THE ANTI-POLL TAX UNIONS: LESSONS IN COMMUNITY ORGANISING

By Niahl Hubbard

When activists look back to the movement that arose to challenge the introduction of the Poll Tax, they will see it as one of ordinary people taking on the establishment and coming out victorious. Whilst the rioting in Trafalgar Square and similar confrontations between police and protestors often takes centre stage in our collective memory of this period, there is the risk of overlooking the grassroots and community led resistance that fought every step of the way during the Poll Tax’s introduction – the resistance of the Anti-Poll Tax Unions.

It was only from reading Poll Tax Rebellion by Danny Burns, Secretary of the Avon Federation of Anti-Poll Tax Unions throughout the campaign, that I not only began to appreciate the important role that these local organisations played in the struggle, but also recognise the dire need for this kind of community organising in present day Britain.

Anti-Poll Tax Unions (APTUs) first began to spring up in the wake of the Poll Tax’s initial rollout in Scotland in 1989. Whilst initially formed by local activists, these APTUs soon brought in a diverse swathe of people, cutting beyond political-party lines as communities were unified behind a common material concern and sense of injustice.

the backbone of the APTUs was their regular, working-class community members


At a time when the labour-movement was advocating for merely protesting and demanding a reversal in the introduction of the tax, APTUs took the stance of advocating for non-payment and direct resistance. This was not only for strategic reasons, with many remembering the brutality shown by Thatcher’s government against the miners’ strike 5 years before, but also out of necessity, with many low-income families being unable to afford to pay the increased rates.

The actions of the APTUs included those common for any campaign group: spreading information on the issue, organising meetings and protests, with the day-to-day organisational and admin tasks being completed by a panel of elected officers within each branch. However, it was a programme of community defence that really built the strength of the APTUs. Offering moral support and practical advice on the legal procedures surrounding non-payment from those in a similar situation, the branches not only acted as organisational centres for the growing movement, but as a lifeline for the many low-income families facing the prospect of breaking the law over non-payment.

As the government and local councils increased their efforts to break the back of the non-payment campaign, the need for flexible community defence strategies became clearer. When bailiffs were employed to retrieve the fares owed by non-payers in the form of repossessing their personal belongings and assets, the APTUs were crucial in coordinating neighbourhood and street responses, with entire communities coming out in protest and preventing bailiffs from being able to enter a property.

Anti-Poll Tax campaigners in Newcastle. Credit: The Northern Echo

This combination of traditional campaigning methods and the ongoing dedication to community defence begins to illustrate the important difference between the APTUs and the established left-wing groups and sects of the time. Whilst the latter concentrated upon internal expansion and bureaucratisation, the backbone of the APTUs was their regular, working-class community members.

This difference in perspective is highlighted when comparing the role of the All-British Anti-Poll Tax Federation (largely a front of the Militant tendency) which attempted to influence the movement and shape it under a central leadership, to the decentralised structure of the APTUs and their ongoing emphasis upon addressing the everyday issues that the Poll Tax was causing. This communitarian approach not only built the grassroots power needed to make mass non-payment a success, ensuring that the Poll Tax was no longer financially feasible for councils to continue pursuing, but was also able to bridge between class-based issues and local communities on a level rarely achieved by political campaigns and movements.

Yet, what really struck me from having read Poll Tax Rebellion was how badly needed such levels of community organising are in 21st century Britain. We’ve lived through over a decade of Tory governments and the ongoing brutality of austerity measures. Political organisations choosing to follow the example set by the APTUs in challenging the capitalist establishment, whilst also providing everyday support, could start a movement able to successfully build grass roots community networks up and down streets across the entire country. With modern organisations like ACORN following a model of community-syndicalism and member defence, I feel that the insights into community organising afforded by the APTUs may still play a vital role in approaching the political and class struggles of today – and those yet to come.

Featured image via mwmblog.com


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