Thursday, 1 April 2010

April fools - remembering the poll tax

It's April Fools' Day. How apt, then, to remember the 20-years anniversary, erm, yesterday of the big anti-poll tax demonstration in London. The one that's sometimes, with the benefit of distance, fondly referred to as the poll tax riot.

This was a massive demonstration in London on 31 March 1990 of 200,000 people, the police said, but probably more, against the Conservatives' poll tax. The poll tax, boys and girls, was a plan to make people pay the same amount of local tax - nowadays it's called council tax - regardless of their income. The Duke of Westminster would only have to pay the same amount of tax as his cleaner, even though he was infinitely better-off. (We were fond of illustrations like that, we who campaigned against the tax.)

In a truly idiotic stroke, that succeeded in alienating almost the entire population of Scotland, the tax was introduced there a year earlier than in the rest of the UK.

This gave the far-left Militant Tendency (a grouping inside the Labour Party) a new lease of life, a whole new raison d'etre, as they threw themselves into organising resistance to the tax and recruiting to their organisation.

I was living in Islington at the time. I helped to organise a small anti-poll tax campaign, learning some of the lessons from the Scottish campaign, which had been going for longer, obviously.

At some point early in 1989 my friend D and I bombed up the motorway - several motorways, possibly, I don't know, I wasn't driving - to take part in a conference in Strathclyde where strategy was debated. We passed through eerie Lockerbie on the way there, where a plane had recently been brought down by a terrorist bomb. We stayed the night in Edinburgh at D's friend's house.

We spent the next day in this conference somewhere west of Edinburgh, where the star turn was one very young man named Tommy Sheridan.

The big debate was whether opponents of the poll tax should organise a campaign of non-registration for the tax, which could stop it before it began and entailed defying the government. We also wanted non-implementation, which would involve mobilising the civil service trade unions. The other approach was to organise a campaign of non-payment once the tax had been brought in. This was likely to involve more people in the campaign, but at a later stage. Militant favoured the latter option, which undoubtedly bore fruit - especially for them in the way of recruits! My group favoured the non-registration and non-implementation strategy, which was a much harder nut to crack, as it involved persuading a significant part of the labour movement to defy the government.

Militant were simply more numerous than the small assortment of other groups there - which included more hardnosed Trots than Militant were, and some anarchisty types from north London - and they had the prestige from being on the campaign trail already. We lost the vote, got back into D's car and bombed back down the motorway the way we had come.

Ultimately, the poll tax was scrapped but not before it had boosted Scottish nationalism, and made and unmade a number of reputations - Tommy Sheridan became a somebody and Margaret Thatcher's reputation was ruined. After the poll tax her days were numbered.

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