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How a fightback can stop the cuts

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How the Tories were defeated last time around

The poll tax

Militant: Scrap the Poll Tax, photo Dave Sinclair

Militant: Scrap the Poll Tax, photo Dave Sinclair   (Click to enlarge)

It is not an accident that the most militant trade union leaders in Britain today, such as Bob Crow (general secretary of the RMT transport workers' union), are calling for the "biggest movement since the poll tax" to defeat the cuts.

Against the deadening defeatism of the majority of union leaders, the poll tax struggle stands as a beacon that shows decisive victories are achievable.

Few thought it was possible to defeat the poll tax, just as few imagine that the cuts can be stopped today.

Our forerunner, the Militant, was virtually alone in saying that the poll tax would not only be defeated but would lead to the downfall of Thatcher.

Thatcher, Tory prime minister 1979-90, is still remembered with hatred by millions of working-class people because of the misery she and her government inflicted.

Her government was far from invincible - it could have been defeated repeatedly were it not for the cowardice and passivity of the majority of the national trade union leaders.

The heroic year-long miners' strike (1984-85) could have defeated the government if, as we demanded, the TUC had called solidarity action in their support.

Nonetheless, Thatcher's government was a far stronger enemy than today's weak Con-Dem coalition, yet she was eventually thrown out by a mighty uprising of the working class.

Trying to hide the truth, most capitalist commentators suggest that it was the Tories' divisions on Europe which led to Thatcher's downfall.

This was not true.

Thatcher was defeated on the issue of the poll tax, photo Militant

Thatcher was defeated on the issue of the poll tax, photo Militant

On this issue, Thatcher herself had no doubt: "The eventual abandonment of the charge [poll tax] represented one of the greatest victories for these people [the organisers of the anti-poll tax demonstrations on 31 March 1990] ever conceded by a Conservative government." (The Downing Street Years, p661)

The Community Charge as it was officially known, or the poll tax as it will always be remembered, replaced the rates (and was replaced by the council tax).

Instead of the level of taxation being based on the value of the property, every adult had to pay a flat rate amount, which was the same regardless of income.

So, as the Tory minister responsible for implementing the tax put it, a duke living in a mansion would pay the same as a dustman living in a council flat.

The tax was introduced in Scotland in 1989 and a year later in England and Wales. By the end of 1990 the Tories had to agree to scrap it. Scotland was the test bed for the anti-poll tax campaign. In the run up to the tax's introduction a huge groundswell of resistance led to multitude of local anti-poll tax organisations coming into existence.

At the start, the meetings of the different campaigns were small. But, as the bills dropped onto the mat and the reality of the tax hit home, the numbers attending mushroomed virtually overnight.

The local campaigns were not created by the official bodies of the labour movement, but by ordinary workers and tenants on the housing estates.

Militant, however, played a central role. As early as April 1988 a one-day conference was organised in Scotland which agreed to concentrate on building a mass movement against the poll tax.

Inevitably, in their early stages, the local campaigns were disparate without any central co-ordination.

Then, at our initiative, in the West of Scotland, 96 community organisations and anti-poll tax campaigns were brought together to found the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation under the slogan 'can't pay - won't pay'.

Anti-Poll Tax demonstration March 1990

Anti-Poll Tax demonstration March 1990   (Click to enlarge)

Later the same idea was repeated across Britain. There were 2,000 delegates at the conference which founded the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation in November 1989.

The massive demonstrations organised by the Anti-Poll Tax Federations in Scotland and London on 31 March 1990 undoubtedly played a role in the struggle.

The London demonstration has gone down in history as 'the poll tax riot'. Responsibility for this lies entirely with the government and police who brutally attacked an overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration - at that time, the biggest single demonstration ever to take place in Britain.

Impressive as the demos were, the tactic of mass non-payment was the key to defeating the tax. The local unions played a vital role in organising non-payment. Local anti-poll tax unions constantly updated local communities on the level of non-payment and on non-payers' legal rights to help inform and encourage existing non-payers and give others the confidence to become non-payers.

