MILITANT SUPPORTERS identified what the poll tax was going
to become. Having been first implemented in Scotland, it was
only our candidates in the 1987 general election who even
mentioned the poll tax coming to England and Wales - Labour said
Extensive discussion took place amongst Militant supporters
about how to galvanise action across the UK. In April 1988,
after Peter Taaffe spoke at a Scottish meeting of our
supporters, the tactic of mass non-payment was agreed.
Other groups argued for 'non-registration' but this carried
higher penalties and the real issue was people not being able to
pay. The Socialist Workers Party initially argued that only
industrial action by council unions could win and that mass
non-payment was a non-starter.
We produced lots of explanatory material that built up the
confidence of people not to pay when the entire political
establishment, with the exception of about ten MPs, were saying
you had to pay.
We also campaigned for councils not to collect it and for
industrial action if any one was threatened with having their
benefits attached or threatened with jail. However, over time it
was mass non-payment that was taken up.
Arguing for 'mass' action was vital because many people in
the Scottish National Party and some Labour parties, argued for
a few token non-payers - a 'Can pay, won't pay' campaign.
We countered with 'the slogan Can't pay; won't pay' and it
was this that brought the mass campaign together.
I remember sitting in a Militant meeting in Glasgow where the
poster was to be designed. We looked at a few layouts and
decided on the phrase that said it all - 'Pay NO Poll Tax'. It
became the slogan of millions and was reproduced in every town
and city in Britain.
Groups of Militant supporters hit the estates. Often five or
six Anti-Poll Tax Unions (APTUs) could be set up in one local
Scotland was moving first and Militant supporters organised
solidarity from England and Wales - the first big demo in
Glasgow included a packed 700-strong 'Red Train' from London.
In England and Wales Militant supporters adopted the same
methods - local public meetings out of which Anti-Poll Tax
Unions were formed. Meetings were absolutely packed and it was
not uncommon for more than 100 people to turn up.
We recognised the need to build a structure which could
co-ordinate local Anti-Poll Tax Unions and campaigns nationally
and so set up the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation (the
The movement elected a majority of Militant supporters to the
All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation National Committee but we
also involved as many other organised groupings as possible. In
fact, we stood candidates down in three areas (where we had a
majority) precisely to bring other people onto the national body
- all to strengthen the movement.
The Anti-Poll Tax Unions also took to the courts where around
20 million people were summoned. Militant supporters pioneered
the legal tactics and brought entire courts to a standstill -
some clerks would negotiate with us; lawyers volunteered to take
When people faced jail - around 15 Militant supporters were
jailed including Terry Fields, MP for Broadgreen - but with
lawyers like Richard Wise, they could often be legally sprung in
It was a massive burst of energy by millions of people. It
was their victory. But Militant's guiding role was vital. It
concentrated the hard pounding the government took, forcing
their retreat and Thatcher's resignation.
The Battle that
brought down Thatcher
"NO POLL tax, no poll tax, no poll tax," echoed
around Trafalgar Square as over 200,000 anti-poll tax
demonstrators flooded the streets of central London. It was a
People had come from virtually every town and city across the
country to protest against Thatcher and her hated poll tax. They
said as one: "We're not paying."
On the same day, 50,000 were marching in Glasgow and,
incredibly, 10,000 were protesting in Hastings.
31 March 1990 was a decisive moment in the battle to beat the
poll tax. 'The Demo', as it became known, was living proof that
the Tory tax was on the rocks.
In 1987 the Conservatives had been re-elected with a promise
to introduce the poll tax - a deliberate move to shift even more
wealth from the poor to the rich and further cut local authority
spending. They were confident but within three years the tables
First in Scotland and then across England and Wales, a mass
campaign pledged to non-payment of the poll tax was built - a
campaign organised and led by the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax
Federation , known as The Fed.
It was clear that millions just could not afford to pay the
poll tax. But pleading poverty would not defeat it. A mass
movement had to be organised and built and, above all, effective
support given to all those who refused to pay.
The Fed played the key role in this task and, at its height,
had over 2,000 anti-poll tax unions, trade union bodies and
community groups affiliated under its banner.
In the run-up to 31 March, tens of thousands lobbied local
councils, marched and attended meetings as councils, including
Labour councils, rolled over and began to implement the poll
Politicians from all parties, journalists and academics, some
on the Left including the Socialist Workers Party who later
wrongly tried to claim credit for beating the poll tax, all said
that non-payment would be a non-starter but by 1990 there were
18 million non-payers.
The tax was first introduced in Scotland in 1989 to test the
water but by March 1990 the campaign north of the border had
reduced councils and the poll tax to their knees. The Tories
were on the run - even their supporters in Middle England had
begun to march against the tax.
This was the background to The Demo of 31 March.
The day began peacefully as thousands gathered in Kennington
to hear speakers from an open-topped double-decker bus. A myriad
of banners and placards could be seen, many home made. Young,
old, black, white, families and pets created a sea of humanity -
a scene reminiscent of the great Chartist protests of Victorian
times which themselves started in Kennington.
Those assembling were to represent the pinnacle of a mass
movement painstakingly built over a year or so. The Fed had
helped to build a campaign involving thousands of working-class
activists who filled the 1,000 or more coaches that came to
London that day.
