The poll-tax riots and the exhaustion of the left

Long-read

The poll-tax riots and the exhaustion of the left

The protests of the 1990s hold no answers for today’s cost-of-living crisis.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Long-reads Politics UK

These days British politics often resembles one of those historical re-enactment societies, where oddball enthusiasts dress up and restage pretend versions of historic battles. It seems as if, uncertain about the present and frightened of the future, commentators and campaigners are always seeking refuge in the past, trying to compare current events to earlier political conflicts.

Just last month we were being assured that three one-day rail strikes heralded a return to the huge industrial conflicts of the 1970s. Now we are being told that public bitterness about the cost-of-living crisis and skyrocketing energy prices could recreate the poll-tax protests – and even the poll-tax riots – of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As one Times pundit has it, unless something is done about energy bills, ‘there is the potential for a poll-tax moment and even social unrest’. A veteran Guardian columnist warns of ‘dark’ times to come; with ‘public anger looking for an outlet’, the ‘first signs of the kind of disobedience movement that greeted the poll tax in 1990 are emerging’.

One such sign is said to be the growing Don’t Pay UK campaign, which wants consumers to cancel their direct debits to energy companies unless prices are cut. It claims a direct link to the mass poll-tax non-payment campaign which, legend has it, brought down Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher and forced her successor, John Major, to immediately ditch the hated tax.

‘Mass non-payment is not a new idea’, says Don’t Pay UK, ‘it happened in the UK in the late 1980s and 1990s, when more than 17million people refused to pay the poll tax – helping bring down the government and reversing its harshest measures’.

Like most attempts at historical re-enactment, these easy comparisons miss some big differences between then and now – as well as some real similarities.

To begin with, we might note the difference in the problems being targeted. The poll-tax non-payment campaign was a narrow and largely moderate affair aimed at a specific iniquitous measure, officially called the community charge. Thatcher’s government brought in the community charge to replace the traditional rates as a means of financing local government. That meant a shift from taxing property to taxing people, which was widely seen as unfair. As we old leftist propagandists were fond of declaring at the time, a duke and a dustman would be expected to pay the same charge for the privilege of breathing British air. The community charge was quickly dubbed the poll tax – a reference to historical rebellions against punitive taxation, such as the Peasants’ Revolt led by Wat Tyler in 1381.

Today’s energy-price crisis is also affecting and angering people from many walks of life, with the poor inevitably being hit the hardest. But targeting one unfair tax seems a very different matter from trying to find a simplistic solution to the complexities and vagaries of the global energy-supply system, caught up as they are with international politics and war.

(As an aside, there arguably are some practical things that campaigners could demand the government does to improve energy supplies and cut costs to consumers – such as, shelve its obsession with Net Zero carbon emissions, slash expensive subsidies to inefficient ‘green’ energy suppliers, build more power stations and open up domestic shale gas. But most green-influenced modern campaigners won’t touch such non-conformist ideas.)

More importantly, in political terms, the anti-poll-tax movement being conjured up from the mists of time today owes rather more to myth than history. In reality, those protests and mass non-payment campaigns of 30-odd years ago did not succeed.

Anti-poll-tax protesters in Trafalgar Square, 31 March 1990.
Anti-poll-tax protesters in Trafalgar Square, 31 March 1990.

The poll tax was unpopular across social classes, and the protests enjoyed widespread support. Yet they were ignored by Thatcher’s government, which pressed on with its plans for the community charge regardless.

Poll-tax riots even broke out during protests in British towns and cities in early 1990. On 6 March, for instance, a 5,000-strong demonstration in Bristol led to clashes with the police, and the next day a protest in Hackney turned violent, leading to the arrest of 56. The protests culminated in a major riot around London’s Trafalgar Square on 31 March, which left 113 injured and led to 340 arrests. These outbreaks of disorder were sure signs of the frustration felt at the failure to stop the poll tax. The notorious London riot took place at a mass protest just before the poll tax was due to be introduced. The community charge came in anyway.

What finally ended the poll tax was the fall of prime minister Thatcher, eight months later, at the end of November 1990. Like other prime ministers since her, Thatcher was not brought down by mass protests, but by political divisions within the Tory Party, notably over the EU. As one left-liberal think-tank study concedes, ‘The poll tax was scrapped not because of the non-payment campaign and the riots in Trafalgar Square, but because of splits within the Conservative Party’.

Thatcher was replaced as Tory prime minister by John Major. Contrary to left-wing legend, he did not dump the poll tax immediately upon entering Downing Street. Instead, Major, in 1991, quietly announced plans to replace the community charge with the council-tax system that exists today. By that time, the mass anti-poll-tax movement had disappeared, along with the organised left that started it. The ineffectual Major even went on to defeat Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party and win the 1992 General Election, with the largest number of votes ever cast for any UK political party.