All members of the local anti-poll tax union were encouraged to display a poster in their window. This was a visual demonstration of the strength of the movement and also acted to warn off officials who came to try and collect the tax - they soon learned to think twice when they saw that the non-payer was part of the mighty anti-poll tax army!

In Scotland, where the sheriffs' officers (equivalent to bailiffs in England and Wales) had the right to remove and sell goods from non-payers' homes, mass protests prevented this taking place.

Often, sheriffs' officers would then return home to find a mass protest outside their own home. Across Britain, when non-payers were sent to the local magistrates courts, the anti-poll tax federation organised mass turnouts to contest the court orders.

The result was that the courts became completely blocked up and unable to function.

This mighty mass movement, organised via the anti-poll tax unions, forced Thatcher, who had declared she would never do a u-turn on the tax, out of office.

Thatcher's key mistake was attempting to take on the whole of the working class at once, instead of attacking one section at a time, as had been the case up until then.

The cuts that are coming will also affect the whole of the working class. If the government's programme was carried through it would lead to a far greater increase in poverty and all it brings - increased levels of unemployment, homelessness, illness, crime and more - than the poll tax did.

The potential for a movement that dwarves even the anti-poll tax movement exists.

Liverpool - a city that dared to fight

Socialist-led Liverpool city council's struggle in 1983-87 led to mass demonstrations and thousands of new council houses built, photo Dave Sinclair

Socialist-led Liverpool city council's struggle in 1983-87 led to mass demonstrations and thousands of new council houses built, photo Dave Sinclair   (Click to enlarge)

While it was the anti-poll tax movement which is most remembered by the labour movement - not least for claiming the scalp of Thatcher - it is not the only serious defeat that was inflicted on Thatcher's government by the working class.

Essential preparation for the poll tax was the struggle of Liverpool city council - in which Militant also played the decisive part.

It again showed the power of the working class once it is mobilised in defence of its interests. In 1983 a left Labour council was elected in Liverpool. Militant supporters, then the Marxist wing of the Labour Party, played a leading role. From 1983-87 Liverpool city council fought against Tory government cuts. For having the temerity to stand up to Thatcher we were vilified by the leadership of the Labour Party.

Yet, if every Labour council in the country had taken the same stand - or even the 20 which initially agreed to fight - not only would the Tory government have had to abandon its cuts packages, it would have been swept from office.

Even though Liverpool city council was isolated alongside Lambeth council, under attack from all sides, it was able to secure a major victory.

Liverpool city council's struggle in 1983-87 for more funding from the Thatcher government was an inspriation to workers, photo Dave Sinclair

Liverpool city council's struggle in 1983-87 for more funding from the Thatcher government was an inspriation to workers, photo Dave Sinclair   (Click to enlarge)

In 1984 it won a '95% victory' when it extracted an extra £30 million in funding from the government.

This was not just a battle of the council but a struggle that engulfed the entire city with demonstrations of 50,000 and more and city-wide public-sector general strikes.

Millions of workers across the country supported the movement. The results of the Liverpool battle still stand in bricks and mortar. Some of the main achievements of the council were:

  • Housing: Fourteen inner-city and two other housing estates, with a population of over 40,000, were completely transformed. Five thousand council houses were built, all with front and back gardens and their own private entrance, 4,400 council houses and flats and 4,115 private-sector homes were renovated.
  • Education: Five hundred extra education staff were employed, six new nurseries opened and four colleges were built.
  • Leisure: Six new sports centres were constructed. Sports facilities were free for the unemployed, disabled people, those in receipt of a pension and school leavers.
  • Jobs: The council took on an extra 800 workers and 16,489 jobs were created by the house building programme.
The campaign built by Liverpool city council in 1983-87 to win extra funding inspired thousands of workers, photo Militant

The campaign built by Liverpool city council in 1983-87 to win extra funding inspired thousands of workers, photo Militant   (Click to enlarge)

This victory was won against the background of an all-out assault on local authorities. Thatcher's Tory government, like the coalition government today, was determined to weaken the power of democratically elected councils (most of them Labour) and force them to carry out vicious cuts in council spending.