Londoners also turned out - over 100,000 - with significant
impact on the turn out at key London football matches that day.
Working-class youth were to the forefront of the non-payment
campaign and were even prepared to sacrifice their 'footie' to
have their say. The roots of the anti-poll tax movement had sunk
The mood was electric. People marched to Trafalgar Square to
join the thousands already waiting. As we walked slowly through
the streets, chanting, singing and laughing, people waved from
their windows and joined us from the housing estates, determined
to show their solidarity.
By mid-afternoon, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and Westminster
were jam-packed. Labour MPs Tony Benn, Dave Nellist and George
Galloway spoke damningly of the Tory government and gave full
support to the campaign.
Fed leaders pledged to fight the poll tax in the courts,
against the bailiffs and to defend all non-payers threatened
with jail. This was perceived as 'peoples power' on a grand
scale, something which the Conservative government and
Metropolitan police could not tolerate.
Over 200,000 people had joined a mass, peaceful and good
humoured demonstration in London, yet the police saw fit to
attack and attempt to break up the day's proceedings.
A decade of Thatcherism had not just made poverty commonplace
but also made brutal police attacks on demonstrations another
regular feature of life in Britain.
Miners, printers, students and other workers had seen many
peaceful protests broken up by vicious police assaults. The
Metropolitan police has a record second to none in employing
such tactics and for them 31 March was to be no different as
they unleashed an unprovoked attack around 4pm.
There are many versions as to how it all started but only one
unalterable truth. The police attacked a mass, peaceful
Horses trampled protesters under foot, cars and vans drove at
high speed into the packed crowds, while riot police drew blood
with indiscriminate use of truncheons. Hemmed in on all sides,
many demonstrators tried to defend themselves, their friends and
Yet another glorious day of working-class solidarity had been
marred by the actions of the police.
This time there could be no easy cover up. The media
attempted its usual distortions but tens of thousands had seen
the brutality of the police first hand. Millions more watched
the events in horror on television. Particularly telling was the
terrible sight of a woman being mown down by charging police
horses and her rescue by courageous demonstrators.
The police attacks and disturbances carried on well into the
night and in the process many shops were looted. Given the
opulence of the West End and the large number of dispossessed
youth on the march, such acts were understandable.
While the new rich of the 1980s flaunted their wealth,
thousands of youth had been forced to live and beg on the
streets. The looting reflected their anger and despair.
The Fed had never advocated rioting or looting as a means of
defeating the poll tax - only mass non-payment would achieve
this - but its Militant (now Socialist Party) leadership fully
understood that people's frustration with Thatcher, the poll tax
and the police would sometimes boil over.
Within hours, Thatcher, Labour MPs and the media attempted to
use the riot to attack the anti-poll tax movement. But this time
their tactics backfired. Too many people had seen what had
really happened and this strengthened the resolve of the
Twelve months later, the Met issued a report publicly
admitting that their tactics on the day had caused the riot.
Meanwhile the Fed had to practically respond to the aftermath
of The Demo. The police set up 'Operation Carnaby' to arrest and
imprison the maximum number of demonstrators, whose defence
became a priority.
Over 500 people were arrested on and after the march. All
needed help, which involved attending courts, liasing with
lawyers and raising finance.
It was a mammoth task that required professional expertise.
The Fed pooled its resources and information with the Trafalgar
Square Defendants Campaign and its lawyers, so that all
defendants would receive professional legal assistance.
At the same time, the Fed continued to highlight the
injustices of the harsh sentences handed out by vengeful judges.
The success of The Demo strengthened the battle against the
poll tax. Mass non-payment was firmly on the agenda but it still
had to be maintained.
On 1 June 1990 over 2,000 local people from the Isle of Wight
attended the very first poll tax courts. The proceedings were
mayhem and over 1,800 cases were dismissed that day - a scene
that was to be repeated at courts throughout England and Wales
as tens of thousands of non-payers clogged up the courts.
Within weeks, anti-poll tax unions were chasing bailiffs off
wherever these low-life raised their heads. "Bailiffs have
no legal right of entry" were the watch words.
Every attempt to jail a non-payer was fought tooth and nail
by the Fed whose sterling work kept thousands out of jail. Many
a local councillor regretted the day they took public office,
especially when campaigners invaded their council chambers,
surgeries and even barbecues!
The final victory came on Thursday 22 November as Margaret
Thatcher ran crying from the steps of 10 Downing Street to a
waiting car - a fitting end to an individual whose policies had
caused working-class people and their families to shed an ocean
Less than eight months after the poll tax had become law in
England and Wales, the Militant-led Federation and its campaign
of mass non-payment had finally toppled one of the most hated
prime ministers in British history. Within months the Tories
finally abolished the poll tax.
Ten years on and there are many lessons to be learnt, the
most important one being that mass struggles can be built and
can take on governments. New Labour will ignore this at its
The Demo was a launch pad for mass non-payment and a movement
that became a focal point for all the grievances and discontent
in Thatcher's Britain.
The All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation gave a voice and
direction to working-class people. They had suffered enough and
were ready to fight Thatcher's government and win.
That is the real significance of 31 March 1990.