Budget Crisis and the Poll Tax

People carrying Militant plackards surrounded by police

Some of the anti-poll tax demonstrators, who numbered up to 250,000, make their way towards Trafalgar Square from Kennington Park, south London, on 31 March 1990.

The Community Charge, commonly known as the Poll Tax, was introduced in England in 1990, having been trialled for the previous year in Scotland. It was a fixed rate of local tax, charged per adult to fund local authorities, replacing the previous domestic rates charged per property. There was widespread opposition to this way of taxing, with protests, riots and people refusing to register and pay it. Ultimately this tax led to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, and it was soon abolished once John Major took over, although the implementation of the replacement Council Tax wasn’t until April 1993.

The Left administration in Manchester found itself caught in a difficult position. Refusing to implement the new tax and set a level for it would simply end up with the Council being forced to do so by the Secretary of State. Yet local Labour Party supporters were actively campaigning against the Poll Tax, with slogans such as “Don’t Collect! Don’t Pay!” The trade unions and councillors were concerned if they didn’t collect the Poll Tax, the budget would be massively short, meaning job losses and cuts to services for Manchester people. Either way the people who were worst off would suffer. Meanwhile some chief officers were not co-operating with the councillors in trying to identify how the organisation could be restructured and cuts made without entailing forced redundancies.
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Implement or Oppose?
Even after all the horrendous, year-on-year budget cuts from 1980-1987, and the effect of rate-capping in 1988, the Thatcher Government’s introduction of the Poll Tax (or Community Charge, to give its official name) presented councillors with an even bigger budget crisis.

The issue that was expected to make the crisis worse in Manchester than elsewhere, was the loss of business rates. The government’s proposal was that non-domestic (ie business) rates would be held centrally by government and re-distributed to local councils on the basis of their populations. As Manchester had a relatively small population (for a regional capital), but a very big income from local businesses, we stood to lose millions of pounds.

Within the Party there were debates about different approaches to take. Some argued that the councillors should set a deficit budget and be prepared to go to jail. Others argued that the Council would have no choice but to set a balanced budget, but that it should make sure that the blame for cutting services was laid squarely at the feet of the Tory government.

The former view was the initial position taken by the City Party when the following resolution was agreed in July 1988.

“This party calls for a determined campaign to stop the Poll Tax. We view Labour’s local election successes as providing a mandate for an effective fight to defend [against] this severe attack on working class living standards, local authority jobs and services, and basic democratic rights. This campaign is aimed at mobilising mass support for the City Council in refusing to implement the Poll Tax. We therefore call for:

  1. A commitment from the Labour Group to adopt a policy of total non-co-operation with the government over the poll tax and to refuse to organise collection of the tax in 1990.
  2. An immediate campaign of explanation to be co-ordinated by the City Party, including press releases, leaflets and posters, meetings of council workers addressed by councillors, and a major series of public meetings organised by local branches in every area of the City.
  3. A special conference to be convened by the City Party at the end of October. This should be open to delegates from Labour parties, the Labour Group, trade union bodies, tenants and community organisations across the city.
  4. The Labour Group and City Party to contact other Labour Groups and District parties in England, Wales and Scotland, to press for a co-ordinated fight based on principles outlined in this resolution and the restoration of the rate Support Grant to at least the 1979 level.”

But this put the councillors in an impossible position and in September, the Labour Group Officers pointed out that if the Party’s resolution was passed in Council, the council officers would have the legal responsibility to inform the Secretary of State, who would then apply to the courts for a ‘writ of mandamus’ (forcing compliance or disqualification).

So it was agreed that there would need to be further discussion at the November City Party meeting about the way forward. Marilyn Taylor (as Chair of the City Party) wrote, and sent out to members, an information leaflet explaining the implications of the July resolution together with information about the new financial regulations on the ‘ring-fencing’ of the Housing Revenue Account (HRA). Graham Stringer produced a detailed statement explaining why the Council would have no option but to implement the Poll Tax. His statement explained that the Secretary of State had the power to instruct council officers to compile a register and collect the tax, and that councillors would be surcharged and disqualified if they failed to comply. He also pointed out that if people failed to register, the penalties would be severe, but that if the Council were in control of the system, it could ensure that people were not penalised because of language barriers, benefits advice could be included with payment demands, and debt recovery systems would take individual circumstances into account.

