Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2194

Voices from the poll tax struggle

This article is over 11 years, 10 months old

Phil Maxwell Phil was the leader of the opposition Labour group on Tower Hamlets council in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He ripped up his poll tax bill at the rally that began the national demonstration
Issue 2194
Rioting quickly spread from Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, where a fire was started near apartheid South Africa’s embassy (Pic: Phil Maxwell)
Rioting quickly spread from Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, where a fire was started near apartheid South Africa’s embassy (Pic: Phil Maxwell)

Phil Maxwell

Phil was the leader of the opposition Labour group on Tower Hamlets council in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He ripped up his poll tax bill at the rally that began the national demonstration

The fight against the poll tax was one of the most inspiring political movements that I’ve ever been involved in, mostly because it achieved what it set out to do. We defeated the tax and we brought down Thatcher.

I remember how vibrant the campaign was. Just around the corner from here, in the Davenant Centre, we organised an annual general meeting of the Tower Hamlets anti-poll tax union. It was absolutely packed.

In an area known for having racial tensions, our campaign united the community. There were old and young, and Bengali and white, all sat together with a single purpose.

Our local Labour Party also had meetings about the poll tax.

Some people took the view that the tax was wrong but there was nothing much we could do about it—except wait for a Labour government to come in and repeal it. But most of us felt that we should embrace the campaign of non-payment.

We were deeply influenced by what had happened in Liverpool, where the Militant Tendency group had run the local council with a policy of not implementing central government cuts.

We also looked back at the tradition of the Poplar councillors in east London, who said that they would rather go to jail than attack the people who elected them.

The poll tax was an attack on the poor, and lots of people we represented simply could not afford to pay it, even if they had wanted to. Therefore, it was important that people in leadership positions in the movement were seen ripping up their bills as it gave other people confidence to do the same.

In Spitalfields, the ward I represented as a councillor, we went round the estates with a loudhailer calling on people to come down and burn their poll tax payment books—which they did in large numbers.

The Labour Party nationally was absolutely opposed to our position and set about undermining it.

By telling people to pay the tax, Labour leader Neil Kinnock effectively endorsed Thatcher’s flagship policy. In the process Labour alienated millions of potential voters.

They then started to expel many party members who backed non-payment, and effectively shut down democracy in order to end our policy of not implementing the tax if elected. Our local party became a Stalinist machine run by full-timers.

At a practical level, Labour’s betrayal had little effect, and the non-payment movement continued to gather strength.

But at a political level, the leadership’s decision did do real damage. It cost us dearly in the local elections that followed the demonstrations.

More than that, I think we can trace the degeneration of Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown back to this time. I simply don’t recognise the party today as being the one that I was a member of back then.

Roy Hanney

Film worker who was arrested on the demonstration and badly beaten but subsequently sued the Metropolitan police

I went to the demonstration with my sister, my young nephew and a friend who had just come out of hospital and was on crutches. For us, it was a protest but also a bit of a family day out.

I was in my late 20s and something of a seasoned demonstrator.

I’d been an activist since I was in the Anti Nazi League in the late 1970s, and knew how bad the police could be. But nothing prepared me for the way they behaved that day, and it was a long time before I felt able to go on another protest.

As the march the march reached the rally at Trafalgar Square, my sister and my friend decided to go home, and I had to go to nearby Soho for a meeting about a job I was doing.

I came back about an hour later expecting the rally to be over and everyone to be dispersing. Instead there was a pitch battle going on at the top of Whitehall.

The police ran a cavalry charge into the demonstration, and I witnessed a young woman being trampled. They seemed determined to inflame the crowd and we certainly felt as though we were being attacked.

Part of me said, you should go home now. But another part said, you’re here to make a statement and going home now is not an option.

So, I moved to the top of St Martin’s Lane to look down on the square as the battle ragged. Soon there was fighting between some protesters and police going on around me.

Then, without warning, a snatch squad of police came out of a van, grabbed me and bundled me into a van. As soon as the doors shut an officer started hitting me with his truncheon.

I tried in vain to protect myself. I was badly beaten on my face, hands and back.

When I got the station an officer held me in an armlock that was so painful that I lost all feeling in my hand for the next two days.

But what I saw being done to others who had also been arrested was even worse. I witnessed a guy being held down by two officers and being repeatedly punched in the kidneys.

After being processed, I spent a night in the cells unaware that a woman who had been in the van with me had made an official complaint to the police about the way I had been treated. Before I was let out, a police surgeon was called and a note was made of my injuries.

I was charged under the public order act and faced a crown court case and a possible three-year jail sentence. Because I’d been an activist in the squatting movement, I was lucky to have numbers for good lawyers, but most people who were arrested had nothing of the kind. As a result a lot of innocent people went to jail.

Together with my solicitors, I went to court prepared for the possibility of prison but after two days of prosecution evidence it was clear the police had nothing on me. In fact, the jury were laughing at them.

In an unprecedented move, they sent a note to the judge saying that they didn’t feel it necessary to hear the defence case and wanted the whole thing thrown out of court. The judge agreed and dismissed the case.

We then turned the tables and took the police to court for malicious arrest and assault. They settled out of court for £30,000!

In my view, the protest and what happened that day were the last nail in Margaret Thatcher’s coffin. Sure, it was about the poll tax, but it was about so much more too. It was about the whole way society was going, and people saying, “enough is enough”.

But for the media, the whole thing was about hooligans and people like myself were vilified. The appalling way they labelled us as “scum”—and the way the politicians all jumped on the bandwagon too—those are some of my lasting memories.

Nevertheless, I’m proud I was on the march and proud to have played a part in the movement. I just wish it could have happened without so many personal implications!

Kate Douglas

An activist in the civil service workers’ union, Kate was the treasurer of East London Youth Against the Poll Tax

I was working at Poplar unemployment benefit office in east London at the time of the poll tax. When people claiming the dole couldn’t pay, we were supposed to deduct it from their dole.

Of course, everyone in the office was against that. We were already wearing “Civil Servants Against the Poll Tax” badge—I’ve still kept mine!

By word of mouth we decided that we wouldn’t process any of those deductions, and instead started chucking them in the bin. By the time management cottoned on to this, the tax had gone.

I remember three things in particular about the march.

First, being half way up the scaffolding surrounding the South African embassy when I realised the building was on fire! It was great that people linked the fight against the poll tax with the struggle against apartheid.

Second, being particularly impressed that only the posh cars got trashed once the riot started.

Lastly, losing my bag. I dropped it while running from the police horses and reported it missing. Luckily, the purse inside was handed in to the police.

A couple of weeks later the police contacted me and said they wanted to interview me about my missing purse. They asked all sorts of questions about the demo but the funniest was, “Do you think the riot was organised by the Class War group?”

“No,” I replied. “I think it was organised by the police!”

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance