History: The great anti-poll tax victory

The March 31 1990 demo and the demise of Thatcher’s rule

The mighty demonstrations of March 1990 were a critical part of the mass anti-poll tax movement. But contrary to the arguments of some anarchists and others, then and since, it wasn’t the ‘poll tax riot’ that lead to the eventual demise of the tax and Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. In an article first published in December 1990, in issue No.45 of Militant International Review, the predecessor magazine of Socialism Today, LOUISE JAMES, one of the national organisers of the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, answered an account of the March events which extolled rioting as ‘a positive and constructive contribution to the struggle’.

The 200,000 strong demonstration organised by the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation last March sent shock waves through the British ruling class. The growing mood of anger over the poll tax had crystallised in a massive national demonstration, referred to by Tony Benn as the biggest in a hundred years. In the build-up local Anti-Poll Tax Unions (APTUs) had organised over 6,000 lobbies, demonstrations and public meetings in just two months. Before their very eyes the Tory government saw their support collapsing. Predictably they responded with a ‘red scare’ campaign that violence was being ‘orchestrated’ outside council meetings, principally by Militant [the predecessor of the Socialist Party].

Attempts were also made to pin the blame on Militant for the violent clashes and rioting that occurred at the end of the March 31 demonstration. But who was really responsible for what took place? Evidence on and after the demonstration makes it clear that plans were laid down in advance by senior police officers to sabotage the demonstration, and to enable punitive action to be taken against the leaders of the anti-poll tax movement in the aftermath. Agreements previously made between the Federation and the police were broken. Coach dropping off points were changed for no reason, so that stewards from the regions could not reach the main stewards’ point and as a result received no instructions on the day. The police disregarded guidelines laid down with the Federation that stewards would deal with sit-down protests. Instead the police waded in, using one such protest as a pretext to attack the demonstration. This provided the spark to the initial fighting, which then escalated, undoubtedly to the surprise of the police, into serious clashes and then a full-scale riot.

Significantly, immediately after the demonstration, a NOP opinion poll was commissioned. Stating that “some people have said the Militant Tendency and other anarchist groups (!) may be behind this violence”, it asked whether “the government should take legal action or not against such groups”. NOP refused to say who commissioned the poll and the government refused to say if it was them.

Were the ruling class planning to use March 31 as a pretext to take further measures against leading anti-poll tax activists? Certainly, following the demonstration the unprecedented police ‘Operation Carnaby’ led to over 500 arrests. Early morning raids took place on the homes of anti-poll tax activists in Islington, Hackney and the East Midlands.

But the attempt by the Tories to disorientate the movement through provoking a ‘riot’ situation backfired. A poll sponsored by The Sunday Correspondent, (8 April, 1990) showed that three times as many people blamed the Tories than blamed the Labour Party for the riot. Too many people had been touched by the campaign: the Tories’ attempts to create a red scare failed. The mass non-payment campaign, lifted by the scale of the magnificent demonstration, went on from strength to strength. It was the inability of Thatcher to successfully impose the poll tax on the working class, because of the organised campaign, which was overwhelmingly responsible for her removal as prime minister.

However, the violent clashes and looting which took place at the end of the demonstration have been used by various ‘anarchist’ grouplets to provide a theoretical justification for rioting as a method of struggle against the tax. A pamphlet has appeared, entitled Poll Tax Riot: Ten Hours That Shook Trafalgar Square, which has gained a certain currency on the fringes of the poll tax movement.

Produced by the anarchist publishing house, Acab Press, Poll Tax Riot purports to be a collection of individual accounts of the riot which were “anonymously passed to Acab Press in the weeks following March 31 after an appeal was circulated” (p4). In fact, it is nothing of the sort. Some of the twelve different authors admit they are connected with anarchist groups, and while Acab Press claim to have acted “with the sole intention of giving the other side of the story” to that which appeared in the capitalist media, they did not circulate their ‘appeal’ to the real ‘other side’ – the Anti-Poll Tax Unions which form the backbone of the mass non-payment campaign.

