The Grimsby and Cleethorpes Anti Poll Tax Union, 1988-90


 March 24th 2020 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Grimsby anti Poll Tax Demonstration, which marched from Ainslie St Park to Cleethorpes Town Hall, exactly one week before the National anti Poll Tax Demo’ in London which attracted over 200,000 participants, and famously ended in one of the largest outbreaks of civil unrest/rioting that Britain has ever seen. The Telegraph’s report of our local demonstration put the number of people attending our march at 3000. I was born in Grimsby in 1962, and was politically active in the area from 1981 until leaving the town to attend Manchester Metropolitan University as a mature student in September 1990. I attended a lot of demonstrations during my period of political activity in the area, and played a part in organising a fair few of them, but the anti Poll Tax march was by far the largest local demo’ I ever took part in, just as the London demonstration a week later was, at the time, the biggest national demonstration I had ever attended..


The Grimsby and Cleethorpes Anti Poll Tax Union was formed by local Left Wing activists, mostly Militant supporters active within both Grimsby and Cleethorpes local Labour Parties, in 1988. Our membership card was designed by John Rathbone, a friend and then fellow Militant who now lives in Singapore. By the time of the demo hundreds if not thousands of these cards were in circulation. The Grimsby and Cleethorpes APTU was part of a national network of unions, united in their hatred of Margaret Thatcher’s Community Charge, to give the Tax it’s official name, as well as their determination to see it defeated.  The first Chair of our local Union was Dave Mitchell, who is still politically active in the area as a leading member of the local Socialist Party. Pressures of work however soon forced Dave to play a less active role, and I, Tony Green, took over the position of Chair.


It was in 1987 that the Thatcher government announced that the Community Charge/PollTax was to replace ‘The Rates’ as the primary means for Local Authorities to raise the money maintain local services, such as the provision of social housing, the police, the fire service, care for the disabled and the elderly and so on. The main difference between the two was that the rates, in a similar way t the modern day Council Tax, was based on property prices. In other words, the bigger your property the higher the amount you as an individual or a family were expected to pay towards local services. Businesses also were required to pay towards the provision of services, at a level roughly equal to their size and vale. The Community Charge however took no account of where people lived or what their level of income was. It was a flat tax, everybody was expected to pay the same amount, be they on an income of £10,000 or £100,000 per annum. Although the government used the argument that the better off should not pay more than the less well off because the former did not use any more services than the latter, in fact in many cases they used less because they were better able, for instance, to support their own housing and care needs, the vast majority of people it as blatantly unfair, a regressive tax that effectively took money away from the poorer sections of society in order to benefit those who had already benefited hugely under the Thatcher government through massive Income Tax reductions for higher earners. This is why there was massive opposition to the new tax from the moment it was first proposed.


The Poll Tax was first to be trialled for a year in Scotland before being rolled out to the rest of the country. It was here therefore that the potential for mass opposition first manifested itself. The Scottish Anti Poll Tax Federation, under the leadership of Tommy Sheridan had already held mass demonstrations in cities like Glasgow before the campaign in England and Wales properly began.


The Labour Party as a whole were naturally opposed to the Poll Tax from the beginning. However, big differences existed as regards to the form that their opposition should take. Just as he had done during the Miners Strike of 1984/5 and over the ‘rate capping’ of local authorities (an earlier attempt by Thatcher to force local councils to cut or privatise local services through limiting their ability to raise money locally) Labour Leader Neil Kinnock insisted that any actions against the tax must remain ‘within the law’, and its replacement must await the election of a Labour government. Those of us well to the Left of Kinnock argued that the poorer sections of society could not afford to wait for an election that wasn’t due to take place until 1992.


From the beginning, the Anti Poll Tax Unions’, including our own in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, advocated a ‘Mass Campaign of None-Payment of the tax; and it was this idea, that ordinary people could defeat the Poll Tax, and through that the government, that reflected the public mood and caught the public imagination in a manner that few campaigns have before or since.


