A Look Inside the Poll Tax Resistance Movement, in 3D

As I mentioned yesterday, The Sparrows’s Nest Library and Archive has made a lot of material from the poll tax rebellion in the U.K. — posters, pamphlets, newsletters, and such — available on-line (also available at the Internet Archive).

Today I’m going to start reproducing some excerpts from this material that concern specific tactical and strategic activity and decisionmaking by the people involved in this successful tax resistance struggle.

3D: Don’t pay! Don’t collect! Don’t implement!

3D was the newsletter of the “3rd September Steering Committee” which was one of the coalitions of groups organizing the poll tax resistance. Its first issue (undated, but probably published around ) included an update from Danny Burns about the progress of the resistance movement in Bristol and Avon. Some excerpts:

In , campaigns started to get off the ground in Bristol. By there were around 12 local groups and a federation was formed to coordinate them. In we have over 50 affiliated groups. We have had a heartening response from local trade union branches and are starting to involve a whole range of Bristol-wide voluntary organisations.…

In the community charge registration officer for Bristol informed us that they normally take 10,000 people to court each year for non payment of the rates. Their own estimates based on ability to pay suggest that even without a non payment campaign they will have to take 60,000 people to court. With such a campaign it is likely to be over 100,000. Our interpretation of the English law shows that every one of these cases will have to go to a civil court for a liability order, and every one can be challenged in court. This will not be remotely possible for them to implement.

But are we going to achieve these levels of non payment? We are convinced because the initial returns of our canvass (which we hope by will have gone door to door in every household in Bristol) show that 95% of the population are opposed to the tax. The vast majority have indicated that they will either be unable to pay the tax or it will cause them severe financial difficulty and in some areas up to 70% have said they will refuse to pay as long as they are part of a mass non payment campaign.

These results have been reflected in the level of activity on the ground. In Easton (my local anti poll tax union) in a single ward over 300 households have actively joined the union (50p per household); when we have finished the canvass we expect the figure to be nearer five hundred. This is over 25% of the local population and is nearly ten times the membership of the local ward Labour Party.

How has this been achieved at a local level? A small core initially called a public meeting, leafletting all 2,000 households. This meeting formed the embryo of an anti poll tax union. Following this a “no poll tax here” poster was produced, which was distributed to all households. The anti poll tax union then identified all the houses who had put the posters up in their windows and talked to them directly (about 100).

The vast majority joined the anti poll tax union, and by this stage we felt strong enough to break down into 12 neighbourhoods. Leafletting for further local and regional meetings and rallies was organised from this base until with the onset of the Avon-wide canvass.

At this stage we identified street representatives for the whole area. Ultimately these will be the key to creating the local support and communication which is necessary to keep people from feeling isolated in their struggle.

Back to the Avon Federation! How are we organised? All anti poll tax unions and affiliated organisations have a right to two voting delegates at the federation. We hold federation meetings on a three weekly basis. We usually get between 50 and 60 people to each of these delegate meetings. We have recently set up an action group which is working on setting up new groups in every area where there are no groups.

There is a regular petition in the Centre of Bristol which collects names and addresses from the whole of the city. These are later divided into areas and form the basis of the new groups. These areas are then leafletted; a public meeting is advertised and then local people are left to get on with it (obviously with the support of the federation).

These approaches have proved very effective and it is likely that by we will have around 80 affiliated groups.…

The lead editorials in issue #2 and #3 urged people to spur their trade union branches to organize workplace anti-poll tax groups. This was in part because local government workers would be called on to enforce the poll tax, and also to bear the brunt of budget cutting if the tax could not be collected. But also, this was because councils would probably try to seize unpaid poll tax from the paychecks of workers, and unions could act to try to prevent or ameliorate this. The editorial noted:

In London a trade union dayschool has been organised to raise the issue of Poll Tax in workplaces and union branches. The Greater London Association of Trades Councils and the All London Federation support this initiative. Such dayschools should be called in other areas as a step in building the campaign in workplaces.

