The Anti Poll Tax Campaign

The Anti Poll Tax Campaign in Grimsby and Cleethorpes.

The Grimsby and Cleethorpes Anti Poll Tax Union (APTU) was formed in 1988 by local Militant members. To the credit of the leadership of the Tendency, they saw early the importance of this issue and the potential that existed for a nation-wide campaign of non-payment. I remember the issue first being discussed locally at an internal meeting, perhaps a District Committee meeting, in late 1987.

Our rather attractive membership card was designed by our then Militant Full Timer John Rathbone. Dave Mitchell, still an active member of the Socialist Party in the area today, was I believe our first Chair, though I was soon to take over this position myself.

It was always very much a Militant led campaign in our area, partly because, no other organised Left grouping really existed, although an old New Communist Party member called Tom Ingham was on our original steering committee. The lack of other active Trotskyist organisations was I think one of the few advantages of living in an area that was always something of a political backwater. Certainly, in some parts of the country, the existence of the then still sizable Socialist Worker’s Party proved more of a hindrance than a help in getting the campaign off the ground. They originally opposed non-payment in favour of a campaign that would have been limited to an appeal to Trade Union members responsible for implementing and collecting the tax to refuse to do so, although once the scale of the non-payment campaign became apparent the SWP of course soon changed this position.

As for our local APTU, Gary Morgan, a Militant comrade in Cleethorpes, was, I think, our secretary throughout. The Mcewans’ (Full Timer Ian and his wife Pat) were involved in the early days, but at some stage moved to Hull. Hull Militant Full timer Alistair Tice (known as Ticky, who is also still active in the Socialist Party) would occasionally cross the Humber Bridge in order to help out. Other relatively longstanding Militant Comrades around at the time included Nick Walker and Alan and Alana Hornby.  Michael Anderson, my best friend then and now was also active in Militant and the APTU in the early part of the campaign. Apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone who was active in Militant at the time. Our turn-over of membership was always high (which wasn’t unusual), and others left the area in order to work for Militant elsewhere. For instance, the person who can justly lay claim to being the founder of Militant south of the Humber was Mike Forster, although he was originally one of those many Comrades who originally joined the Tendency at Sussex University. But he had I think moved on to Barnsley well before the campaign against the Poll Tax began. But I’m quite willing to admit that my chronological memory of who was around when is a little unreliable, as is my recollection of the precise order of events. The amount of alcohol I consumed regularly in this period certainly doesn’t help in this regard.

 A lot of people where drawn into political activity for the first time through the struggle itself. Some of these, like Gareth Hallberg and Richard Farr became Militant supporters for a time. Others didn’t. A notable example of the latter is Heather Jones, a special needs teacher from Stoke then working in Grimsby who became a good friend, and was one of the leaders of the campaign without ever joining the Tendency. Her politics, if anything, tended towards a form of Anarchism, as did those of her housemate and one time partner, also from Stoke, John Hewitt.

This was a genuinely mass campaign, so of course there were very many other people who were involved in greater or smaller ways, and whose names I have long since forgotten.

Obviously the Tax was first implemented in Scotland, so one of our earliest actions was to travel down to Glasgow to support a huge demonstration there. We travelled to it in a mini bus driven by Ian Mcewan, who was originally from that city and whose ancestral accent would noticeably strengthen the moment he crossed the border from England to Scotland. Glasgow is a very long way from Grimsby in a rickety old mini-bus, and the journey seemed endless. Tommy Sheridan spoke brilliantly, as he always did in those days. Back then, he was still young and his reputation was still untainted. My first recollection of hearing him speak was when he made the financial appeal at one of the big Albert Hall Militant National Rallies in the mid-eighties.

We travelled up to Scotland on at least two occasions during the campaign. The dates are lost to me, though I’m sure others will remember them, or at least have bothered to do their research.

Many public meetings were held in Grimsby, Cleethorpes and the surrounding area. This was the one time during my nine and a half years with Militant that we found ourselves at the head of a genuinely popular mass movement of ordinary working class people.

There were so many public meetings in fact that it was often necessary to divide our resources, given that we were a relatively small branch who still had other political responsibilities. One very strong memory I retain is of me and Richard Farr, a relatively new, young and inexperienced comrade who would also become a good friend until we finally lost touch around a decade and a half ago, traveling to the village of Ulceby for a meeting. I chaired and Richard spoke. Ulceby is a relatively small place, and was hardly a hotbed of political ferment, even in comparison to Grimsby; and yet forty to fifty people came out to hear two unknown people who had never and never would hold political office, speak. Richard and I lingered a little too long in a nice little pub by the train station after the meeting, resulting in our missing the last train back to Grimsby and having to hitch-hike home. Eventually, when it seemed like we would have to walk the whole nineteen miles or so, we were picked up by a kindly Jehovah’s Witness who spent the journey trying to save our reluctant Marxist-Atheist souls.

