Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How residents defeated the Poll Tax in Haringey, and countrywide.. (1988-1993)

An unfair and hated tax

In the late 1980s the Government had decided to implement a new tax to replace local government taxation systems. It was immediately seen as a tax on the poor, and an extension of government powers over the population. The government named it the 'Community Charge', but protestors dubbed it 'the Poll Tax', drawing parallels with the legendary Poll Tax mass uprisings in 1381 which successfully defeated the idea for 600 years!

Mass opposition

It was first introduced into Scotland in 1988, causing uproar, massive defiance, and popular independent local campaigns in every neighbourhood encouraging non-cooperation and non-payment. A majority refused to pay.

Inspired by hatred of the government after the long industrial battles with miners and printworkers in the mid-1980s, and inspired by Scotland, a mass movement grew up in every community in England in the build up to the registration procedure (1989) and the implementation date of April 1st 1990.

Organised resistance throughout Haringey

Haringey was one of the first areas in England to launch a strong campaign. In 1988 independent and radical activists called for mass non-payment and defiance of the tax. 30 residents attended the first planning meeting at the Unwaged Centre in Tottenham and very quickly the campaign spread like wildfire. Many local anti-poll tax groups met weekly or fortnightly, co-ordinated through delegate meetings of Haringey Anti-Poll Tax Union.

The next 4 years saw possibly the most vibrant, sustained and uncompromising mass popular movement in Haringey's, and the UK's, history. This is some of what happened:

· simultaneous weekly street stalls all around the borough
· regular mass door-to-door leafleting calling for total non-cooperation with registration, payment, court notices and eventually bailiffs.. over half a million leaflets and window posters distributed in Haringey alone (including all 90,000 homes getting a leaflet/poster on the eve of the implementation of the tax).
· a network of over a dozen smaller neighbourhood groups and up to 500 street reps
· regular public meetings, including one with 1,000 people in Hornsey Town Hall
· many local pickets, protests, burning of forms, 2 or 3 marches and a mass rally of 1000 people blockading the Civic Centre and the road outside on the night the Council set the tax rate - the highest in Britain!
· organised and systematic back up support for people facing threats, fines, bailiffs and even imprisonment
· trade union opposition to the tax, in some cases refusing to implement aspects of the process
· constant efforts to link up effectively with other campaigns around London and the whole country. Haringey groups played a key role in developing London and national initiatives, communication and solidarity.

As a result, 50,000 Haringey adults refused to register at all, and eventually 97,000 refused to pay despite the whole range of threats and intimidation from the Council and the Courts.

Co-ordination and protest across the country

In early 1989 Tottenham Against the Poll Tax was the main group behind a London-wide meeting which led to the setting up of the London Federation of Anti-Poll Tax Groups - TAPT was elected as the secretarial group. Later that year HAPTU initiated and co-ordinated a national conference in London attended by 70 APTs and Federations, who continued to work closely together to ensure communication & co-ordination across the country.

On March 31st 1990, the day before the tax was to be implemented, over 200 Haringey residents met up at Turnpike Lane tube to travel together to join over 250,000 people marching through Central London calling for mass non-payment and resistance to the tax. It was a carnival atmosphere. As the demonstration passed Thatcher's headquarters (Downing St) there was a confrontation with police, and it soon turned into a battle with mounted police and riot units. Eventually, Trafalgar Sq became a battleground as thousands of people fought police for control of the square and the area around it. The anti-poll tax movement gained world-wide coverage.

Up to 500 activists from all over the UK (including Haringey) were arrested during and after the demo, and many faced heavy charges. Politicians and the media attacked the anti-poll tax movement. The police called for a ban on such demos. However, HAPTU and other independent groups helped set up the defendant-run Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign which supported all those arrested and helped them fight their cases, as well as campaigning for the anti-poll tax movement to back those arrested. Initial meetings were held in the Tottenham Unwaged Centre. It was a very strong and significant campaign, including a solidarity march of 3,500 people to Brixton prison to support poll tax prisoners there and around the country.

18 million refuse to pay, and Thatcher resigns

The stakes were very high. Gradually the whole movement backed the campaign, and their call to demonstrate again in Trafalgar Sq. This uncompromising and principled stance echoed the continuing public defiance of the tax. The movement stayed united and defiant, and public support increased.

By the following year 18 million were refusing to pay the tax. Thatcher resigned, largely as a result of the damage to her credibility and strategy over the poll tax fiasco. The new Prime Minister John Major eventually announced that the tax was uncollectable and would be scrapped - to be replaced by the current Council Tax.

However, the movement needed to continue in order to defend those facing threats and repressive measures for the next few years. This we did in Haringey. The main Haringey groups decided to develop into general Solidarity Groups, continuing poll tax work as part of a commitment to support a wide range of independent radical struggles and local initiatives. The groups eventually merged into Haringey Solidarity Group, which has continued to be active ever since.

The aftermath

This historic victory showed that:

- the right to public services shouldn’t depend on systematic robbery of working class people of their income
- any oppressive law or measure can be defied and defeated by mass non-cooperation
- grass roots self-organisation with public support can be inspirational and an unstoppable force for change
- the right to protest can be defended
- radical ideas and ways of working do not need to be marginal, but can be mainstream and a real alternative to electoral politics

There is also the power of collective folk-memory, even across 6 centuries, that an unjust measure can be beaten. That demonstrates the importance of celebrating our radical history.

This summary has mainly been drawn from the pamphlet 'The Poll Tax Rebellion In Haringey' which was written and published collectively by members of Haringey Solidarity Group in 1999

1 comment:

  1. "Fight Back! The Newsletter of the St Ann’s Anti Poll Tax Union" has been chosen as the first Sparrows' Nest Document of the Month. See