This is not surprising. The vast majority of those actively involved in the struggle against the poll tax would not agree with the pamphlet’s assertion that, to win, “there’s only one way forward… extreme violence, a series of escalating confrontations between ‘workers’ (their inverted commas – LJ) and the state, ie the police…” (p27). They would not accept that the scene at Covent Garden – “the whole street had been wrecked. Glass everywhere, the banks smashed, the shops smashed… a frenzy of ecstatic smashing and looting” – was “the perfect scene to end the day with” (p8).

Yet Poll Tax Riot does not just applaud the “rioters’ violence” and “mass looting sprees” (p3) but actually advocates this as a means of struggle, “a positive and constructive contribution to the struggle against the poll tax in particular and the ongoing class war in general” (p6l). Consequently, notwithstanding the limited support for these ideas in the anti-poll tax movement, it is important for Marxists to examine the question: is looting and ‘a series of escalating confrontations with the police’ a serious strategy to defeat the poll tax?

The deep roots of the non-payment campaign

The anarchists’ foremost justification for rioting is that “if there had been no riot then the demonstration would have got no more than a few lines in the papers and a brief mention on the telly” (p6l). Even if this were true, are they seriously saying that people on the demonstration would have paid their poll tax, despondent at the lack of media coverage? Of course not!

In fact, they defeat their own argument a few lines later when they say “remember the Glasgow demonstration against the poll tax in April 1989? Over 20,000 people were on it, a massive display of defiance that was quietly censored”. Have they not noticed that non-payment in Scotland has continued despite the lack of bricks thrown and shops looted?

The anti-poll tax movement has developed far beyond reliance on the capitalist media for relaying its message. In Scotland, for more than three years the press ignored the mass non-payment campaign. But this conspiracy of silence failed to prevent the campaign spreading to England and Wales. The movement has built its own structures and developed its own methods of relaying information. The demonstration on 31 March was built for by the 1,500 APTUs who distributed over one million leaflets and 100,000 posters.

But even the demonstration, magnificent as it was, was only part of the campaign to build mass non-payment. The daily activity of door-to-door leafleting, the setting up of bailiff-busting teams and other organised actions, determines the real strength of the campaign. But this aspect of the struggle is hardly mentioned in the pamphlet.

Instead they go on to state that because the riot was shown on TV it “of course can only help to build mass non-payment of the poll tax” (p6l). How? What lessons would be learnt by those who watched the events on their TV? That bailiffs can be defeated if disciplined ‘bailiff-busting’ squads are established on every estate? That wage arrestment orders can be stopped if non-payers at work organise together to pressure their trade union to take a stand? That to achieve all this needs consistent activity, regular meetings, the production of leaflets, bulletins and posters etc?

Of course not. In contrast to an organised non-payment campaign, a riot is not an effective method of struggle. It is an explosion of frustration, anger and despair. It is not a collective struggle with a planned strategy.

Our anarchist authors, however, dispute this. The events after the demonstration were, they claim, a collective struggle, an ‘organised riot’. One author states boldly that “we started the violence and we’re proud of it. To do, rather than being done to. That’s how March 31, 1990 should be remembered, not as a police riot but as our riot” (p60).

This is completely false. True, a handful of people did go on the demonstration with the sole intent of provoking a confrontation – including the authors of Poll Tax Riot. One describes his attitude at the start of the demonstration, then still peaceful: “sitting on the sidelines (!), pondering the possibilities inherent in the day’s proceedings, contemptuous so far, but soon to be uplifted as events far surpass our expectations” (p28). Yet our side-lined cynic and his friends were not responsible for the events which unfolded. This is inadvertently confirmed by another author who, arriving at Kennington Park, “went to that part of it which had been suggested as the anarchist meeting place. When we got there, there were only 150 of us…”! (p47).