Using the device of the block grant system, which penalised local authorities which exceeded the government's prescribed spending limits, the government succeeded in slashing local authority expenditure.

The percentage of local expenditure financed by central government fell drastically from 61% in 1979-80 to 48% in 1985-86.

That 13% shortfall had to be funded by local councils if services were to be maintained. In Liverpool it was estimated that up to £34 million had been lost this way.

However, such was the Tories' ruthless determination to drive down local expenditure, they introduced a policy of rate-capping, with savage penalties for those councils which exceeded the limitations imposed by central government.

The current government's pledge to freeze council tax is likely to be used in the same way. However, unlike some other Labour councils, Liverpool did not stand on a programme of hiking up the rates.

Throughout the struggle Liverpool never increased the rates more than slightly above the rate of inflation.

Instead Liverpool set a 'needs budget' - a budget that would enable the council to implement the programme on which it was elected and that would begin to meet the dire social needs of the population.

In order to fund it, the council demanded that the government paid back the £30 million that had been stolen.

Because it ran a serious campaign which mobilised the workforce and the broader population in support of its programme, of all the Labour councils only Liverpool was able to extract extra money from the government to implement its programme.

Unfortunately, there are still those on the left who refuse to recognise Liverpool's victory for what it was.

Outrageously, the Socialist Worker newspaper's headline in response to victory in 1984 was 'sold down the Mersey'.

However, you only had to read the fury in the capitalist press to understand how much Liverpool city council had won.

"Two unlovely black eyes", declared the Daily Mail, when it condemned the Tory environment secretary Patrick Jenkin's retreat over additional funding for Liverpool city council in 1984.

The Daily Mail wrote: "The Trotskyites and others of the hard left who run Liverpool have had the best of the fight with him in their threat to defy the law on that city's overspending."

Liverpool City Councillors hold press conference at House of Lords 26 Jan 1987, photo Dave Sinclair

Liverpool City Councillors hold press conference at House of Lords 26 Jan 1987, photo Dave Sinclair

"A cowardly deal", was the headline of the Daily Express which went on: "Patrick Jenkin seems to have bought himself some peace from the Militant-led Liverpool city council. This is a shoddy and cowardly deal... Mr Jenkin has shown that defiance pays."

In contrast to the outrage expressed by the media were the scenes of exultation that greeted the councillors when they reported the outcome of the negotiations with Jenkin to a 600-strong meeting of the Liverpool District Labour Party.

Today, some have raised that Labour councillors need to be involved in the anti-cuts campaigns. We want the broadest possible campaign of those who are opposed to cuts, not just in words but in deeds.

Where this includes Labour councillors we welcome their involvement. If any council was prepared to take the 'Liverpool road' and set a needs budget we would mobilise the biggest possible movement in their support.

This has always been our approach. During the Liverpool battle we were prepared to carry out a major compromise on the tactics of the struggle (by agreeing to set 'no rate') in order to create a united front with other Labour councils led by such 'fighters' as David Blunkett, Ken Livingstone and Margaret Hodge.

In the event, despite our united approach, they left the field of battle one after the other. Unfortunately today the chances of a Labour council being prepared to talk a good fight, never mind conduct one seem extremely remote.

So far there is no Labour council that has sided with the population and opposed the cuts. On the contrary, the axe-men in the government have handed out little axes to Labour councillors and they are willingly wielding them.

Coventry's Labour council is typical, except that there was one Socialist Party councillor, Dave Nellist, who was the lone voice against the cuts.

Citing its 'legal obligation' the council responded to the Tory/Lib Dem government's demand for £3.7 million worth of cuts by proposing cuts of £4.5 million.

This was the start of a gigantic £146 million in cutbacks due over the next four years. Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors all voted for the cuts package. To give another example, in Waltham Forest, the Labour council put forward £37 million worth of cuts over the next 2.5 years.

Cynically, the Liberal Democrats and Tories voted against the cuts, leaving Labour to force the cuts through.

The contrast with the heroic stance of Liverpool city council could not be greater.

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