Chapter 1: A Hated Tax

The Poll Tax was a flat rate tax. It was not based on ability to pay. Everyone over eighteen was liable. Rich and poor paid the same. The millionaire paid the same as the toilet attendant. The lawyer paid the same as the shop assistant. The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her multi-millionaire husband paid the same as their gardener.

The tax, officially called the Community Charge, was dubbed the Poll Tax because of its similarity to a tax introduced in 1381. That tax was so disliked it provoked the peasants' revolt. The government tried to counter this analogy, but the name stuck.

The effects of the Poll Tax were devastating. Many people had to pay bills which were two or three times higher than before. This was because the costs of administration were twice as high and because dramatic reductions in the tax bills of the wealthy were paid for by ordinary people. Examples like this one reported in The Guardian newspaper made people furious:

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The Duke of Westminster, who used to pay £10,255 in rates on his estate has just learned his new poll tax: £417. His house-keeper and resident chauffeur face precisely the same bill.

Even though the Poll Tax was heavily subsidised in the first year (to cushion the government against political dissent during the period of implementation), it was still too much for millions of ordinary people to pay.
With a confidence which came from three general election victories, the government openly defended policies which widened the gap between rich and poor. They argued that if there were no differentials between people, there would be nothing for people at the bottom of the ladder to aspire to. This perspective was reflected in their analysis of the Poll Tax:

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Why should a duke pay more than a dustman? It is only because we have been subjected to socialist ideas for the last 50 years that people think this is fair.

Nicholas Ridley, Environment Secretary, 1/4/88.

This 'socialist idea' which Ridley referred to was the welfare state. A system which while imperfect was nevertheless based on the fundamental principle that everyone should have basic human rights to good health care, educational opportunities, decent housing, and a reasonable standard of living. In the past the Tories had paid lip-service to these rights to keep the lid on dissent. But by 1979, they felt confident enough to abandon such concessions, believing that as long as the majority of people were better off they would continue to vote Tory. Given this, it didn't matter if conditions for the bottom third of the population degenerated. The Poll Tax, an overt and undisguisable redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, symbolised this major change in Tory thinking.

It was invented by the radical Right think-tank, 'The Adam Smith Institute', which was ironic because Adam Smith had explicitly rejected the idea over 200 years ago:

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A Poll Tax on free men is either altogether arbitrary or altogether unequal, and in most cases is both the one and the other.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1880.

The only other country in the world which had a Poll Tax — Papua New Guinea — was in the process of abolishing it. Despite warnings that the Poll Tax would be a political and administrative disaster from virtually every professional institute, and even members of the cabinet, the government pressed on with a timetable which would see the tax introduced in Scotland by April 1989, and in England and Wales a year later. They mounted a massive propaganda campaign, asserting that it would make local government more accountable, and that the taxation system would be more efficient and fairer!

Thatcher argued that everyone should pay something towards local government because it was only if people's own money was being spent that they would care enough to vote against high-spending Labour councils. But virtually everyone already had a stake in local services because most of those who didn't pay rates directly, were either married women, who in practice paid rates as part of a household (even if their husbands actually paid the bill), or were the poorest members of the community who needed council services and who therefore had a strong interest in ensuring that money was not wasted.

In any case, this argument about accountability was hypocritical because the Poll Tax capping procedure meant that the government could limit the amount local authorities could raise through local taxation if, in their view, councils were spending too much. So the local electorate could vote for taxes to come down and services to be cut, but they couldn't vote for taxes to go up and services to be expanded. It was not 'coincidental' that all of the councils capped in the first year were Labour controlled. Not only did the legislation restrict the rights of democratically elected councillors to follow the mandate they were elected on but, for the first time, the government appointed un-elected officers of the council (Community Charge Registration Officers) with powers to override decisions made by elected councillors. They also introduced a register (of people liable to pay the tax) which raised many questions about civil liberties:

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The public register would need extensive support files. Behind the register there will have to be a second file recording the notes, anecdotes and suspicions the Authority has about individuals.

Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants quoted in NCCL Civil Liberty briefing, No.7, January 1988.

