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The shadow without the substance

Image: Neil Hester

Last weekend several hundred thousand protestors marched in central London to call for Britain to remain in the European Union.  Days later a petition on the Parliament website calling for Article 50 to be revoked went viral; attracting so many signatures in so short a time that the site kept crashing.  Neither, however, told us anything we did not already know.  More importantly, government has been free to disregard both the protest and the petition simply because there is no substance behind them.  Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom spelled this out:

“Should [the petition] reach more than 17.4 million respondents, I am sure there would be a very clear case for taking action.”

That, so far as anyone can see, is that.  Government will hold a debate on the petition… but only after the future of Brexit has been decided.  It will ignore the protest entirely because it is representative only of the vociferous minority of the 48 percent who voted to remain in the EU, but says nothing about the 52 percent who voted to leave.

The government response to these events is, in fact, entirely within keeping.  Beyond holding debates – often away from the main debating chamber in Parliament – governments have taken no action even on the largest petitions since the system was introduced.  Brexit was not reversed in 2016, nor was president Trump’s official visit to the UK cancelled. 

The same goes for marches.  More than a million marchers in London – the biggest ever demonstration in the UK – in 2003 did nothing to prevent Tony Blair taking the UK into an illegal war on a false prospectus – a war, incidentally, that (among other things) created the terrorism and the refugee crisis that at least in part swayed the vote to leave the EU… political decisions have unpleasant unforeseen consequences.

There was, however, a protest march that did help to make a difference.  Thirty years ago this weekend I along with more than 100,000 others marched through Glasgow to protest the introduction of Thatcher’s “Community Charge” which, much to her chagrin, became known to history as The Poll Tax.  There was huge contempt for the people of Scotland in the Tories’ decision to use them as a testing ground (rather in the way that Britain’s most deprived communities have been the guinea pigs for Universal Credit today).  The intention was to crush opposition in Scotland prior to imposing the Poll Tax in England and Wales.

The Glasgow march was not, however, some short lived response. Thatcher’s intentions had been trailed in a Green Paper (an official government discussion paper) in 1986 which suggested replacing the property-based system of local government funding with a system in which every adult would pay a separate charge.  The thinking – not entirely unreasonably – was that every adult who used local government services should pay their share of the cost.  In Tory hands, however, this became overshadowed by the general assault on local government together with a tendency toward cutting the taxes of the already wealthy.  Having surcharged a series of Labour councils in the north of England, and abolished the popular Labour-run Greater London Council (GLC) in 1986, the proposed community charge looked like a continuation of the erosion of local democracy.

In 1987 the Tory election manifesto promised that:

“We will legislate in the first Session of the new Parliament to abolish the unfair domestic rating system and replace rates with a fairer Community Charge.

“This will be a fixed rate charge for local services paid by those over the age of 18, except the mentally ill and elderly people living in homes and hospitals. The less-well-off and students will not have to pay the full charge but everyone will be aware of the costs as well as the benefits of local services. This should encourage people to take a greater interest in the policies of their local council and in getting value for money. Business ratepayers will pay a Unified Business Rate at a standard rate pegged to inflation.”

The Tories were returned for a third term in 1987 with a sizeable majority (102) over the opposition parties.  Meanwhile, much of the labour movement was in a state of shock; having lost the bitter 1984/85 miners’ strike and seen key points of opposition like Ken Livingston’s GLC disbanded.  Following the election defeat, then Labour leader Neil Kinnock began to lay the foundations for Blair’s neoliberal project; rolling back the powers of ordinary party members and expelling members held to be too left wing.  It was disappointing, but of no surprise, that the official Labour policy toward the Poll Tax was that people would have to pay it and wait for a Labour government to reform it.

Opposition groups both outside and within Labour were not so easily defeated.  Even in 1986 informal organisers of what would later become the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation had taken to the streets of their local communities to distribute leaflets and pamphlets explaining what the Poll Tax was and how it would affect ordinary people.  This movement was to gather pace as the legislation went through Parliament so that by 1989 there were hundreds of local Anti-Poll Tax Unions across the UK.

Crucial among the mistakes made by the Thatcher government in introducing the tax was a failure to alleviate the impact on large households in which young adults still lived with their parents – something that was increasingly common as a result of Thatcher’s economic policies.  With each adult liable for the new tax, and with no allowance for low incomes, households faced massive increases.  The narrative Thatcher had tried to popularise – of the lone pensioner no longer having to pay for the services provided to the large family – was quickly overtaken by the image of the Lord in his castle paying the same tax as the poor family in their council house.

Perhaps an even greater error was that Thatcher applied the tax to students; making them liable to a local tax for the first time.  Coming on the back of proposals to replace grants with student loans, this amounted to a major assault upon the children of the affluent classes.  In any case, large middle class families were no happier about the increase in their local taxes than were their working class counterparts.

Nevertheless, a popular movement that united a large mass of the British population in their opposition to the government was already growing long before thousands of protestors took to the streets of Glasgow on 31 March 1989.  Moreover, even within government circles there was growing concern that the policy would backfire.  As David Allen Green at the Financial Times remembers:

“Some said it sounded good in theory, but it would not work well in practice. A few said it would be a disaster.