The reality was explained by Militant immediately after the events. If there had been any organising taking place then it was by the senior ranks of the police. It was “the use of police horses, the driving of vehicles at 50 miles per hour into the crowd, the lashing out by riot squads at innocent and peaceful demonstrators, (which) absolutely infuriated a section of the demonstration, particularly the youth”. (Militant, 6 April, 1990) Many youth risked life and limb to hit back at the police attack on the demonstration. There was nothing consciously planned by these youth, however, to ‘organise’ a riot. Indeed, that is in the very nature of a riot. Far from being a conscious act, it is a cry of despair and frustration.

This awkward fact is even acknowledged by one of the anarchists. Forced to concede that “amongst the crowd there was opposition to the attacks (on a police van). There were cries of ‘stop’…”, the author tries to justify his actions. Yet he does this not by explaining exactly what could be achieved by the anarchists strategy of ‘escalating confrontation’ and looting, but by correct yet completely abstract references to why “quite a few people fucking hate the police” (p39). That hatred “stems from simple dispossession, from powerlessness arising from marginalisation, from despair, from past meetings with the guardians of law and order… all the accumulated anger, hatred, frustration and powerlessness came boiling out in a torrent of fury… It was about the individual humiliation of surviving under capitalism” (p40).

All this is correct. But it deliberately avoids the real question. How is rioting the way to end “the humiliation of surviving under capitalism”? Rioting is not a conscious method of struggle but a dead end. Understanding why a section of youth ‘riot’ does not change this fact. Those who aspire to transform society can not be mere cheerleaders but have a responsibility to say which methods of struggle take the class forward and which methods are a blind alley.

Rioting is not in any way a ‘positive contribution’ to building mass non-payment. Mass non-payment is about united class action, not a collection of individual heroic acts. The same author who is bursting with pride about how he “started the violence” also explains how, having ‘confronted the state’ for a few hours, he strolls off “home to the welcome comforts of a bath, bed and normality” (p60). As an individual the author may well be able to opt out of the class struggle when he sees fit. But the tasks of organising mass non-payment must go on. Defence of non-payers from the bailiffs, wage arrestment’s, etc has to be organised in collective action. Our individual ‘hero’, however, having done his bit, goes home with nothing changed.

Or perhaps the authors are not so ‘heroic’. Many of the accounts detail what each author managed to pick up from looted shops on the day. One even complains that by the time he got to a music shop and pulled “the shutter up a bit (to) see what’s left… there’s nothing here that I want” (p13). Another had a bit more luck: he explains how “a sunglasses shop is attacked (and) £150 Georgio Armani’s lifted; rioters not only furious but now cool!” (p31). Is this really the way to build mass non-payment? And if it is, how many sunglasses do APTUs need to loot to bring down the government?

The workers’ movement’s real traditions

At one point, the authors attempt to place the events on March 31 in a “very long and honourable tradition of violent struggle against the state and the bosses”, (p18) including in their list the riots that took place in 1981. Interestingly, while they mention the riots in Toxteth – alongside the Chartists, the general strike, and the miners’ strikes of 1974 and 1984-85 – they forget to mention the struggle of Liverpool city council from 1983-85.

Possibly this is because a comparison between the actual results of the Toxteth riots compared to the results achieved by the Liverpool struggle, with Militant supporters to the fore, are a crushing argument against the idea of rioting as ‘the only way forward’. The Toxteth riots achieved for the people of Liverpool 500 temporary summer jobs at the International Garden Festival and a few trees planted in the Toxteth area by [Tory Environment minister] Michael Heseltine! In contrast, the organised mass struggle led by Liverpool city council resulted in 5,000 council houses being built – 1,000 of them in the Toxteth area – 1,000 council jobs saved with 1,000 jobs created, YTS trainees taken on with trade union rates of pay and rights, nurseries and sport centres. The fight for these services and jobs touched everyone in Merseyside.

