claim to be leading. This is how they are trying to use the anti-poll tax movement. Hence their opposition to any other elements which might threaten their influence inside it and their ready offer to hand over to the police names and photographs of people who hadn’t marched under their banner during last March’s momentous demonstration in London. At the end of the day there is nothing much militant about these particular “Reds”. In keeping with the Labour umbrella under which they operate they have no objection to collaborating with the police to maintain a strictly limited “class struggle”.

The Problem

It is clear from the pathetic rituals now taking place outside court rooms throughout the country and from the much-reduced numbers attending October’s demo in London, that the anti-poll tax movement has lost momentum. Yet this is not because the working class have accepted the tax. The percentage of non-payers is huge: 50-70% in many areas. When councils sit on liability orders it’s not because Labour have suddenly become sympathetic but because they are afraid of the much more serious opposition — strikes — that could come from stealing directly out of wages. No, the movement is being hijacked and sabotaged from within — from Militant and others like them who are only interested in a limited struggle which they can control and use to build up their own organisations.

For some elements in the proletarian political camp who have ignored the whole struggle against the poll tax this is no problem. According to them, since the poll tax does not only affect the working class it is not the ground for revolutionary work. This is just abstract theorising. Whenever in the real world has there been a single battle fought by the working class without some element to blur the issue? In the real world the poll tax is a massive attack on the working class. If it is accepted it will mean a very significant shifting of the burden of payment for capital’s crisis away from the wealthiest sections of the middle class to all parts of the working class. This, despite the fact that workers are already paying more than anyone else for the crisis. In this situation we have no choice but to resist. The question for the working class is not “Whether?” but “How?”

Is There a Solution?

Revolutionary ideas will never become a real force within the working class unless revolutionary organisations at some stage manage to overcome their political isolation. This partly depends on the class struggle itself creating a more receptive climate. However, political organisations which aim to play a leading part in future, more class conscious, movements still have to face up to the problem of how to play an active part in the development of that class consciousness. No proletarian political organisation in Britain has the organisational strength to play more than a very small part in the regular activities of the anti-poll tax (or, for that matter, any other) movement. But we can, and some of us do, participate as far as our strength allows to try and encourage a wider orientation to the struggle as well as in the more basic and obvious duties of solidarising with workers who haven’t paid. The poll tax is only one of a whole range of capitalist attacks against the whole working class. The struggle against it must be fought as such.

Leaflet: Class Solidarity Not Token Days Of Action

Politicians have written off the working class. At the last election the Labour Party didn't even bother to pretend it was a workers' party. All they were worried about was showing they can be responsible managers of the national economy: in other words that they can serve capitalism just as well as the Tories. And let's face it, they can!

The only difference between Labour and Tory is that Labour's cuts come with a mega-dose of hypocrisy. Sheffield council's record speaks for itself. "It's not really our fault – it's all the fault of the Tory government for reducing local spending allowances." This is the catch-all phrase which is supposed to free councils like Sheffield from any responsibility for the attacks on their 'own' working class.

"We don't believe in Thatcherite economics" said Labour, as they destroyed public transport and let fares rocket; and when they sold off council houses and imposed massive rent increases.

"We don't believe in the Poll Tax", they said as they took tens of thousands to court.

"We want to revive Britain's industrial base" said Labour as they wasted millions in Sheffield on the student games.

"We don't believe in cuts in education, housing, libraries, health and social services", they say as they axe hundreds of jobs and services.

Labour councillors claim to spend their lives doing what they don't believe in. And in the midst of the worst capitalist crisis since the Thirties all they can say is that it's all the fault of the Tories. Yet their record shows that there's no real difference between them. Both parties are committed to saving a bankrupt system and that means attacking the working class on two fronts. It's not only our livelihoods which are being destroyed it's our communities which are most affected by the cuts.

The truth is it's impossible to manage capitalism at the same time as defend the working class. Anybody who wants to put up more than a token resistance understands this and knows the lessons of the last decade or so.