Another article in issue #2 noted one way government workers were refusing to cooperate with tax enforcement. Several clerical workers in inner London social security offices were refusing orders to register recipients on the poll tax rolls. In doing so, they were defying their union leadership, which was sticking to a compliant line. Union workers in other parts of the Kingdom “have now been threatened with suspension from the union for debating and overwhelmingly carrying a motion calling for DSS workers to refuse to make ‘poll tax deductions’ from claimants.”

Another article in the same issue mentioned actions to disrupt local council meetings at which the councils were setting poll tax rates. These included mass protests, resignations of councillors, blockades, and burning an effigy of Margaret Thatcher. The article also mentions “ ‘harassing’ sheriff officers to stop poindings” in Scotland.

A theme developing in these reports is the challenge of partisanship. On the one hand, Labour, the ostensible opposition party, was only willing to offer rhetorical resistance to the poll tax, while its elected officials on the local councils were busy implementing it. On the other hand, the Socialist Workers Party was trying to hijack the anti-poll tax resistance movement to try to bolster its standing — attempting to turn all of the anti-poll tax actions into SWP rallies, and to wrest control of the movement leadership. (This reminds me a lot of the American Scylla and Charybdis for left-leaning activists of the feckless Democrats/MoveOn liberals on one side and the noxious ANSWER tinpots on the other.) At one point, a number of officers of the All Britain Federation of Anti-Poll Tax Unions resigned their posts, complaining in an open letter that they had been marginalized by SWP leadership.

Issue #3 noted that “housing staff all over Sheffield walked out following the threat of disciplinary action against area managers who refused to tell staff to attend Poll Tax training events.” It also reported that the annual delegate meeting of the National Union of Journalists had signed on to a campaign of “Mass non-payment of the Poll Tax”

Another article in that issue noted some of the actions resisters were taking to defend against government reprisals:

The… Campaign has co-ordinated the closing of their bank accounts — no handbag snatchers here, thanks Maggie!

The campaign is threatening to mount a picket and refuse to let anyone in to the home who tries to sell off their possessions to recover the £398 Lothian Council is demanding from them!

In the wake of the poll tax riots, some of the poll tax resistance opposition leaders were embarrassed, and tried to distance themselves from association with the violence by throwing those arrested under the bus. The “Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign” took a different tack: coordinating the legal defense of those on trial.

On the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign was launched at a meeting at Conway Hall in London, attended by defendants, solicitors, and anti-Poll tax activists.

It was agreed that the campaign would:

  • unconditionally support all those arrested
  • be run by and accountable to those arrested
  • be independent of all other organisations
  • demand the support of the whole anti-Poll Tax movement and other sympathetic organisations.

The meeting also agreed to seek out and contact all defendants, co-ordinate legal defence, publicise what happened at the demonstration from the point of view of those arrested, and call for donations and fund-raising for a bust fund for legal and welfare costs.

Issue #4 began by reporting on some encouraging non-compliance statistics, and on the difficulties councils were having in their pursuit of defaulters:

Medina council, on the Isle of Wight, was the first to make themselves look immensely foolish for not investing in a decent stock of first class stamps.

So the magistrate ruled that insufficient notice of the summons had been given — the cases collapsed amid street parties.

South Tyneside and Wandsworth took fright and shelved their plans to issue summonses immediately. All this gives us more time to organise against court cases. If we get only 1 in 37 people down to the courts the system will become inoperable.

Tactics mentioned in a sidebar included marches, leaflet distribution, “hundreds of people stop[ping] the bailiffs,” a 28-hour occupation of a sherriff’s office, and labor strikes.

Meanwhile, the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign “now has the support of the whole anti-poll tax movement” in its campaign “to force the prosecution, police, and media onto the defensive” which included, in addition to its legal work, pickets of right-wing media outlets and demonstrations at jails where defendants were being held.

Issue #5 led off with an article on resisting the bailiffs (collection agents). Excerpts:

It quickly became clear that a large number of South West councils were going to use the same bailiffs — a company called Roach and Co. based in Bristol. The Avon Federation moved into action. We watched their movements for a week and identified all their cars (they had a series of Nissan vans).