The register was to be a mechanism of social control. It required people to register their whereabouts every time they moved. Many feared that this was a prelude to national identity cards. Serious concern was also expressed about the use of the electoral register to compile the lists for the Poll Tax register. It was clear from the start that huge numbers of people would not be able to pay and, in order to avoid being tracked down, would not register to vote. Since those who were least able to pay were most likely to vote Labour (if they voted at all), it was in the Tories' interest to disenfranchise them. An article in The Guardian later confirmed people's worst fears:

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More than one million voters have disappeared from the electoral register since the Poll Tax was conceived... The number of teenagers registering in advance of their 18th birthday fell last year by 11%. The analysis by the Office of Population Census and Surveys will strengthen the belief that people have deliberately not placed themselves on the electoral register in the hope of escaping liability for the Poll Tax.

The Guardian, 19/6/91.

Despite all this, the main argument against the Poll Tax was that it was blatantly unfair. It was like Robin Hood in reverse: stealing from the poor to give to the rich. In the words of a Bristolian interviewed outside the Poll Tax courts:

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They ask for all this money, and at the end of the day, they don't want us taking no more big pay rises or nothing like that, yet yesterday all the top people they got nice big pay rises and they can afford to pay it anyway. So at the end of the day we're left with no money. They're just trying to rob us blind. If we did anything like that, went out and robbed someone, you'd be straight in court wouldn't you... It ain't fair.

Terry Francis, 1/2/91.

The government argued that because everyone used services everyone should pay for them. Of course they deliberately ignored the fact that many local council services (such as subsidised housing and social services) are needed precisely because people have no money. The argument that everyone should pay the same might of course have some validity if everyone was paid the same — a perspective unlikely to be adopted in a capitalist society. In any case, the Tories' argument was undermined by the fact that they applied it so selectively:

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If this is such a good principle how come it isn't being applied to Northern Ireland? Any volunteers for tracking down non-payers? And if the principle that people should pay for the services they consume, irrespective of their ability to pay, is right, then how come it hasn't been applied to income tax as well? I offer this as a free gift for the next Conservative Party manifesto. Add up the revenue from income tax and divide it by the number of people on the electoral register and charge it at a flat rate to reflect the undoubted fact that we all get similar benefit from spending on defence, roads, education, etc. Then light the blue touch paper and withdraw.

Victor Keegan, The Guardian Economic Notebook, 26/3/90.

Their principled arguments in tatters, the government began to suggest that the burden of taxation was really on income tax payers:

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The Community Charge is related to people's ability to pay, as about half of local government spending is paid for by central government from tax payers' money, and to this sum the higher tax payers have contributed proportionately more. Just over a quarter comes from business ratepayers. It is only the domestic ratepayers' share which is going to be met from the Community Charge.

Jonathan Sayeed, Conservative MP, Bristol East, standard letter to constituents, 1989.

But, in suggesting that income tax was progressive, they failed to mention that since 1989 they had massively reduced the top rate of income tax from 87% to 40%. They also tried to cover up the effects of the Poll Tax by suggesting (through a multi-million pound advertising campaign) that it was accompanied by a comprehensive rebate scheme. Yet a single person could earn as little as £75 a week after tax (around £4,000 a year) and still not get a rebate. If she lived in parts of London, where the Poll Tax was as much as £500, she could be expected to pay as much as an eighth of her income on local taxation - a huge amount for someone who earns only £75.

In 1991, the average manual worker received only £242 per week before tax; many got far less (the average part-time female manual worker, for example, earned only £64.40 for an 18.5 hour week) before tax. Couples with children often only had one income and probably a high rent or mortgage to pay out of this, yet both partners had to pay the tax. This poverty trap applied to large numbers of people. In fact, repeated surveys indicated that more than 70% of the population would be worse off under the Poll Tax. Campaign groups and advice centres were inundated with tragic stories about the plight which ordinary people faced:

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We are a single income couple who have been refused rebate as we are a few pounds over the limit. This is causing severe hardship. We have two children under five and it is food we are cutting back on. It will mean doing without heating in the winter.

Church Action on Poverty, Survey, 1990.

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Tower Hamlets resident Abdul Khalid is married with five children. He earns £90 a week as a cook. He pays £37 a week in rent and £10 a week for school meals. Tower Hamlets has a liability order against him and his wife — their combined Poll Tax bill £594, but with court and bailiff costs the council is seeking £836.

LGIU, Poll Tax focus, No.16, February, 1991.