  By March 1990, almost everybody except for Thatcher and her most hardcore supporters realised that the tax had been a huge tactical error which could well lead to the fall of the Tory government. So called ‘Wets’ within the Tory Party, led by Michael Heseltine who would soon challenge Thatcher for the Leadership of the Tory Party, were looking for a way of retreating on the issue without being seen to lose face. Already, demonstrations had taken place throughout the country, in small towns and villages as well as in large cities. Millions of bills remained unpaid and the Court system had a huge backlog of outstanding cases none payers. It was estimated that it could take years to process the amount of people who were refusing to pay the tax through the system, and even then with no guarantee that the money owed would be retrieved. For most people the idea of a little old lady in Tunbridge Wells or Appleby Frodingham being sent to prison for refusing to pay a tax either on principle or because they simply couldn’t afford it, was appalling.            


Locally, our Anti Poll Tax Union had already organised successful actions such as the ‘Burning of the Bills’ in Ainslie St Park, during which dozens, perhaps hundreds of people turned up to burn their Community Charge bills in a brazier we had acquired for the occasion, had organised meetings throughout the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area, some at central venues like the local libraries, some smaller meetings in people’s houses. The campaign drew a large number of people into political activity for the first time, meetings in outlying areas which were unused to political meetings. Particularly memorable for me was a public meeting we held in Ulceby, where around fifty people turned up and me and another local APTU member had to Hitchhike back to Grimsby after lingering too long in a nice little pub by Ulceby train station after the meeting. We also acted as ‘friends’ (unofficial legal advisors) to local people who had already been taken to court for none-payment, and staged protests when the local councils in Cleethorpes and Grimsby met to set their respective local levels of Community Charge. In common with Kinnock, the attitude of the local Labour Council, then led by Alec Bovill, was that Labour led local authorities had no option but to enforce the law by setting a Poll Tax level and doing their best to ensure its collection. We also of course raised a lot of money on the street locally to support the campaign both in our own area and nationally.


Although it was to be the Grimsby and Cleethorpes APTU which was to put in the work necessary to ensure that the March 24th Demo’ was a success, the idea for it didn’t actually originate with us. Almost certainly the idea that we would hold our own local demonstration would have been discussed at local meetings. But at this time we were busy helping to build for the National Demonstration on March 31st by selling tickets for the two coaches we hoped to fill and take down to London. But our hand was prematurely forced by a letter in the Evening Telegraph by Cleethorpes Labour Councillor Vic Smith in late February.


In this letter, Smith said something along the lines of ‘everybody moans about the poll tax, but is anyone prepared to do anything about it?’ He went on to unilaterally announce that he would lead a march from Grimsby to Cleethorpes Town Hall at 11.30am on Saturday 24th March.


I know next to nothing about Vic, other than in relation to this demo’ and that he was a Cleethorpes Labour councillor. I don’t know what became of him after the demo, or even if he is still around, so it doesn’t seem right to question his motivation for writing this letter thirty years after the event. But certainly, at the time, those of us who were active in the mass none-payment campaign, felt that his remarks had ignored the fact that some of us had been campaigning against the tax for over two years, and had already mobilised a considerable amount of support through our work. We also felt that his expectation in writing the letter was that it would be quickly forgotten, that only a tiny amount of people would turn out to follow him on the day, and he would then be in a position to say ‘look, you criticise us Labour councillors for collecting this Tory tax, but when I offer you the chance to really show your opposition to it, you stay at home.’


Again, perhaps I’m totally wrong in suggesting this negative motivation for Smith’s letter, but this is how it appeared to us at the time, and it did soon become clear that Smith intended to do nothing to help make the demonstration a success, and in fact had not even consulted the local police about his intention to lead a demonstration, or to negotiate with them the precise nature of the route, both legal necessities if any demonstration was to take place.


We in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes APTU therefore realised that we no choice but to take on the leading role in organising the demonstration, doing our best to make sure that it was a success. It was here that the networks of contacts and supporters developed, and the money raised in over two years of hard campaigning, came into its own. Thousands of leaflets and posters were produced, and we found people were only too willing to take them, distribute and display them. It was also our members who liaised with the local police as regards the starting point, changed from Grimsby Town Hall to Ainslie St, and the route of the march. Our work in building towards the local demo’ went in tandem with the work of ensuring two full coaches to take to London the following week.             


