By Cate Roberts
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Can’t pay, won’t pay

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Issue 462

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay Simon Hannah Pluto £16.99
Former Tory leader William Hague said the government’s recent exam U-turn fiasco threatened to be another poll tax — 30 years after a mass campaign of civil disobedience saw off the hated tax and forced Margaret Thatcher out of office. As the Covid-19 crisis engulfs working class communities, Simon Hannah’s very readable book reminds us that resistance doesn’t always start or come through trade union action. By placing the poll tax movement in the context of a history of revolt and resistance, Hannah illustrates how and why an over-confident Tory establishment was defeated. “A duke would pay the same as a dustman.”
That was Tory boast when it introduced its new local government tax. After the 1980s, when the rich got richer, the reaction of ordinary people was furious and organised. Introduced in Scotland in 1989 — one year before England and Wales — millions of people formed anti-poll tax groups, unions and federations, pledging not to pay. Thousands of ordinary people conducted their own defences or those of fellow campaigners in the courts through the system of lay representatives called ‘McKenzie friends’. Invasions of courtrooms followed and people organised to block the bailiffs who were sent to follow up nonpayers and seize their assets.
The anger exploded in the ‘Battle of Trafalgar’ on 31 March 1990, when some 200,000 people fought back as riot police attacked the peaceful protest. The mass campaign that confronted the poll tax fatally wounded Thatcher. Hannah has no truck with the leaders of the Labour Party — who told people to pay the tax — or the TUC, which failed to fight it. After Trafalgar Square, support for the Tories fell sharply. But the Labour Party, led at the time by Neil Kinnock, allowed John Major to win the 1992 election. Some 11.5 million people voted Labour — three million less than the number of summonses, warrants and benefit deduction orders issued for poll tax non-payment.
Labour did not call a single demonstration. Not one Labour council voted against implementing the tax. But continued protests finally saw the tax scrapped. Hannah, who argues it was a social movement, not a single issue campaign, looks at strategies on the left. Militant Labour, central to the Anti Poll Tax Federation from the start, relied on mass nonpayment. Other activists argued against relying solely on nonpayment and called for unions to organise strikes to stop the tax. The key was resistance. Non payment — including fines and jail — turned into collective class resistance. It united those unable to pay with those who fought the injustice of it.
Above all, Hannah shows why the movement struck a blow for all those who said it was impossible to fight back. Victory for the poll tax campaign shows how real change comes from a movement built from below and outside Parliament.

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