“But those in favour of it pressed on. The proponents of the community charge even switched the policy from one that would be phased in over five to 10 years to one being introduced in one go…

“So convinced were they of the righteousness of the policy, that opposition was disregarded. A small team of true believers forced it through without wider consultation…

“But, other than the zealots, few of those involved actually supported the new policy. Most were dismissive if not horrified.  Evidence from the time shows that experts in local government finances were uniformly opposed, as were commentators from the serious press. This made no difference.”

By the time the Poll Tax was introduced in Scotland, people were organised to challenge it.  Despite making failing to register for the tax a criminal offense, as an editorial in the Guardian recalls, thousands simply refused:

“The link between the community charge and the vote had a dramatic effect on a generation which anyway felt voting had changed nothing. The electoral register in Scotland fell more than 27,000 in 1988, bucking the previous trend of year-on-year rises. The following year, it fell a further 34,000.

“The electoral roll in England fell almost 85,000 in 1989, having risen more than 200,000 annually for much of the preceding decade. The English electorate peaked at 36.5 million in 1988, a year before the poll tax was introduced, and did not reach that figure again until 1994, one year after the tax was scrapped. It is thought that more than a million people in Britain failed to register to vote during the poll tax era.”

This did not bode well for the other legal sanction introduced to fine and jail those who refused to pay the tax itself.  Not only had the Scottish Anti-Poll Tax Unions organised a non-payment campaign, they had also developed a tactic for the rapid deployment of bodies to prevent bailiff’s evicting or seizing the property of those who had not paid.

This spelled trouble for the introduction of the Poll Tax in England and Wales set for 1 April 1990.  As Nick Higham at the BBC discovered in government papers from the period:

“The government had expected opposition to a measure specifically targeted at high-spending, mainly Labour-controlled, councils. What they hadn’t expected was the reaction from their own supporters, as the April 1990 date for its introduction in England and Wales drew near.

“In September the previous year her environment secretary, Chris Patten noted ‘a good deal of pressure developing’ and Nigel Lawson, who was to resign as chancellor the following month, told Mrs Thatcher: ‘We are faced with a potentially difficult Parliamentary situation.’

“By January, Patten was telling her there could be as many as 83 rebel MPs on the Tory benches.”

Much of the “pressure” that was developing was due to people in England and Wales taking their lead from actions in Scotland.  One key lesson that was learned at this time was that the movement’s leaders could not be determined in advance.  Various groups on the left – whose activities had undoubtedly kick-started the movement – had attempted to install their own people as leaders; but this did not sit well with an organic community-based movement that began to produce leaders of its own.  The strength in this is precisely that all concerned have to look one another in the eye after the movement comes to an end… there can be no walking away from friends and neighbours.

The Glasgow march had been peaceful.  The march in London a year later proved not to be; not least because the Metropolitan Police – very likely at the behest of the government – arrived tooled up and ready to start trouble

The now ubiquitous smart phone had not been invented in 1990.  But a growing number of people had begun to use camcorders to make personal films on videotape.  This meant that for the first time people on the march could make their own record of what happened on the day.  Moreover, when Channel Four later patched together a timeline from different snippets of video footage, they were able to present a picture of police provocation and violence very different to the official media version of events. 

Not that police violence was anything new in 1990.  The treatment of minorities that provoked widespread rioting in 1981 paved the way for the violence unleashed against the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984/85 strike. Almost every saturday Britain’s football fans were treated to police behaviour different only in its smaller scale to the violence meted out to the Poll Tax demonstrators; culminating in the reckless creation of the crowd crush that killed 96 fans at the FA cup semi-final in Hillsborough, Sheffield the previous year.  What was different in March 1990 was that the Anti-Poll Tax campaign had attracted a much broader following than the small left wing activist base that Thatcher had expected.  To give a personal anecdote, at one point on the London march I found myself alongside a group marching under the banner “Finchley Conservatives against the Poll Tax” (Finchley was Thatcher’s own constituency).  People who had never been on a demonstration in their lives; many of whom had voted Tory in 1987 now found themselves on the wrong end of a police horse charge and resolved never to forget it.

The march was not, however, the culmination of the movement.  It had been intended as a unifying event as well as a means of demonstrating the strength of feeling against the Poll Tax in the country.  That Thatcher chose to ignore it was political suicide.  As the Guardian editorial explains:

“According to figures compiled by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa), non-payment of poll tax in its first year in England and Wales represented 12.8 per cent of the amount billed; in the second year, non-payment rose to 21 per cent, or more than a fifth. And it was a problem to the end. Reluctance to pay grew even stronger. In the tax’s final year, 1992-93, councils had to send a reminder to an astounding 88 per cent of those billed.

“As many as 28 per cent were issued summonses, 22 per cent received liability orders and 9 per cent had the bailiffs sent round. Even then, many still did not pay. The most recent Cipfa figures are for the year 1996-97 and are almost certainly understatements. They show that, at March 1997, £550 million in poll tax was still outstanding in England and Wales. In addition, however, councils had accepted that a huge further amount would never be collected. English and Welsh councils alone had by then written off as bad debt a total of more than £3 billion.”