“If the Secretary of State authorises the registration and collection of the Poll Tax, poor people will be the hardest hit. As with the old rates system – hard-line debt recovery policies, bailiffs, central collection aimed at those with bank accounts – directly discriminate against the poor, [and] these will be supported by speedy resort to penalties, fines and imprisonment. An anti-poverty approach with decentralised collection, pay-as-you-go arrangements, sensitive debt-recovery policies and benefit maximisation would mitigate the effect on the poor… If a Poll Tax collection system is forced on the council at a late stage, opportunities will be missed to design a system which takes into account the needs of low-income poll tax payers – eg convenient payment locations [to avoid transport costs]; instalment arrangements; policy initiatives to maximise rebates and take-up campaigns to maximise the numbers claiming rebates.”

Despite this, the ‘Manchester against Poll Tax’ campaign (Militant-led) issued a statement attacking Graham Stringer and the Council for adopting this position.

At the November City Party meeting, there was a full debate as planned. Five out of the eight motions submitted for debate called for maintenance of the oppositional stance and non-compliance, with just three of them recommending implementation of the legislation. These three were from Blackley CLP, Wythenshawe CLP, and the GMB[1] – all Party units traditionally loyal to Graham Stringer – and they were all carried. The Wythenshawe motion (below) was carried by 58 votes to 44 and the five ‘oppositional’ motions were all lost by between 10 and 20 votes.

“This CLP believes that a policy of non-co-operation with the government over the Poll Tax and the consequences of such a policy would not be in the best interests of the citizens of Manchester and calls on the City Party to rescind its previous policy. We also call for the maximum support for all other activities and campaigns against the Poll Tax up to the return of a Labour Government and the urgent abolition of the Poll Tax upon that government taking power.”

However, resolving at the City Party to co-operate with the government on the Poll Tax was more easily said than done. The implementation of this decision was anything but straightforward and necessitated massive levels of budget cuts.

How to Set a Budget With so Many Unknowns?
The government was in a mess about how the Poll Tax was going to be introduced and none of the financial details were known at the time councils had to start planning their revenue budgets. The Secretary of State, Nicholas Ridley, was considering a number of options for determining the grant-related expenditure for local government for 1990/91 and was not expected to announce which one he had chosen until December. The difference between the option that was most favourable for Manchester and the least favourable was £60 million, which translated into £180 per person in Poll Tax terms. So for the pessimists expecting the least favourable option, the prospect was terrible.

The most optimistic assessment of the outcome, and making an assumption that 5% of the population wouldn’t be registered and 5% of the tax wouldn’t be collected (which turned out to be very over-optimistic), was that the level of tax per head would be £515.

A Parliamentary debate had implied that Manchester’s poll tax would be £400 per head, because the figure was based on that year’s budget without taking account of inflation or the capital debt charges (the interest payments due on the borrowing and creative accounting in previous years). To achieve that level of Poll Tax, with the most optimistic level of Revenue Support Grant from the government, would have required budget cuts of £35.5 million.

On the most pessimistic assessment of the outcome of the government’s options, budget cuts of £95.5 million would be needed, or a poll tax level of £708 per head.

Added to this problem, the Council in that current year (1988/89) was overspending to the tune of £7-10 million, because the cuts that were planned in March 1988 had not all been achieved. This was a recurring theme for a number of years: there always seemed to be an annual shortfall of about £10 million, but the City Treasurer was confident that this was an acceptable ‘margin of error’ (2-3%).

It was clear that there was no way of avoiding both budget cuts and massive redundancies and it is remarkable how the councillors involved managed to keep cool heads in this crisis (see chapter 18). Grim determination was the predominant emotion. A special City Party meeting was held (on 1st March) to debate resolutions from CLPs making the case for services that should be protected.

Housing Finance Scandal
Around this time, the newly appointed City Treasurer, Jim Brooks, began work in the Council. At his appointment panel, Graham Stringer had favoured another candidate who was the current Treasurer at the Airport, but he was outvoted by the other panel members – a very rare occurrence. I believe that Graham never fully supported Jim Brooks and that this antipathy explains Graham’s behaviour in relation to an impossible situation in the Housing Department that occurred in the midst of this entire trauma about setting a balanced budget.

