FREE THE POLL TAX PRISONERS!
The anti-poll tax struggle in Britain showed that even in times of defeat, when workplace strikes are at a fifty-year low, the working class still has power to resist the attacks of the capitalists.
The class struggle is everywhere. This battle was fought at home, on the streets, in the courts and jury rooms. The main method of struggle was simply not paying the tax, which was introduced by the Conservative government in 1989-90 in order to make poor people pay more for local government. Previously, only house owners had to pay. When the government finally announced the abolition of the tax, non-payment figures continued to rise, in spite of the use of imprisonment to intimidate non-payers. The official figures show a 10% decline in the number of people who have paid any poll tax at all between June 1990 and June 1991. In Lambeth, only 22% have paid anything this year.
Though the struggle has failed to spread much beyond non-payment of one particularly onerous tax, it has created a culture of non-cooperation. This invalidated the British census data for 1991, because in many urban areas, a significant minority refused to fill in the census forms. Hundreds of thousands have dropped off the electoral register.
It has also strengthened the militant mob within the working class. By this we mean people who don't merely respond to state attacks like the poll tax, but go out of their way to look for trouble. These are the people who see the need to prioritize support for prisoners, an area where the anti-poll tax struggle has helped forge links with a crucial area of the class struggle. The Trafalgar Square riot in March 1990 inspired the Strangeways uprising, which started the following day, and turned into the longest prison rebellion in British history.
One of the main weaknesses of the miners' strike of 1984-85 was the failure of miners to support class struggle prisoners. A movement which cannot support its own POW's is doomed. We tried to set up a prisoners' aid network during the strike, and both this and an attempt to build a more liberal version failed due to lack of interest among miners and other workers.
The anti-poll tax movement has been different. The Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign (TSDC) was created immediately after the 500 arrests on 31 March 1990, and has been actively trying to support these defendants ever since. From the beginning there were, quite rightly, numerous arguments within the defendants' campaign - including everyone who was involved, not just the official campaign in London. At one of its meetings, the TSDC agreed to cooperate with the enquiry which Militant were planning to set up, in spite of the fact that Militant had appeared on TV directly after the 31 March riot saying that this enquiry would give information to the police. In the end the matter was quietly dropped. The enquiry never happened. There were various other disturbing tendencies in the TSDC prior to October 1990. They telephoned bookshops asking them to stop selling the Poll Tax Riot pamphlet, because it mentions the TSDC. There was no legal reason for their paranoia : the pamphlet could not have been used as evidence against defendants merely because it mentioned the TSDC. No prosecutor would risk such an overtly political trial. The campaign was opposed to the working class politics of the pamphlet, which demonstrates that a large crowd of hooligans were in Trafalgar Square looking for trouble before the police started it. This undermines the myth that all the violence in Trafalgar Square and the West End was caused by the police provoking a crowd of respectable protestors.
The riot was caused primarily by the desire to attack the police and capitalism in general. The rioters took advantage of tactical mistakes on the part of the police. The working class is rediscovering its history of struggle, and this means being proud of victories like Trafalgar Square. The liberals in the TSDC and their allies in the media smother this history. They isolate Trafalgar Square from the series of mini-riots which preceded it. Take for example Despite TV's documentary "Battle of Trafalgar". Instead of showing that the riot was a great victory - it was the single most important cause of Thatcher's downfall - the documentary whines about how the police spoilt a nice family outing. The attack on the South African embassy, the looting of shops, the rioting which spread for miles - this was not a crowd of peaceful protestors acting in self-defence! The liberals present the working class as victims, and working class violence as a result of desperation and police provocation. Yet they believe they are an alternative to the official media. This is what the presenter of "Battle of Trafalgar" says when questioned about working with the official bourgeois media (in Flux no 2).
"DTV wasn't part of the media establishment then and it isn't now. Although ultimately we had the IBA looking over our shoulders, there was no direct censorship or control from Channel 4. Look at what we achieved. 1.4 million people watched a programme which told them that the media were lying, the police were lying, this is the reality that 200,000 people experienced. It was a chance to claim back some of people's history, to prevent the state having the final word. If you were purist and turned that down because you didn't want to become part of the Spectacle, it would be a crime."
The TSDC's legal support work has not been as effective as it makes out. Neither have its videos. In one case, when the prosecution video and a TSDC video were shown, a supporter innocently asked which was which. A more detailed critique of the TSDC, produced by anti-poll tax activists in London and comrades from Sussex Poll Tax Resisters, can be obtained from our address.
But the campaign is more than a few film-makers trying to build their careers on the back of the class struggle. The campaign for the release of all poll tax prisoners continues, with demos, fund-raising, prison pickets, etc.. The pickets have openly called for the example of Strangeways to be imitated, communicating with prisoners across the prison walls. This struggle has been more important than any in Britain since the seventies, because it has done more than the miners' strike to question the legitimacy of the state, leading at its high points to open attacks on capitalism and the prison system on which it depends.
The Prisoners' Support Group can be contacted at Brixton Law Centre, 506 Brixton Road, London SW9, Tel. 071-738-7586. Here is a list of some of the longer-term Poll Tax prisoners. Please write to them, but contact the Prisoners' Support Group first, to check that the facts are still correct when you read this. Be careful what you write.
Richard Andrews, MW0962, HMP SEND, RIPLEY ROAD, WOKING GU23 7LJ.
Neil Bremner, MW0216, HMP COLDINGLEY, BISLEY, WOKING GU24 9EX.
Michael Dalley, PF3098, HMP WANDSWORTH, HEATHFIELD RD, LONDON SW18 3HS.
Darren Healey, RA2183, HMP WANDSWORTH.
Timothy Donaghy, MW0105, HMP BELMARSH, WESTERN WAY, LONDON SE2.
Matt Lee, MW1054, HMP FEATHERSTONE, NEW ROAD, FEATHERSTONE WV10 7PU.
Simon Russell, ND1666, HMP THE MOUNT, MOLYNEAUX AVE, BOVINGDON HP3 ONZ.
Brian Tavares, MW3239, HMP CAMP HILL, CLISSOLD RD, NEWPORT, PO30 5PB.
Keith Wray, MW1241, HMP FELTHAM, BEDFONT RD, FELTHAM, MIDDX TW13 4ND.
Robert Wray, MW1242, HMP FELTHAM.
(List correct on 8 August 1991).