We looked them up in the Companies Register. We examined their premises and discovered that their compound was at the end of a cul de sac (ideal for pickets…). We put this information out to local groups who in themselves turned up a load of information about the bailiffs — some knew them personally, others had useful “dirt” for the press campaign.

The action began on . In the previous week Roaches had been both to Bishops Lydeard (a small village near Taunton) and Barri (in South Wales) to deliver a “walking possession” notice. This meant (in two cases where they had been able to gain access to the houses) that they were in a position to take people’s possessions.

We called a blockade for . People turned up from APTUs across Bristol. No vehicles were able to leave the compound, and we got massive press coverage. In fact a number of vehicles left from the bailiffs’ private homes. They were spotted by our people crossing the Severn Bridge at . They never arrived, but the van was discovered sometime later with its tyres let down.

Meanwhile in Barri and Bishops Lydeard, the whole community was mobilised. In Barri over fifty people were outside the houses of the threatened families; telephones on the window sill; another two hundred people ready to respond to a phone call; vehicles roaming the area watching for bailiffs; kids, prams, icecream vans creating a carnival atmosphere.

In Bishop Lydeard half the village decided to take the day off. All the roads in were sealed off by the community. All cars going through were required to identify themselves. The bailiffs never got near the village.

These scenes prove that the non payment figures are not just empty statistics which will crumble as the threats get stronger. The community is proving its strength — this has inspired people throughout the South West. It has sent shockwaves through council and government.

Another article gave some advice about how to do outreach to defendants as councils began to take non-payers to court:

At the court we must do our best to make sure that people know what is going on at all times, through leaflets and personal contact.

A team of activists should take on the job of approaching defendants on arrival, explaining the situation to them and directing them to our solicitors and “McKenzie friends”.

Council officials will be doing the same, attempting to “help” make arrangements for people to pay out of court. We should organise creches for kids and refreshments for hungry bellies.

This level of organisation will be difficult to maintain over several weeks. In Leeds we are planning for individual anti-Poll Tax groups to run things on separate days — organised well in advance so activists can take time off work.

Normally the courts will deal with the cases of all those who attend before proceeding against non-attenders. Sometimes as at South Tyneside they have attempted to adjourn the cases of all those present till a later date, enabling them to proceed with the absentees very quickly.

We will argue against this, explaining that people have arranged time off work or organised childcare to enable them to be present and have a right to have their cases heard.

People can be represented by either solicitors or McKenzie friends. McKenzie friends are lay representatives who can take notes and give advice to the defendant. They do not have an automatic right to address the court but may be allowed to do so in the interest of time.

Liability orders may be sought from several people at once. Since each person still has the right to question council officials and give their own defence this does not necessarily save the courts time.

It goes without saying that people should always ask for their cases to be heard separately.

Usually the local authority is asked to make its case and then those summoned can offer their defence. The local authority has to prove to the court that the sum claimed is due and that it has not been paid. Therefore the magistrate shouldn’t grant a liability order unless they are satisfied that:

  • The Council has passed a resolution fixing the Poll Tax.
  • Your name is entered in the “Community Charge Register” showing what type of Poll Tax you are liable to pay (the local authority can prove this either by producing a copy of the register certified by the registration officer; or by evidence given by a local authority officer who has inspected the register).
  • The Poll Tax has been demanded in accordance with the law i.e you have been served with a “demand notice” (a Poll Tax bill) and a further notice.

Service of the demand and reminder must be proved either by sworn oral evidence by a council official with personal knowledge of the relevant postings or who can actually produce a record of the posting or by a “certificate” signed by a duly authorised officer.

Each of the above presents us with the opportunity to give the council officials and their witnesses a rigorous cross-examination.

When all this has been accepted as proven the opportunity falls to the defendant to offer a defence. Political arguments won’t wash, but they can still take up time.

There is a good chance of getting an adjournment if you have a rebate application pending or if you have applied for a review of the rebate decision. Both cases are looked on with more sympathy if they were made before the summons was received.

More than half of those attending court have managed to get adjournments or withdrawals of liability orders because of outstanding rebates and reviews.

There were also brief mentions of pickets, the occupation of a bailiff’s office, a courtroom occupation, labor strikes, and marches.