At another meeting, this time in Grimsby, I chaired whilst Gareth Hallberg addressed the audience in an overly flamboyant hat. I can’t remember why, it was just the sort of thing that Gareth, whom I had met after commencing an ‘A’ Level in History as a mature student at Grimsby College, did. The solidly working class attendees seemed to take his youthful idiosyncrasy in their stride.     

Interest in the campaign was such that we even in some cases reached the level of holding small neighborhood meetings in people’s houses. I recall one in particular at Heather Jones house in Armstrong Street on the West Marsh where she dealt expertly with a local racist who was trying to latch onto the campaign. He said something along the lines of ‘What about these f…ing n..g.rs, I bet they don’t have to pay the b.st.rd.’ Heather pointed out that he was of curse talking nonsense, that the whole point about the Poll Tax was that everybody had to pay it, and that as this was her house she had a right to ask him to leave if he couldn’t or wouldn’t curb his racist language. The ‘gentleman’ rather shamefacedly apologised and skulked away…Of course, with a mass movement, you can’t really legislate for who joins it and who doesn’t, but aside from isolated incidents like this we never had any problem with individuals or organisations seeking to use it for their own reactionary ends.

We held a protest on the steps of the Town Hall in Grimsby prior to the beginning of the implementation of the tax in the area, and had our photograph printed in the local Grimsby Evening Telegraph newspaper. We also held protests inside the chamber of both Grimsby and Cleethorpes councils.  The first of these was under longstanding Labour control, and I remember the council leader Alec Bovill, very much of the old Labour working class Right, telling us that ‘if there was thousands of you instead of a few dozen I’d join you.’ He was of course lying, but this was at least better than the abuse that he and his fellow Labour councilors usually greeted our presence with. On the whole, the Paternalist Tories who ran Cleethorpes were much politer and more civil towards us than the Grimsby Labour councilors, most of whom I and other comrades had long battled with on the General Management Committee of Grimsby Labour Party. By this time, most of us Militant supporters locally had been expelled or were in the process of being expelled from the Labour Party.

Another major event of the campaign was the ‘burning of the bills’ protest in Grimsby. This took place in Ainslie Street Park, not far from the town centre. It was well attended and again got our picture in the local newspaper.

I and other comrades also played the role of courtroom ‘Friends’ (sort of informal legal advisors) to people being prosecuted for non-payment. Unfortunately, my fantasy of striding around the court room making dramatic pronouncements and withering comments about the logical holes in the legal arguments of ‘my learned friends’ were not to be realised. In reality, we could do little legally except to hopefully raise a few technical points that had successfully if temporarily delayed implementation and the prosecution of non-payers in other areas.

The climax of the campaign came in the first few months of 1990 with a huge public meeting at the Mariners Rest close to the border between Grimsby and Cleethorpes, the Grimsby demonstration, and the huge, famous/infamous Trafalgar Square, London demonstration/riot of March 31st. I can’t remember the precise date of the Public Meeting, it may actually have taken place after the two demo’s. I only recall that it was the biggest I ever attended in the area, and that I again acted as Chair whilst Gary Morgan and Heather Jones spoke.

The Grimsby demo’ came about almost by accident. A local Labour councilor called Vic Smith, I think he was a councilor in Cleethorpes rather than Grimsby but I could be wrong, wrote a letter to the Evening Telegraph saying basically that he was sick and tired of people moaning about the Poll Tax, that they would sooner blame councilors like him for collecting it than do anything about it themselves (ignoring the tens of thousands locally who were already refusing to pay). He announced that on Saturday March 24th he would lead a demonstration starting at Ainslie Street Park and marching to the Town Hall in Cleethorpes. We in the Militant and APTU realised immediately that Smith, and his fellow councilors intended to do nothing at all to build for the demonstration, that his expectation was that very few would turn up, enabling him to say ‘look, that’s the problem, you all complain, but when it comes to action…etc etc.’ Making the demo a success was vital, and that was essentially down to us. I can’t remember how much time we had between Smith’s letter and the date he had set for the demo’, but it wasn’t long and a hell of a lot work went into producing leaflets and posters, getting them out there, and generally doing all we could to call Smith’s bluff and get the biggest turn out possible.