When Dave Lunts became Chair of the Housing Committee in January 1989, after Sam Darby’s resignation (see chapter 12), he was clear, as was Graham, that the Director, Bob Young, had to go. Bob Young was a very difficult person to work with and the department was thought to be ‘a complete disaster area’. The department had been a problem for many years, but in the current crisis, it had to be tackled. There was no accurate information on the total value of rent arrears, not even an accurate figure on how many properties the Council owned. There were frequent wildcat strikes and it was clear that the staff had no confidence in the Director. Gerald Kaufman (MP for Manchester Gorton) said to Dave Lunts at the time – “Why is Manchester housing department a byword for voids[2]?” But, Dave couldn’t just sack the Director without a ‘due cause’. Bob Young’s actions in the budget crisis gave him just that ‘due cause’.

Although the departmental budget was ring-fenced (being funded by council house rents), it was still part of the cost-cutting exercise that the whole Council was going through. But Bob had refused to co-operate. At first he simply prevaricated and refused to provide a committee report. He then wrote long missives to Dave about why cuts would be an assault on the working class. In the end, Dave sat him down and told him that he had no choice but to write the report with different options for cuts and restructuring. Apparently Bob stayed up all night writing the report single-handedly, and the next day stood over the photocopier churning out reams of paper and then presented them saying “There you are David, this is what you’ve asked for”. Dave sat down to read it only to find it was unbelievable nonsense, such as:

“If the housing department was an American football team… what I’m being asked to do is put the team into the world series, but you’re going to take away my quarterback…”

There was no strategy, there were no figures, and at the end, only a rough attempt at a departmental staffing restructure. Dave Lunts gave this staffing structure to the Director of Personnel, Roger Matthews, and asked him to attempt to cost it out. Roger came back later in the day and said the proposed new structure was going to cost more than the current staffing structure.

Dave had intensive discussions with his deputies (Helen Johnson and Alan Tomlinson) which resulted in a proposal to the Labour Group officers, and then to the full Labour Group, to dismiss Bob Young.

The Labour Group meeting in March 1989 discussed the issue at length. The majority of councillors supported dismissal, but some of them did so on the grounds that their advice cases were not dealt with effectively (hardly a reason for dismissal). David Black suggested using the same procedure as for other chief officers – ie accepting whatever decision was made by the Housing Labour Group and the Labour Group Officers, but the kangaroo court was in full session by then and his proposal was defeated, albeit by only four votes. It was eventually agreed that if Bob Young didn’t resign, then action should be taken to dismiss him.

An emergency joint meeting of the Policy and Resources Committee and the Housing Committee was convened the following morning, in a private session, just prior to the Council meeting. The reasons for the disciplinary action were stated as:

“Failure to comply with instructions from the Chief Executive and councillors; Failure to exercise day to day control over the department; Failure to submit reports; Failure to respond to Members’ enquiries.”

The Chief Executive, Gordon Hainsworth, reminded the Members of the financial consequences of failing to comply with personnel procedures and taking the decision to dismiss. It was, he said “… out of due process… putting the Council in a difficult position… possible legal challenge” etc. Graham Stringer said “I hear what you’re saying – now go and do it”.

At the Council meeting this issue was again taken in private session. Several Labour councillors left the chamber before the vote was taken or abstained, but the minutes from the joint P&R and Housing Committee meeting were carried overwhelmingly.

Bob Young initially refused to leave because proper procedures had not been followed, and he informed Housing Department staff to this effect, but he was told by the Chief Executive to clear his desk and he was then escorted from the building. The compensation paid because of the Council’s breach of procedure was rumoured to be of the order of £50,000.

So Dave Lunts was left with no Director of Housing. He summoned all the senior management team (including Malcolm Clarke, Sorrel Brookes, Harry Seaton) to a meeting in his office. Everyone was aware that Bob Young had been escorted off the premises and they all assembled with, according to Dave, looks on their faces of abject terror as though they thought they were all going to be sacked. But Dave said “I have full confidence in you … I’m going to ask Malcolm to step up as acting Director…”. He says they all looked as though they would kiss him.

Problems with the Director of Personnel
Meanwhile, I was having problems as the new Chair of Personnel. My learning curve had been so steep it made me dizzy. If I had realised just half of what the job entailed, I would have adamantly refused to do it, however much pressure Graham Stringer applied. The Personnel Department had oversight of all the departmental staffing structures, officer grades and salaries, and responsibility for negotiations with the trade unions. There were some incredibly dedicated and hard-working personnel officers who worked diligently to try to ensure consistency and fairness between departments, but they were frequently thwarted by the deals that were struck between the Director and the trade union negotiators (to resolve the frequent disputes and strikes).