With a few minor exceptions, such as the 'severely mentally impaired', members of religious communities and the homeless sleeping rough, there were no exemptions. Even those on income support receiving only £30 week (and those under 25 who had recently had their income support cut to £26 a week) still had to pay 20%. Many people pleaded to the government for help. One 83-year old pensioner from Milton Keynes, who with her husband faced an increase from £422 to £797 wrote to her MP to point out that her Poll Tax took fourteen weeks of her entire pension. She asked for suggestions as to how she should live during those weeks. Her letter was ignored (Church Action on Poverty, 1990).

Some sections of the community were particularly vulnerable. Tenants in private rented accommodation were effectively being asked to pay their local taxes twice. In the past, the rates had been charged as part of their rent payment to landlords, who then took out the relevant amount and paid it to the council. After the introduction of the Poll Tax, when landlords no longer had to pay this money, very few landlords agreed to put the rent down, and tenants had no legal right to enforce a reduction. It was estimated that by January 1990 Scottish landlords had made about £40 million by capitalising on this. In England and Wales, it was expected that they would make over £100 million (The Observer, 2/8/90).

As Mike Reardon of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities pointed out, 'Asking people with tenancies to confront landlords about rent reductions is asking them to get themselves thrown out of their homes.' (23/1/90). This is the story of a couple in Norfolk:

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My wife and I are tenants who paid £260 in rates last year as part of our rent. There has been no reduction since April 1990. The house owner is keeping the extra amount as a rent increase. The Poll Tax, therefore, increases our bills by £682 per year. We have a tenancy agreement that is, by law, terminated and renegotiated every six months. If we disagree with the owner about the rent we could be evicted very easily. We cannot afford to buy a house and there is no possibility of us obtaining a council house.

Church Action on Poverty, 1990.

People from ethnic communities, many of whom lived in large extended families, were hit particularly hard. They often had grown-up children living at home in cramped conditions. Whereas before they had to pay one bill for the household, now they had to pay for every individual.

Student nurses were also badly hit. At the 1990 Annual Conference of the Royal College of Nurses, Virginia Bottomley, the Health Minister, had to face a barrage of anger from members of a traditionally moderate union:

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Would you explain why the majority of student nurses have to pay 100% of Poll Tax but trainees in the Armed forces on salaries of up to £9,500 pay only 20%?' Maybe the difference is that you epitomise a government which cares more about the people it employs to kill other people.

Stories like this flooded both the national and local media. One minute the focus was on the nurses, next on the disabled, then on the pensioners. For many the Poll Tax was the last straw. The cushioning from the welfare state had been substantially eroded; education was being reduced to vocational training in ageing schools; the health service was falling apart; there was a chronic shortage of housing and unemployment had rocketed. The cumulative effect of these changes had made conditions intolerable. A 1991 report on poverty highlighted the degree of inequity which had resulted from ten years of Thatcherism:

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More people are living in relative poverty in the United Kingdom than in any other European Community country. One in five of all EC residents defined by the Commission as poor lives in the UK, says the report which examines spending figures for each member state. Measured by family group the findings are even more stark. Almost one in four of all EC households defined as poor is in the UK. The report... also suggests that the UK's record has worsened dramatically while the EC as a whole has kept the growth of poverty at bay.

Report from second European Poverty Programme, The Guardian, 8/4/91.

Living standards for ordinary people had plummeted. For some it was quite literally the end of the road:

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A pensioner barricaded himself into his flat in Bedford and burned himself to death after scrawling on a bedroom wall the words 'barbaric Thatcherism killed me.' He died at the Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire, and the inquest at Aylesbury heard that Mr. Joe Newman, aged 66, a former Polish prisoner of war, had walked around Bedford town centre carrying a placard proclaiming 'I survived Stalin and Hitler, but I will not survive the way Thatcher treats pensioners.'

The Guardian, 17/3/90.

Thatcher's victories in the 1980s were notable for two things: their careful planning (during the 1985 miners' strike, for example, coal had been stockpiled for over a year before the set piece confrontation) and the way that she picked off her targets one by one (enlisting the support of the rest of the population to legitimise what she was doing). As a result, she was able to tame the trade union movement, decimate local government and abolish the GLC, one by one. The official parliamentary opposition, after ritual denunciation of every new Thatcher attack, meekly accepted everything she implemented. But, in her third term of office she began to show less restraint. With the Poll Tax she took on the whole population.

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The government has declared war on the people.

Anthony Marlow, Conservative MP for Northampton, March 1990.

This was her biggest mistake.