Sunday, 24 March 2013

Lessons From The Anti-Poll Tax Movement

I was involved in the anti-poll tax struggle and what I’ve learnt from it is that if the conditions are right events can really escalate into something big. There is always a lengthy lull before the storm when it appears nothing is going on. You seem to be banging your head against a brick wall of apathy. You get slightly despondent. I think this is the period we are going through now. Then suddenly everything comes together and a mass movement arises seemingly out of the blue. This is what happened with the student revolt of winter 2010, the Arab Spring and the international Occupy movement of 2011. Of course underneath the seemingly spontaneous uprisings are committed activists that do the boring stuff-do stalls, drop leaflets, organise meetings, etc. The important thing is to be open minded and imaginative, not full back on dogma (including anarchist dogma). Always keep it local and grassroots orientated, avoid as far as possible heavy involvement by Labour MP’s or councillors or union big wigs, but keep a loose dialogue open with such people. But it is also important to link up with other grassroots groups on a federated fashion to create a unified campaign. Above all be flexible and open to surprises. The big mistake the Socialist Workers Party made with the Poll Tax was to put all their eggs in the union basket by rejecting the non-payment campaign and relying purely on the council workers to refuse to implement the tax. Their rivals Militant (The Socialist Party) won out tactically by basing their campaign on the working class community itself where Militant had connections, especially in Scotland and the North of England.

There are big difference though with then and now. Then it was only one heinous tax we had to deal with but now the working class are under attack from all fronts and it’s global. We are seeing an escalation of neo-liberalism, a re-structuring of society (which of course began with Thatcher.) We are dealing with the dismantling of the Welfare State, the privatisation of the NHS (something even Thatcher did not dare to attack) and the privatisation of the public sector using the deficit as an excuse, including the police and the fire service. And that’s only for starters when you bring ecological devastation and climate change into the equation. With hindsight it was easy to defeat the Poll Tax; if you have enough people who are not paying the tax then it becomes unworkable. Also as everybody had to pay the tax it also affected the lower middle classes and became an electoral liability. This is not so for the Bedroom Tax for instance.

The need for open-mindedness, flexibility, imagination, a linked but grassroots orientation, radical democracy and an experimental politics is even more important now then in 1989-90. This is because we are going to see (and are seeing) major but unpredictable and fragmented revolts breaking out everywhere in workplaces and the community all connected by the degradation of people and planet caused by neo-liberalism. Not one of these struggles will be more important then the other and almost over night many people will become activists without even realising it. Self-conscious activists of all strips have to be involved in debating, offering alternatives and organising in the community and workplace but at the same time not seeing themselves as special or a vanguard with all the answers. Distrust all conventional politicians or ‘experts’ but keep an open dialogue with them based on the strength of our solidarity.

It’s going be a very long and difficult struggle, Comrades, but we have to start somewhere and that somewhere is in the here and now, in your local community and workplace. We have a world to win!

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