Shortly after taking on the role in February 1989, I asked Roger Matthews to convene a staff meeting, partly to introduce myself and David Black (as deputy), but also for us to go through the issues that were facing the Council, and particularly the Personnel Department, in relation to the future budget and staffing reductions across all the departments in the Council. When it came to questions and comments from the staff, Roger indicated he wanted to speak, and, thinking that he would add something in support of what we’d been saying (the norm being for the Director and the Committee Chair to work together) I invited him to contribute. He completely floored me by asking how I thought I was going to achieve such an ambitious agenda as a newcomer to the world of Personnel.

I was shocked both at his lack of support, and that he had said this in front of all the assembled departmental staff, and had to think up a response quickly. I managed to say something about it being a collective responsibility and that we (David and I) hoped to be supported by him and all the staff in the department, but I was very rattled by his attitude, which indicated to the staff that he was on their side and against the politicians and set an oppositional tone for the meeting. There were a number of questions and comments from the staff and then a man at the back of the room shouted out – “We want to hear from the organ grinder”, (ie Graham Stringer), “not the organ grinder’s monkey” (ie me). I later found out he was an SWP member and a departmental shop steward, but I was so appalled (and embarrassed) by his rudeness that I said there was no point in continuing with the meeting and hoped that staff with any other questions or concerns would feel able to come and speak to me personally. With that, David and I left, but from then on I was very wary of Roger Matthews and never completely trusted his advice, although I had a very good working relationship with his two deputies and the senior personnel officers.

The Budget Review Working Party
Shortly after the Labour Group AGM in May 1989, Graham Stringer established a forum called the Budget Review Working Party (BRWP) (see chapter 18) which consisted of all the committee chairs, plus the Chief Executive and City Treasurer. This working party had the purpose of scrutinising every budget item in every department (on a rolling programme) in order to identify possible savings.

The BRWP meetings were not formal council meetings, were not open to other councillors, and were privately minuted, but the decisions made were to be put into reports for the Policy and Resources Committee for formal agreement. The Working Party’s establishment was formally reported to the Council at the July 1989 P&R Committee. At this same P&R Committee meeting, a Poll Tax Sub-committee was set up with Pat Karney as its Chair. The intention of this sub-committee was to ensure that there was political oversight of the information going out to residents about this new method of taxation and that there was some co-ordination and consistency with Housing Benefit and other benefits for unemployed and low-waged residents.

To add to the tensions amongst elected members and council officers, NALGO members were involved in national strike action during July 1989 in support of a pay rise of 12% or £1,200. This action was supported by the Labour Group and minuted at the P&R Committee in July 1989:

“We consider [the NALGO] claim to be fair and just… government, by allowing only 4.5% for pay rises in the RSG is being provocative and unfair … Inflation is 8.3%”

But although the Labour Councillors gave political support to their colleagues in NALGO, this trade union action made the budget scrutiny work within the departments even more difficult.

Whilst Labour councillors were struggling with the consequences of implementing the Poll Tax, Party members in the city were increasingly being polarised between those who were determined not to pay the Poll Tax and keen to join the national campaign against its implementation, and those who felt there was no option but to support the councillors who had to comply with the government. The sectarians, being part of the former group, were increasingly strident and confrontational, which made Party meetings increasingly fraught and uncomfortable.

Another special City Party meeting was planned for late July to debate all six of the Poll Tax motions that had come in from the CLPs and trade union branches. But an earlier one from Stretford CLP that had seemed fairly bland and non-confrontational (see below), wasn’t referred to the special meeting, but was taken at the normal July meeting two weeks earlier.

“We call on the Labour Party in Manchester to set up a committee of people prepared not to pay the poll tax as a base for a campaign to make the political points of its injustice and unfairness and to seek the repeal of the legislation.”

However, an amendment was agreed at the meeting, to add the words “to build for a mass non-payment campaign”, which changed the whole nature and intent of the motion and pre-empted the debate scheduled for the end of July.