But it is their comparison of the March riot with the 1926 general strike which provides the most graphic illustration of these peoples’ thinking. The general strike was the greatest movement of the British working class, defeated only by the total failure of the TUC leaders to match the determination of the workers with a fighting programme and strategy. It was a conscious struggle involving millions of workers in councils of action which ran whole cities, taking the power out of the hands of the bosses for a period of time. It was an extremely disciplined movement, with the workers’ committees that were set up organising everything from transport to control over the distribution of food. The councils of action did not invite workers to loot shops, fighting with each other for the best pickings. They organised distribution for the masses and, in many cases, set up their own ‘peace pickets’ to stop sporadic looting.

This feature is repeated in all general strikes, the latest but not the least being the Soviet miners’ last summer who again organised in workers’ committees and also showed the discipline of the movement by banning alcohol. Alcohol, by contrast, seems to be a problem for our anarchist friends. One author criticises some fellow ‘fighters’ for being “pissed up prats” who “couldn’t throw properly” as a result (p24). This admonition is solemnly endorsed by an editorial insertion of ‘handy hints’ for rioters including the advice, “Don’t get pissed” (p22). Unfortunately, six pages later, another author, presumably one of the ‘pissed up prats’, approvingly records the “magic sounds of smashing glass, an off licence goes in, cleared within minutes… hundreds refresh themselves, illicit alcohol for all!” (p28). This continues the traditions of the general strike?

In fact these people sully the traditions of genuine anarchism when it had a base within sections of the working class. In revolutionary Barcelona, in the early days of the Spanish civil war, the anarchist CNT set-up flying squads to deal with looters! Certainly, the authors of Poll Tax Riot have nothing to do with the real traditions of the working class in struggle.

Their contempt for the organised trade union movement is revealed when they argue that “all photographers, all TV crews, all journalists are legitimate targets” (p26). It is ironic that BETA, the film crews’ union, is the only national trade union affiliated to the All Britain Federation and that the NUJ is one of the few unions which supports mass non-payment. Is bricking people the method they really believe will persuade union members to refuse to collaborate with police inquiries? In reality, strike action by trade unionists is the only way to defend press freedom from court orders instructing photographers to hand their films to the police. But a brick to the head is far quicker – and it only takes one ‘hero’ to do it.

The test of a labour movement inquiry

The authors display even greater hostility to another method of the organised working class – a labour movement inquiry. Indeed the proposal for an All-Britain Federation inquiry into the events of March 31 is highlighted to prove that Militant is a “state-in-waiting” and fundamentally “opposed to the working class fighting back” (p64). The evidence? A quote from All-Britain Federation secretary, Steve Nally, on ITN news, proposing to “hold our own internal inquiry” into the events “which will go public and if necessary name names”.

There is nothing new about a labour movement inquiry. Indeed, how else, to borrow the words of Acab Press, can ‘the other side of the story’ be assembled? How could lessons be drawn for future demonstrations about pre-march preparations, how to negotiate with the police, stewarding tactics etc, except by a full appraisal of the events of March 31 and an open discussion throughout the movement? Undoubtedly, there were undercover police provocateurs on the demonstration, as is conceded by one of the authors (p42) – apart from the provocative actions of sections of the uniformed police! Through what other means could they be uncovered and exposed before the movement, except by naming names? Or is it that the anarchists fear that most anti-poll tax activists would find their actions indistinguishable from those of agents provocateurs?

This is the key. An inquiry would have to include an examination of the perspectives, programme, strategy and tactics of the different political currents within the anti-poll tax movement and open them up to debate. Militant would be confident that our approach, which has predominated in the anti-poll tax campaign to date, would stand up to any examination. Our strategy and tactics, despite the complete opposition to the non-payment campaign of the leaders of the labour and trade union movement, have led the campaign to the position today where a stunning victory is in sight.

For the authors of Poll Tax Riot, however, open debate and discussion is an irritation. Throughout they reveal their contempt for the discipline and democratic norms of an organised movement. One author reveals his favourite method of debate as “beating the left scum (preferably with a big stick)” (p22).

An open inquiry would force them to defend their strategy of rioting and looting and ‘a series of escalating confrontations with the police’ as ‘the only way forward’. On the evidence of this pamphlet, they have no defence.

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