Today, both sides seem like pale imitations of the combatants in the poll-tax wars. This Tory government is a far cry from the hardline Thatcher regime that defeated the trade-union movement and faced down the poll-tax protesters. Despite having won a big majority under Boris Johnson in 2019, it has implemented virtually no policies that might be recognised as archetypally Conservative.

Amid the current energy-price crisis, both candidates for the Conservative leadership give the impression that they would entertain almost any ineffective panic measure to try to get the public onside, from windfall taxes on energy companies to bigger bill subsidies for consumers. Nor is there really any principled political divide between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Rather than a proper 1980s-style party machine with competing political wings, the Tories today look more like a shapeless, quivering blancmange.

If the predicted social unrest does ever break out, those involved would also be facing a far different police force from the battle-hardened paramilitary army of 1990. Today’s woke police are ‘Orwellian’ in the sense of the thoughtpolice rather than the jackboot. They’re more at home with arresting people for tweets than confronting criminals or rioters in the streets.

That might be expected to give encouragement to protesters. But today’s campaigns bear equally little resemblance to the anti-poll-tax movement of the past.

That was really the last gasp of the organised radical left. Left groups such as the Militant Tendency, which had been expelled from the Labour Party, were instrumental in organising the non-payment campaigns against the poll tax. For them it was a desperate attempt at revenge for Thatcher’s defeat of the Miners’ Strike and the Militant-led Liverpool council in the 1980s. When Thatcher fell and the poll tax followed, the old militants took an undeserved bow and effectively disappeared off the political stage.

Today, there are no organised opposition movements in British politics. Instead, as the obsession with their dull leadership bunfight illustrates, political life appears to be all about the Tories. This does bring us to one genuine comparison with the poll-tax crisis that tends to be ignored in all the talk. The Labour Party was useless and irrelevant then – and it is even more so now.

Labour leader Neil Kinnock at the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool, October 1985.
Labour leader Neil Kinnock at the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool, October 1985.

Kinnock’s Labour leadership refused to back the anti-poll-tax protests and non-payment campaign. When the end of the campaign erupted in the poll-tax riots of 1990, Labour joined Tory ministers and police chiefs in unequivocally condemning the protesters (as, too, did the Militant Tendency).

Despite the relative strength of the anti-poll-tax campaign compared to anything on offer today, the Labour Party could not really connect with or lead the feeling of public anger even back then. After the London poll-tax riots of 1990, the Labour loyalist New Statesman magazine was brutally honest about the gap between Kinnock’s party and the protesters: ‘Labour is no longer the party of the working class… Not even Tony Benn [then still seen as the great hope of the Labour left] can speak to the young working people who ran amok last Saturday.’

If old Labour had lost its roots in the working class in 1990, how much truer is that of Labour in 2022, when Tony Benn probably seems as politically relevant to most people as Wat Tyler? Labour under Sir Keir Starmer is now the party of the metropolitan Remainer middle classes, whose leader orders its MPs not to join nasty picket lines, while its left-wing rump sneers at working-class Brexit voters as allegedly vulgar racists and bigots.

Despite all of its huffing and puffing in parliament, the Labour Party has had nothing meaningful to say about the energy crisis and rising public anger. So pointless have Starmer and Co proved to be that Labour even had to exhume the political corpse of former prime minister Gordon Brown to make headlines this week, by demanding an emergency budget.

With the Tory Party in disarray, Labour impotent and the left non-existent, many people find themselves politically homeless today. The new political solutions we need to the current crisis may not be easy to find. But it might be a necessary start to acknowledge that things really ain’t what they used to be.

Whatever the best way to face the uncertainty and challenges of the present may prove to be, we can be certain that it will not be found in the past. The first step is surely to face up to the world as it is, rather than as some might wish it to be.

The old left used to be fond of quoting the Marxist maxim that ‘The revolution comes like a thief in the night’ – unexpectedly, without warning. Of course we are not facing any prospect of revolution today. But it remains the case that new forms of political protest – such as the Brexit vote, the biggest working-class revolt in modern British history – tend to take the political establishment by surprise, and do not follow any historical script. If there is to be a serious political uprising about the energy-price crisis – and there is little sign of one as yet – it will not be a simple re-run of the past.

Many people will be facing a personal crisis over how to cope with their fuel bills, particularly once winter bites. Many may be genuinely unable to pay. But those trying to dress up that desperation as a coherent political protest will not be doing anybody any favours. Meanwhile, those seeking refuge from the unpredictable present in the safe certainties of a historical re-enactment pageant are unlikely to provide any energetic solutions for the future.

Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. He is the author of Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and What they’re Afraid of, is published by William Collins.

Pictures by Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Long-reads Politics UK

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