Of the six motions debated on 29th July, three called for the City Council not to collect the Poll Tax, but these were heavily defeated. Of the other three that were carried, two called on the Party to organise a campaign of mass non-payment, and one of included a commitment to disrupt to the registration process. The third one re-affirmed the decision that the Labour Group must implement the Poll Tax and included the sentence “Any reversal of that decision will not stop the Poll Tax, but would create chaos and put council services and jobs at risk.” What seemed to be lost on delegates was the inconsistency between recognising that services and jobs would be affected by non-collection, but not recognising that they would also be affected by disruption to the registration process.

Negotiating with the Trade Unions
All of the Labour Group knew that it would be impossible to achieve the staff reductions and departmental re-organisations without the co-operation of the trade unions and it was agreed that there should be regular meetings between the departmental trade union representatives and the committee chairs and chief officers. However, whilst these meetings did take place in Education, Social Services and Personnel, there were concerns about whether they were happening in other departments, in particular Housing, Leisure and Environmental Services. Therefore, additional meetings were planned with the Trade Union Forum (see below).

Although many of the local trade union activists were involved in the City Party and met Graham Stringer regularly, the Trade Union Forum was a more official structure (and included those trade unions that were not affiliated to the Labour Party). It was made up of representatives of all the Council’s trade unions and they met with the Council leadership (Leader and Deputies, plus the Chair of Finance and the Chair of Personnel). The first of these meetings with the Trade Union Forum was held in September 1989 and another one was planned for 31st October. At that time, Nick Harris was the new Chair of the Finance Committee (following Mike Harrison’s illness), and I was still relatively new as Chair of Personnel and hadn’t attended these sort of meetings before.

The trade union representatives were naturally upset about the uncertainty that had been caused by the chief officers beginning the task of drawing up options for running their services based on levels of cuts at £30 million, £50 million and £70 million (see chapter 12), even though this decision was later rescinded. A commitment was given by the Labour leadership that the trade unions and the City Party would be given all the available information and asked to give advice to the Labour Group.

The Trade Union Forum meeting in October 1989 was tense. At that time, the level of Poll Tax registration was only at 88%. The first thing that Graham Stringer had to dispel was the cynical view that this was just the usual October budget wind up (ie making out that the situation was worse than it was in order to make the actual cuts more palatable, being so much less than the original scare). He stressed that it would not be an administrative exercise, but that there would be a serious examination of priorities for service delivery.

He went through all the unknowns – Poll Tax level, last year’s financial out-turn (whether or not there would be any balances to carry forward), the business rate situation, the Revenue Support Grant level and method of calculation. The choices facing the councillors were – setting an unacceptably high level of Poll Tax, or, making very deep budget cuts (with consequent redundancies).

NUPE’s[3] first response was anger that the first they knew about the gravity of the situation was the front page headline of the Manchester Evening News on 30th September 1989. Their members had had enough of cuts and they were not going to co-operate with any joint exercise in job cutting.

NALGO’s representatives wanted to know what the timetable for decision-making was going to be and whether the groundwork could be done in time. Also what was going to be done about the current year’s overspend (which by then was estimated at £12.2 million). Their pre-condition for co-operation was that there would be no compulsory redundancies.

NATFHE[4] wanted to know if there would be an immediate jobs freeze. Other Union representatives wanted to know what the process was going to be for establishing service priorities.

Questions were asked about the capital assets of the Airport and the dividends. Graham estimated that the Council might get £100 million if it sold its 55% share, but would lose the annual dividend (currently £7-8 million pa). He pointed out that the Airport generated 25,000 jobs and recent investment in it had been necessary for the economic regeneration of the city and the region.

Graham Stringer stressed the need for everyone to work together and asked for the trade unions to help identify areas of waste. The meeting ended with everyone accepting the grim realities of what lay ahead, but reassured that there would be regular meetings over the coming months and that they would be kept informed of developments.

Review of the Organisational Structure
A review of the organisational structure of the Council was to be carried out, in order to streamline the number of departments down from seventeen. As this would result in a reduction in the number of chief and senior officers, it was a much more popular measure with the rank and file in the Party and the trade unions. However, some areas of work needed to be expanded.

Staff shortages in the Estates and Valuation Department had caused a backlog in rent reviews, which was estimated to be costing the Council around £1 million a year. The Audit Commission had estimated that council-owned shops were losing £400,000 a year, because of lack of staff to work on lettings and rent reviews. Also, a weakness in the computer systems prevented effective management of the rents income. So, money needed to be spent in these areas in order to increase income to the Council and reduce the need for cuts. It was particularly painful for those on the political left to have to spend money on employing rent officers and computer technologists, whilst at the same time implementing harsh cuts affecting the poorest residents.