  • We have to link up as many sectors as possible, not just in the council. All across Sheffield workers are being thrown on the dole – from bank workers to miners. Past experience of the steelworkers and miners shows that, no matter how strong, a single section cannot win alone.
  • We can't rely on the unions to fight our battles for us. The officials are hand in glove with Labour. Just look at how many council union officials are top dogs in the local Labour Party. They spend their time carving up deals with each other. Eventually they'll save their own necks at the expense of a "negotiated settlement" - i.e. a sell-out.
  • The struggle must be run through mass meetings of everybody involved, regardless of union membership.
  • The bosses should be left guessing about what the battle tactics are. There's no room for the usual Labour-trade union rituals and cosy negotiations behind closed doors.

All over the world workers are facing the same kind of attacks. Capitalism has failed. It is time the working class put an end to the myth that there is no alternative. It's time for working people to fight for themselves.

Leaflet: No To The Poll Tax! No To The Bosses Dictatorship!

The poll tax is another savage attack on the working class. It must be fought.

All the government’s speeches about increasing local democracy, public accountability and making local taxation fair are lies. The government is cutting its grants to local authorities and passing the burden of paying for education, police and local services onto them, but through this tax the major part of this burden is being transferred from the bosses to the working class. One single factor is behind the poll tax – the world capitalist crisis. The tax is designed to increase the profits of British capital by lowering the living standards of the working class. The working class, who produce all the wealth of society, are having to take a cut in the amount the bosses give them back. This allows British capitalism to produce larger profits and compete on the world market.

Demonstrations Reveal Workers' Enemies

The anger which millions of workers feel against the poll tax has been shown in many of the demonstrations against the tax, but particularly in the London demonstration of the 31st March. But the demonstrations have also revealed that the most dangerous enemies of an effective fightback are the trade unions, the Labour party and its "critical" left fringes. The Labour Party is simply the bosses left wing party – a loyal party for British capitalism – and that's why they peddle the lie that all workers need to do is vote for them in two years’ time. When demonstrators fought the police at the London demo it was the Labour Party which called for the most vicious prison sentences to be imposed on those arrested. It was this party's so called "marxist" members, Militant, who offered to hand over names and photographs of the "rioters" to the police. i.e. they offered to assist the bosses' mercenaries in their job of oppressing the workers and imposing the injustices of capitalism. The Unions have not supported the demonstrations and called for legal protests. The particular unions involved in the administration of the tax, e.g. NALGO, have refused to support their members who refuse to collect the tax.

The Labour party only spreads the lie that workers interests can be defended in parliament because it knows that that is the way to defeat the class struggle. The truth is that we live under the dictatorship of the capitalist class; and parliament is just a way of hiding this. But what does the Labour Party offer us?

Even if Labour were elected in 1992, they would only abolish the tax after two further years (i.e. 1994) before they brought in their own equally vicious tax. This is their policy because they support the basic aims of the Tories – making British capitalism profitable. And this means sacrifices for the workers. Any fightback must be outside and against the so called "labour movement."

How can we fight the Poll Tax?

We must defend ourselves against this tax by:

  • Non-payment, and obstruction of the authorities at every stage when they try to get it out of us;
  • Supporting organised local resistance to the bailiffs when they try to seize our possessions;
  • All pay demands must include an increase to cover the full value of the tax. Follow the example of the Ford workers at Langley who have done this.

These defensive measures alone may not be enough. The only thing which would make the bosses think again is a campaign of strikes against the tax. Such strikes need to be organised outside of and against the unions and designed to do the maximum possible damage to the economy.

The Future

As long as capitalist society continues the bosses will attack us because it is the only way their system can survive. To end these attacks once and for all the working class needs to destroy capitalism and create a communist world. This has nothing to do with the state capitalist system which is collapsing in Eastern Europe, but is production for human needs planned and organised on a world scale by the working class. The first step towards achieving this change is the creation of a political party which unites those who are most conscious of the need to destroy capitalism. The Communist Workers’ Organisation is part of the international process towards building such a movement. Join us!

Tuesday, March 31, 2020