Poll tax reminiscences
Maciej Zurowski finds that SPEW just cannot seem to get the actual Labour Party out of its head
“Thatcher thought that Neil Kinnock and his followers in the Labour Party were a piece of piss,” reminisced a veteran of the Militant Tendency, “but she was not prepared for the strength of Militant’s organisation and the power of ordinary people.” His brief contribution summed up the gist of Robin Clapp’s preceding talk, ‘How we beat the Tories last time around’.
Clapp, who is now SPEW’s South West secretary, had been a tireless anti-poll tax activist back in the 1980s - Militant’s finest hour and, according to SPEW’s founding myth, during the historic period when the Labour Party turned its back on the working class and morphed into an openly pro-capitalist formation.
The weathered comrade had many a story to tell: from non-payment campaigns through to public bill-burning ceremonies and direct action that successfully demoralised and intimidated bailiffs, the defensive anti-poll tax actions of the Militant Tendency commanded our respect as spotless examples of working class solidarity and organisation in struggle.
Not only the shameful role of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party leadership was exposed to us: so were the Socialist Workers Party’s transparently sectarian endeavours at the time. These included ultra-left posturing - while Militant was helping those who refused to pay the poll tax, including in the courts, the SWP declared that socialists should stay away from such “capitalist institutions”. The veteran comrade also referred to Tony Cliff’s infamous scab speech at a meeting in Scotland, where he claimed that “not paying the poll tax is like getting on a bus without paying the fare - all that will happen is you’ll get thrown off”.
Militant’s role in the anti-poll tax struggles certainly represents something like the glory days of the organisation that now calls itself the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Clapp presented Militant’s approach of times past as offering an exemplary strategy for the forthcoming anti-cuts war.
Alas, he did not elaborate in detail how refusing to comply with poll tax demands could serve as a model for a movement against the relentless destruction of jobs, services and benefits. Back then, the Thatcher government was faced with hundreds of thousands of court cases against non-payers, which in practice rendered the poll tax unenforceable. But what is to be done now that the Con-Dem government can enforce cuts as it pleases? Comrade Clapp’s vague assurance that a “movement that knows where it’s going can have a large effect in blocking the attacks of the ruling class” left questions unanswered.
So did the format of the session, which allowed for many lengthy contributions from audience members - most of which were very personal reminiscences from the 1980s - before comrade Clapp replied to those points that he did not choose to bypass. “What tactics will you adopt now that you are no longer operating in the Labour Party?” enquired CPGB supporter Claire Fisher.
Short of answering the question, Clapp and fellow SPEW members reacted with further denunciations of the Labour Party after its presumed historic turning point. The comrades spoke as if it had only just dawned on them that Labour was “led by reactionaries, and the worst reactionaries at that” - Lenin’s words, not Clapp’s.
Yet despite all the bitterness former Militant members must feel, despite the humiliations in 1980s Liverpool, despite Neil Kinnock’s witch-hunts and expulsions, despite New Labour and all the calls for a new old Labour ... somehow SPEW just cannot seem to get the actual Labour Party out of its head completely.
“We won’t rely on the Labour Party in these campaigns,” declared a SPEW comrade, reminding us that the party’s interests are “tied up with the state”. However, “individual Labour members are welcome to our campaigns” and, sure enough, “there will be a schizophrenia in the Labour Party: members will attend anti-cuts meetings, but when the cuts become more tangible, some of them will peel off”.
Fair enough, comrade, but what do we do with those who do not peel off? Do we approach them with a vision that reaches beyond minimum economic demands? Or are we content to tell future generations of wage slaves ‘how we stopped the Tories last time’?
Despite the unsatisfactory responses, we left the meeting energised and feeling there was a lot of work to do.