As part of the review of the organisational structure of the Council, the chief officers were instructed to draw up a service and budget profile for every council activity – to describe in detail what every group or team of people did, what the gross cost was, what income was generated, how many staff were employed, etc, so that an assessment could be made of how essential the activity was. The Budget Review Working Party was the mechanism for carrying out this work (see chapter 18).

Graham Stringer was concerned that the public (and even Party members) were seemingly unaware of the enormity of the impact the Poll Tax was going to have on council services, despite the, almost daily, horror stories in the Manchester Evening News throughout the autumn.

The City Party was being pulled in two directions over its official position on the matter, which was “to implement the Poll Tax while supporting a campaign of mass non-payment”, and emergency motions on different stances to be taken were coming in from CLPs and trade union branches. The greater the loss of Poll Tax income to the Council, the greater the consequent loss of jobs would be, so it was obvious from the start that the interests of the trade unions would be different from those of the Party. This City Party position was particularly difficult for Duncan Edwards in his position as Chair, but also as a GMB delegate.

There was supposed to have been a meeting in November between the City Party officers and the Council trade unions, followed by a press campaign, but, given all the differences of view being expressed, there were concerns about the political basis for this campaign. At the November City Party meeting a motion from NUPE was carried, stating:

“This Party resolves not to launch a press campaign against the Poll Tax in conjunction with the trade unions until the Party has had the time to meet and discuss and agree the basis of that campaign”.

It was agreed to debate all the motions at the December 1989 meeting, but to go ahead with the meeting between the trade unions, the Labour Group and the City Party officers before that. At this joint meeting a campaign plan was formulated, to be steered by a joint organisation called Manchester Against the Poll Tax, with a petition for ‘Justice for Manchester’ to be used to stimulate the public’s awareness of the unfairness of the Tax and the effect it would have on the services to Manchester’s people. The campaign strategy included the sentence:

“… whilst the campaign recognises individuals may refuse to pay the Poll Tax on a question of principle, and others may be financially unable to pay, this campaign does not support a non-implementation, non-payment policy”.

When this was reported back to the City Party Executive Committee, there was a motion to delete that sentence. Dick Pickering (GMB president) insisted that in order to secure the support of the trade unions, the statement would have to be agreed in its entirety, including the controversial sentence. The motion to delete the sentence was lost by 8 votes to 6. Because of the difficult position Duncan Edwards was in, and in order to protect him from any backlash at the City Party meetings, Graham Stringer insisted that it be minuted that throughout all the meetings with the trade unions, Duncan had argued for the City Party policy, rather than the GMB policy.

At the subsequent City Party meeting in December, after a long debate, the full statement from the campaign meeting was supported (below), effectively reversing the previous policy.

“The campaign will use all legitimate means to pursue its aims. It will back the City Council and other local authorities in making the strongest representation to the Government and to Parliament. It will defend those charge payers who are unable to meet the full burden of the Poll Tax and press for a simplification and an extension of the rebate system based on people’s ability to pay. Whilst the campaign recognises individuals may refuse to pay the Poll Tax on a question of principle, and others may be financially unable to pay, this campaign does not support a non-implementation, non-payment policy”.

The meeting went on to vote on the many motions submitted and all those in favour of non-payment were defeated and those on similar lines to the new strategy were carried. A long motion from Blackley CLP and MSF[5] (Graham Stringer’s trade union) was carried, but only by 51 votes to 43, and included the sentence:

“Abdication of responsibility by ineffectual gestures of resignation or of refusal to implement the Poll Tax would only weaken the Party and make the situation worse…”

It also specified that the Poll Tax should not be set higher than £450 and that a VER (Voluntary Early Retirement) scheme should be implemented in order to avoid compulsory redundancies.

The Policy Conference that had been convened to agree the Manifesto for the local elections due in May 1990, was inquorate (many delegates were too exhausted and disillusioned from all the traumatic meetings over the previous weeks to attend) so the officers were delegated to produce a draft for ratification at the next City Party meeting. The selection meetings for candidates for the May elections went on as usual.

The December Council meeting expressed support for the ‘Justice for Manchester’ petitioning campaign and agreed to implement VER and a selective jobs freeze. Fourteen Labour councillors (the original ten ‘rebels’ referred to in chapter 12 plus another 4) voted against the agreed Party line and were subsequently removed from positions of responsibility.