For a short while, things didn’t look good on the 24th. After the event I would write a short report for Militant newspaper that began with the words ‘11am, rain and pessimism...’ Indeed, a mere half hour before the march was due to begin, it was indeed rainy, overcast, and only a few of us had gathered in the park with our banners and leaflets and newspapers. Anyone who has ever put a lot of work into organising a political meeting or demonstration will be familiar with that sinking feeling when it appears that nobody but the organisers is going to turn up.


I can’t even remember at what point Vic Smith arrived, but arrive he did, along with the sun, and along with first dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of local people. Whatever Vic Smith’s original intention in calling the march, I’m sure he later looked back with pride at being the leader (albeit nominally, in my opinion) of the biggest political demonstration Grimsby had seen in decades.


Any political activist will tell you that the police and the press routinely under-play the numbers turning out for such events. I’m happy enough to admit that activists like myself generally inflate the numbers. My rule of thumb is to split the difference:  So, if I say that I believe around 5000 people turned out to march that March day, and the police say 3000, then 4000 would probably be a fair estimate. That might not sound a lot to people in London, or in my adopted home city of Liverpool, or in my former adopted city of Manchester. But for Grimsby it really was huge, dwarfing any previous political even I had attended in the town. Even a May Day march, I forget which year, which was led by the legendary Bolsover M.P. Dennis Skinner, failed to attract anything like such a figure.


But it wasn’t just the numbers, or the sunshine, or my own pride in having played a part in organising it, that made that day so special. It was also, and perhaps most of all, the fact that so many people were motivated enough to attend such an event for the first (and in some cases, perhaps only) time in their lives. It really was a family atmosphere, with mothers pushing their children in prams and push chairs as they chanted ‘No Poll Tax’; ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’; ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, OUT!’ besides Militant sellers and Trade Unionists marching besides these banners.


The police were great that day too. I don’t remember a single hint of trouble or hostility between them and any of the marchers. In fact, I hardly recall their presence at all, and isn’t that the best of policing, when you don’t even notice they are there?


There was just one point, when I was taking my turn leading the chanting with our trusty megaphone from the side of the march, when a rumour went around we were to be diverted, to end our march somewhere on Cleethorpes beach rather than the Town Hall. I immediately struck up the chant of ‘we’re going to the Hall!’ with seemingly the whole of the demonstration joining with me good naturedly demanding that the original route be stuck too. Either the police then decided that discretion was the better part of valour and abandoned their plans, or perhaps more likely the rumour of a diversion was just that, a rumour with no substance at all behind it. In any case, we ended up where we were supposed to end up.


I can’t remember too much about the end of the demonstration. Vic Smith spoke through a PA system that presumably he had organised to be there, and he did, to his credit, thank the members of Grimsby and Cleethorpes APTU for our hard work in putting out leaflets for the demo’. We didn’t get a go on his PA, though I, and perhaps other members of the APTU did address the masses through our megaphone, the sound perhaps reaching the first few dozen of them.


And then it was over, me and a few of my closest comrades in the pub, the Nottingham Inn I think, for a start, with our banners and papers folded, sinking a pint, happy that we had done our bit, against the Poll Tax, against the Tories, and to ensure that Grimsby and Cleethorpes would have its own small place in the history of this particular struggle.


A week later, we were in London, with a very different atmosphere, a very different police force, and a very different ending to proceedings. That of course is a different story, one that will be told many times from many different angles as this thirtieth anniversary approaches. Commentators will tell how that day played a key role in leading to the fall of Thatcher a mere six months later, and the subsequent abandonment of the Community Charge.


Indeed it did. But so did those many other demonstrations and other actions, and by the millions of ordinary people who loudly said ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’, outside of London and the big metropolitan centres, including in Grimsby and Cleethorpes. We fought and earned our little place in history too.