It was this mass willingness to risk fines and jail time – which saw (among many others) a sitting MP jailed for refusing to pay – that ultimately scuppered both the tax and the increasingly despised prime minister who had so zealously imposed it.  Councils struggled to maintain services because of the fall in revenue, and openly blamed this state of affairs on Thatcher.  At the same time as thousands of ordinary people were hauled before the magistrates courts for non-payment (both by protest and by dint of a lack of income) so the polls recorded a haemorrhaging of voters away from the Tory Party.  Pressures grew from Tory MPs who looked increasingly likely to lose their seats if things didn’t change.

In 1989 Thatcher’s leadership had already been challenged as a result of her approach to the European elections.  However, a far more serious challenge came from former minister Michael Heseltine – a strongly outspoken critic of the Poll Tax – in November 1990.  Despite winning the first round of the leadership vote, Thatcher was too badly damaged to carry on.  Loyal ministers – including her successor John Major – told her that she had to go if she did not want to see Heseltine take over as leader.  On 22 November 1990 Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister and Tory leader.

Thatcher’s political demise was not, however, the only unforeseen consequence of her imposition of the Poll Tax.  Two of today’s political institutions – the Scottish and Welsh Governments established by a referendum in 1997 – gained huge support as a result of the unfair manner in which Scotland had been treated as a testing ground.  During the referendum campaigns – just seven years after the Poll Tax was defeated – the need to defend the people of Scotland and Wales from a future Tory government became an important reason for voting in favour of devolution.

The craven manner in which the Labour leadership under Kinnock had abandoned ordinary people also boosted the fortunes of a Scottish National Party that was increasingly outflanking Labour from the political left – a situation that developed in opposition to Blair’s adoption of neoliberalism and culminated with the huge loss of Labour seats to the SNP in the 2015 general election.  It is now highly unlikely that Labour will be able to form a government for the foreseeable future without working in coalition with the SNP.

Today’s marches and petitions against Brexit – along with last year’s clown show of a demonstration against Trump’s visit and, indeed, the recent climate change demonstrations – have a superficial resemblance to the Poll Tax movement; but they contain none of its substance.  There is no popular movement against Brexit that unites ordinary working (and these days not working so much) people with the members of the affluent classes in the university towns that so object to leaving the EU.  There is no plan for a mass movement using civil disobedience to bring Brexit to an end.  Indeed, by far the biggest failing of anti-Brexit campaigners is their failure even to open a dialogue with leave voters in Britain’s run-down ex-industrial regions to develop a shared vision of how those communities’ needs might be met while remaining in the EU.  This is why the prospect of a second referendum is unwelcome to some on the left who understand the very real risk that another vote will deliver the same result.

It fell to a handful of academics to spell out what should have been obvious; that Cameron and Osborne’s austerity policies were responsible for their expulsion from government when their victims voted to leave the EU.

Unlike the USA and much of Europe, where leftist parties remain wedded to neoliberalism, Corbyn’s Labour Party offers a potential alternative to the wave of right wing populism that won the Brexit vote and is currently in the ascendancy throughout the developed regions of the world.  But while Labour has attracted a large membership, it is far less clear that its activists have begun to make inroads in Britain’s neglected ex-industrial regions.  Indeed, having vociferously berated them as xenophobes and morons during the Brexit process, pro-remain activists are likely to struggle to win them back.  The alternative, however, is that they continue to be seduced by an increasingly unpleasant UKIP that is emboldened by the inept Tory party’s failure to deliver Brexit.

Unfortunately, too many on the left today have chosen to oppose populist demagogues like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán for their populism rather than their demagoguery; forgetting that the opposite of populism is elitism.  The big failure of the remain movement was not so much that it promoted “project fear” than that it was “project technocracy” – the warnings were lost behind the discredited politicians and bureaucrats who delivered it.  The people had – in the immortalised words of Michael Gove – “had enough of experts” who had routinely failed to deliver on their promises.

There is a mass movement for change to be had in the UK.  Dig beneath the veneer of a Brexit process that is exercising the political class and there is a deep desire for systemic change among a large part of the population.  The same was true in the mid-1980s when many ordinary people felt deflated and dejected by a series of defeats inflicted by the Thatcher government.  The Poll Tax provided the unifying point around which a broad coalition could be built.  Brexit chaos or another 2008-type economic crisis may yet provide the same point of unification – particularly when Britain’s ex-industrial communities feel the full effects of Brexit in their pockets.  But the left would be mistaken in thinking that the demonstrations in Glasgow and London were all that it took to see off Thatcher and her hated tax.  Defeating the Poll Tax required the painstaking process of building an active movement from the grass roots.  It required the mundane pavement slogging by activists prepared to spend their evenings and weekends delivering leaflets, knocking on doors and engaging in dialogue with the people they needed to win over; most of whom were entirely new to protest and political activism.  In short, the anti-Poll Tax campaign was populism in action.  Forgetting that lesson was what gave us Brexit; failing to learn from it will ensure that the political right will continue to win the day.

As you made it to the end…

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