By January 1990, after some concessions from the government and the work being progressed by the BRWP, the level of cuts to be implemented to keep the Poll Tax level between £399 and £450 was expected to be around £55 million. The plan being pursued by the BRWP was to develop a two-year, three-budget strategy – ie planning the budgets for 1990/91, 1991/92 and 1992/93 – rather than trying to achieve everything in one year (see chapter 18). In February 1990, the Poll Tax was finally set at £425 per head.

National Anti-Poll Tax Campaigns
Whilst all the budget reductions and re-configuration of services were going on inside the Town Hall, the anti-poll tax climate outside was hotting up – in Manchester as in the rest of the country.

The sectarians all had their own anti-poll tax groups. The Militant Tendency had set up an ‘All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation’ in November 1989, with the identifying slogan “Don’t collect! Don’t pay!” Some local and regional anti-poll tax groups were included within this Federation, but others remained outside it. (See Appendix 13A for discussion paper from Richard Leese).

Manchester’s City Labour Party had distanced itself from this federation with a campaigning slogan of ‘Labour Against Cuts and Poll Tax’ and a small group of activists met regularly and issued leaflets. A Conference was convened on 3rd February 1990 at which 100 people attended and all were urged to attend a lobby of the Council on 28th February.

On Saturday 3rd March a large demonstration and rally, called by the Greater Manchester Anti-Poll Tax Federation, took place in Manchester with a march from All Saints to the rally in Albert Square. Although called by the Militant’s Federation, most of the other groups took part in it – all with their own banners and slogans.

Public meetings were held during March – Socialist Organiser held one in the Town Hall on 5th March and the City Party held one on 17th March headlined ‘What Justice for Manchester?’

In London, on March 31st, a national anti-poll tax demonstration was convened by the Militant Tendency, with a march from Kennington Park to Trafalgar Square. The Labour Party had planned to hold a rally on the same day, but abandoned it. Over 200,000 people turned up to demonstrate and the march set off around 1.30pm.

The demonstration turned into a riot – said to be the largest riot ever seen in London in the 20th century[6] – and went on until 3am the following day.

Two further demonstrations took place in Manchester – one on Tuesday 3rd April under the slogan ‘People Protest against Poll Tax’, with a march ending in Albert Square being welcomed by the Lord Mayor (Cllr Yomi Mambu), and hearing speeches from Alf Morris MP and Eddy Newman MEP. The second one on Tuesday 1st May 1990 was a ‘Council workers against the Poll Tax’ march to Albert Square.

Despite all these protests and demonstrations, it was clear that the government was not going to back down and so work continued in the Town Hall to implement the new regime.

The attacks by the Militant Tendency supporters on the Group and Party leadership were becoming increasingly unbearable and the City Party EC drew up a statement condemning their tactics of violence and intimidation. When this statement came before the City Party in June, the Militants moved a vote of no confidence in the Chair, but this was defeated and the statement was approved by massive majority. This was leaked to the MEN and the article referred to the Militants’ fury about being so accused. The article also referred to three more councillors being removed from committees for voting against the whip – Margaret Ainsworth, Ray Boyle and Nora Tilley.

At the July City Party meeting, Graham Stringer reported that the bills to collect the Poll Tax had gone out at the beginning of May, which was later in Manchester than in other areas. They had been delayed in order to include the benefit entitlements (ie so that the amounts being charged were net of rebates). They were also late going out because of problems with the computer software and the cash receipting facilities initially being inadequate. However, on the positive side, by July 1990, 50% of those registered had made at least one payment.

Graham re-assured Party members that redundancies would be avoided, even though the budget was still being overspent, and that because of City Party decisions, cuts proposals had been withdrawn in relation to Frank Hatton House (a residential facility for children with special educational needs), an Elderly Persons Home in Moston, Harpurhey Baths, Victoria Baths, and public laundries (all of which had warranted motions at City Party meetings) – thus reassuring Party members about their role in the process. He expressed his anger about the misinformation being put out by the anti-poll tax campaigns, which blamed the Council and councillors, rather than the government.

In early November 1990, Richard Leese (having been elected as the new Chair of the Finance Committee in May) reported to the City Party that Manchester was likely to be subject to Poll Tax capping in the forthcoming year, but that with tight budgetary control, the 2-year, 3-budget strategy (see chapter 18) was still achievable and the Poll Tax level for the following year was likely to be around £410.

