Sunday, June 23, 2013

Danny Burns' 'Poll Tax Rebellion' and Community Organising Today

Danny Burns

I first read this account of the movement against the Poll Tax several years ago, and found it thrilling. But I found myself reaching for it again this spring, as I threw myself into the struggle against the bedroom tax on Merseyside. The events described are now nearly twenty-five years in the past, but they remain the last major victory achieved by the working class in Britain. So there is much to learn here, especially in terms of the kind of community activism taking place around the bedroom tax.

Burns describes the anti-Poll Tax movement as being the largest in British history, which at its peak drew in 17 million people. These got involved in a huge range of activities, from the most passive (simple non-payment), to the most aggressive (burning of wealth symbols following the battle of Trafalgar Square). Others attended meetings, attended court, confronted bailiffs and raised solidarity funds. It was a struggle in which literally everyone was directly affected, so huge numbers found their own level in the fightback.

The author was the secretary of the Avon Federation of anti-Poll Tax Unions and was involved in almost all the resistance that took place in the south west of England; he was also a non-aligned member of the All-Britain Federation. Much of the material is therefore drawn from his own personal experience, and there are many extracts from his diary. Correspondence with other activists around the country is also included, as well as photographs, newspaper cuttings, and some of the movement's own grassroots-produced literature.

Burns comes from a broadly anarchist perspective. He is full of praise for grassroots local groups "where it was ordinary people that were there. It was nobody that was going to sit at a top table with a dicky bow." He also condemns every political grouping which sought to gain power or influence via their participation in anti-Poll Tax activity. But this is no mere tribal rant; he demonstrates how a certain kind of non-hierarchical, grassroots-led action had a detrimental effect on authorities' ability to collect and enforce the tax, while the campaigns initiated by the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Kinnock Labour Party mainstream, and especially the Militant Tendency were at best an irrelevance to people organising in their communities, and at worst harmful to their efforts.

According to Burns, Militant:
"[...] would call public meetings (which were often well attended) and then, often at the same meetings, call for elections to determine who would make up the executive committee and who would be delegated to the federation. [...] Most ordinary people at those meetings didn't know each other and had little political experience, so they voted for the people who had set up the meeting. As a result, large numbers of delegates to regional and city federations were Militant supporters - often the only ones in their group, and as such extremely unrepresentative."
Eventually, the All-Britain Federation became almost entirely a creature of Militant, and:
"As a 'federation' it had no direct control over its member groups. It could pass policies and take initiatives, but it was up to the local groups whether they wanted to take part in them or not. Local groups had the power to do and say what they wanted, and the majority of groups who didn't like the way the All-Britain Federation was organised simply ignored it. Given this, the problems of the All-Britain Federation were never seen as important enough to warrant splitting the movement."
In this way, the opportunist left formed a barrier to the creation of a genuine, and representative federation. As I recently described in an article on Merseyside, similar things are happening in regards to the bedroom tax locally, and indeed in Scotland too. Still, there was a significant uniformity in the types of activity local groups undertook, and this was born out of the similar struggles faced by poorer people in each area. And what's more, the lack of a proper federation did not prevent the movement achieving its stunning success. Information and idea sharing should be even easier today, when so many have access to the internet. In practice, the Merseyside Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation is not proving to be much of organising hub over the past few weeks.

The book is long out of print, but a PDF version can be found on the libcom website.
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