On the day, we were there early with our banners and placards and papers and so on. It was raining and for a time it looked like Smith might be proven right. The report of the demo’ I wrote for Militant soon afterwards began with the words ‘10am, rain and pessimism…’ But soon enough the clouds parted and people came. The march ended up being not only the biggest demonstration during my time as an activist in the area, but the biggest Grimsby had seen in decades. Three thousand, the police and local newspaper’s figure so probably a lot more, might not sound huge, but in the context of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, which as I’ve said was always a political backwater, it was. The numbers were such that the police diverted us from our original route to end somewhere along Cleethorpes seafront. I spoke at the climax of the march, along with Smith, who at least gave the APTU a name-check in his short speech, whilst inevitably claiming most of the credit for the demonstrations success for himself.

The following Saturday was the great Trafalgar Square demonstration, with a similar event taking place in Glasgow at the same time. I can’t remember if we took one or two coaches to London from our area, but I do recall me and Heather Jones going around the pubs in the Freeman St area of Grimsby attempting to sell the last of the available tickets the night before, with some success. Perhaps other comrades were doing the same thing in other pubs. On the day, I remember the exhilaration of being amongst such numbers, officially around 200,000 but again probably a lot more, the noise, the excitement, the anger and the humour, the placards from every part of the country. The violence was already in full swing by the time we reached the Square, so it was impossible to say how it began. The Class War Anarchists no doubt played their part. Later, their newspaper, which Militant comrades always liked to read for a laugh, printed a photograph of a punky looking girl ramming a metal pole through a police van window under the heading  ‘Buy that girl a drink….’ Yes, this might have been amusing on one level, but given the savage sentences later handed out to those involved in or accused of violence on the day, printing anybody’s photograph was stupidly irresponsible. Having said this, I and many other comrades were equally appalled when on the television the news the day after the demo’, leading Anti Poll Tax Federation member and Militant supporter Steve Nally condemned the violence unreservedly and threatened to ‘name names’ to the police. Later, he would try to deny that he said this, but as someone said at a meeting I attended later ‘some of us have video recorders, Steve.’ Condemning the violence was one thing, but openly colluding with the state by effectively threatening to hand over those involved was another, and was one of a growing number of issues that was already souring my relationship with national leadership of Militant.

As for the local comrades, our first instinct when we saw the scale of the violence was to get out of the square and back to the coaches. We had a lot of families, a lot of children with us on that day, many of whom had never attended a demonstration in their lives, apart perhaps from the peaceable local demo’ of a week before. But the police were determined that no one was to be allowed to leave. On that day, I think, kettling was invented as a tactic by the British state.

I can’t remember much of what happened after March 31st. Those two demonstrations and the Mariner’s Rest meeting proved to be the high points of not only the anti Poll Tax campaign in the area, but also of the Militant in Grimsby and Cleethorpes. I left the area in September to study full time as a mature student in Manchester, and the Poll Tax and Thatcher’s Premiership were of course soon consigned to history.

The branch I had left behind quickly shriveled and died. Part of the reason for this was no doubt the split within the organisation nationally and internationally, a split that quickly became apparent and rapidly gathered pace, culminating in the expulsion from Militant of its founder and chief theoretician Ted Grant and his supporters. The split was the result of Peter Taaffe, effectively the General Secretary of Militant, abandoning the Tendencies the long standing Entryist tactic and taking the organisation on a journey towards ‘open work’ and sectarian irrelevance as the renamed Socialist Party of England and Wales.

In Manchester, I soon dropped out of activity, partly because I was now living a different life free from the social ties and habits that had bound me to Militant in my home town. But the split also played its part. Politically, then, I was more inclined towards Taaffe’s position, seeing it as more or less inevitable given that so many comrades had already been expelled from the Labour Party. But on a personal level, I liked and respected Ted Grant much more that I did Taaffe, and was disgusted by the whispering campaign conducted against him by those who had been politically schooled by him, and who had once revered him, in some cases for a period of time spanning decades. I dropped out of political activity until joining Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party in Manchester in the mid-‘90’s. I stood for them in local elections, before growing disillusioned with King Arthur’s autocratic leadership. After that I was only sporadically politically active, before finally finding an agreeable political home in the Communist Party of Britain.

But though my politics has evolved, I will never regret my Militant days, nor my small role in the defeat of a tax that was one of the most naked acts of class warfare from above ever attempted in our country. The anti Poll Tax movement showed what can be achieved once a genuinely spontaneous outpouring of anger amongst working class people is turned into a structured mass movement by a confident and disciplined Left Wing Vanguard organisation. As we continue to live through a long period of austerity imposed upon us from above, there are many lessons the Left can learn from the struggle against the Poll Tax. I’m very much looking forward to Simon’s book. The ruling class wish us to forget our struggles, and in particular to forget our victories. Such works of Social History by those who were involved in such struggles have a vital role to play in ensuring that we never do.

Tony Green

  April 2019