The London riot and the country-wide opposition to the Poll Tax contributed to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. She still adamantly defended it at the time of her resignation in November 1990, but one of the first things her successor (John Major) did was to abolish it. The Poll Tax was replaced by the Council Tax in 1993, two years after its abolition was announced, yet the repercussions of the non-payment continued long after the system had gone.

The impact was long lasting for local councils because the arrears had to be collected for many years afterwards. Manchester’s initial sympathetic approach to non-payers was abandoned as the scale of the non-payment became apparent and the subsequent budget gap necessitated a harder line being taken.

Towards the end of November 1990, the draft Manifesto for the 1991 local elections was debated and it included the sentence “Council will pursue vigorously those who can afford to pay”, although this was softened slightly by an amendment to replace ‘vigorously’ with ‘therefore’. However, an amendment to add the sentence “The Party recognises the severe hardship that the Poll Tax causes and the Council will continue to make fair arrangements and provide helpful advice to those facing difficulties” was defeated.

Two Councillors – John Byrne and John Clegg, who were part of the ‘rebel’ group but considered to be sensible and caring, rather than hard-line sectarians – wrote a very heartfelt letter to the City Party delegates:

“In the recent period, we have witnessed what can only be described as momentous political events. The ditching of Thatcher by the Tories was caused by the massive levels of non-payment of the poll tax, coupled with the administrative burden of implementation, and now the chaos in Magistrate’s courts.

The LP nationally, in the person of David Blunkett, has raised serious concerns with the Home Office about the abuse of basic civil liberties in the Magistrate’s courts – ie presumption of guilt, denial of representation by a friend (ie a McKenzie friend)[7] and the right to an individual hearing.

Given the above events, we are calling on the City Council to suspend court action against alleged Poll Tax defaulters (given that the vast majority are unable to pay) until at least such time as the changes to the Poll Tax are brought in.”[8]

However, no action was taken on this letter and the tough action against those with arrears continued. The use of bailiffs and the prosecutions of non-payers caused enormous angst in the Party and several debates in the City Party, but the policy wasn’t changed.

A great surprise to everyone was that the strong line on non-payers was continued when Cath Inchbold became the Chair of the Finance Committee in 1995, as she had been a worker in the voluntary sector and a prime mover in the anti-poll tax campaign.

In my view, it is to our great shame, that many very poor people, who could ill afford it, were pursued for years for poll tax arrears. Although at the time there was a desperate need to maximise income in order to maintain essential services, I still believe that more could have been done to alleviate the burden on the many disadvantaged Manchester residents who suffered for years after the Poll Tax had been abolished.


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Editor’s Comments

The sub-headings were not in the original. There have been minor typographical and layout changes. I was unsure in some places whether parentheses within quotes were part of the quote or added by Kath. I did my best guess to make them clear. I have added a note to the Appendix 13A as well that I am uneasy about including this document, but have kept it in because it is a good summary of the issues facing the councillors at the time and it doesn’t feel to have anything in of a confidential nature. I found this chapter interesting because the Poll Tax was such a major national issue and so pivotal in Thatcher’s downfall, but also interesting to see how difficult it was for the councillors to set a budget. I’m sure it would have been difficult for every council across the country to some degree simply because of so many changes to the way their funding would be coming in and the uncertainties about how much they would receive.


[1] Initials from General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union – a general union from a number of amalgamations.

[2] Voids = empty properties

[3] National Union of Public Employees

[4] National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education

[5] Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, which was the result of a merger in January 1988 between the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS) and the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section (TASS).

[6] A very full and detailed description of the day can be found on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poll_Tax_Riots

[7] A McKenzie friend is somebody who accompanies a litigant in person to a court hearing to assist eg taking notes, helping to organise the documents.

[8] Editor’s note: not sure if the parentheses were in the original letter or have been added by Kath – assuming they were in the original.

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Further Reading

  • Community Charge (Poll Tax) on Wikipedia
  • ‘The poll tax riot 25 years ago was the day I woke up politically’ by Oliver King, Guardian 31 March 2015
  • ‘Poll Tax Riots Revisited – in pictures’, Greg Whitmore, Guardian 28 March 2015
  • ‘Poll tax papers show Margaret Thatcher ignored early rebellion’, The Week, 19 Feb 2016

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