Last Saturday’s rally in Ireland organised by the Campaign against Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT) demonstrated clearly that the opposition to the Household Taxes is likely to be a major thorn in the side of Fine Gael and Labour over the next period. The immediate problem for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government however is not the 3,000 people who attended the rally at the National Stadium and those who attended the other rallies. It’s the fact that only 328,201 households have registered for the Household tax, from a total of more or less 1.6 million.
Although the threat of fees and interest charges may push more people to register over the next few days, the mass refusal to do so means that this is far more than a simple administrative measure for the government. It is already a major political issue. For example If Phil Hogan imagines that Council workers will be happy knocking on the door to register people, then he may get a rude awakening.
The experience of the attempt to impose water charges in the 1990’s will not have bypassed the government either.
There are of course many similarities with the campaign against the Poll Tax in Britain from 1988 through to the early 1990’s. But there are some important differences also. One of Thatcher’s blunders was to impose taxes directly onto every man and woman in the country, scrapping the Rates System. The net effect was to polarize the debate between the gainers and the losers. There were far more losers than gainers, particularly on the Scottish Housing Schemes and in the working class districts of all the major towns and cities. The government are clearly using the Household Tax as “the thin end of the wedge”, trying to introduce it at a relatively low rate, which they can then raise and raise over time. Their problem however is that everyone is a loser to one extent or another, after all the Rates were abolished in Ireland many years ago.
Here is the Press release about the new tax issued by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on December 5th last year; it is notable for the upfront admission that the Tax is being imposed “in line with the requirement in the EU/IMF Programme of Financial Support for Ireland”. In other words… “They made me do it”:
The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Phil Hogan, T.D. today (5 December, 2011) announced the publication of the Bill to provide for the introduction of the Household Charge of €100 to fund vital local services in line with the requirement in the EU/IMF Programme of Financial Support for Ireland. The Government had announced, in July, 2011, its intention to introduce the Household Tax in 2012.
The Minister stressed the Government’s firm commitment to
introduce a valuation based property tax to replace the Household
Charge. The Minister indicated that work is to commence early in the new
year on the development of the property tax.
“A full property tax, requiring a property valuation system, will take time to implement, so the Government is introducing the interim Household Charge to apply to the majority of owners of residential property in the State. I will establish an inter-Departmental expert group to advise me, by mid 2012, on the design, scope and implementation of the property tax,” the Minister stated.
For the Fine Gael and Labour coalition however this area is a minefield. Regardless of the fact that the Household Tax is far lower than the Poll Tax was when it was introduced in Scotland and then England and Wales, it is just as regressive, the poor will still pay the same as the rich. It is also another imposition on working people. Under the last Dáil FF and the Greens brought in the Pension Levy and the Income Levy, there were austerity budgets and emergency budgets also. This is merely a further imposition.
Over the last few years there has been plenty of talk about a Property Tax as a way of “extending the tax base” of the government. The truth is however that there are plenty of other ways of raising taxes in Ireland, for example taxing the rich. The Household Tax is merely a convenient way; once again, of making workers pay for the crisis. The Household Tax is also a way of shifting the responsibility for funding local government away for the Government and onto the Councillors. Indeed the money (if they manage to collect it) will only be used to shore up the Councils against cuts imposed from the government.
For the Labour leadership however, the threat of widespread, protracted working class opposition is a major problem. The argument that they were in Government to protect working people was always bordering on the spurious, with the temperature rising in the Public Sector over the Croke Park Agreement and now a second front over the Household Tax, the tensions within the Party can only be exacerbated. Even with a sizeable number of TD’s Labour is not immune to the same pressures that affected the Green Party in the last coalition as the Junior Partner.
The Campaign has quite rightly been taken up by the ULA TD’s and Councillors and by the left groups. SP Councillor Ruth Coppinger is leading the campaign and the ULA TD’s were in evidence today. There have been several demonstrations across the state. While this campaign will give a good platform for the lefts, it is not however without risks.
Unlike a strike or a demonstration, a campaign of non registration and non-payment does not automatically result in a mobilization of the members or bus loads of workers turning out with placards. That is a relatively easy event to intervene in. The Campaign against the Water tax in the 1990’s was protracted , as was the Anti Poll Tax Campaign in Britain.
Neither resulted in an immediate victory, but the Poll Tax served to seriously undermine Thatcher who eventually resigned. For the Militant Tendency (forerunner of both the Socialist Appeal (the International Marxist Tendency in Britain) and the Socialist Party of England and Wales and the now separate Socialist Party of Scotland) the success of leading the mass campaign also had the effect of distorting the work of the organisation.
As Rob Sewell Editor of Socialist Appeal explained in an article written in 2004:
“Our mass work around the Poll Tax placed colossal pressure on the comrades, especially in the localities, and the burden, which was increasing, was falling on fewer and fewer shoulders. We were beginning to fall victim to the limitations of “single issue” politics and the work was becoming more and more unbalanced. This had very negative consequences.
There were a lot of frustrations at the time. For instance, at a national meeting of regional representatives in September 1990, alarm was raised that the tendency was locked into the Poll Tax struggle, with no time for anything else. It was reported that our full-timers had become anti-Poll Tax full-timers, and our comrades were substituting themselves for the working class. The organisation department was becoming increasingly an anti-Poll Tax department and we were over-stretched and in danger of running the tendency into the ground.
In fact, we had boxed ourselves into a corner. The pressures were bearing down on us from all sides. The tendency seemed to be continually on a war footing, leaping from one action to the next, one court case to the next, and one confrontation with the bailiffs to the next. The problem was that our successes in the Poll Tax campaign went to some comrades’ heads. To use a phrase of Stalin, they were “dizzy with success”.”
The ULA, is weaker and far more diverse politically than the Militant Tendency in Britain was at the time of the Poll Tax, the risk is that this campaign like the Campaign against the Water Tax also, could generate a lot of activity placing enormous burdens on the limited human and political resources of the ULA. Sure, there have been very well attended meetings and events throughout the state, but this is going to be a long battle. The campaign must be linked to the struggle to defend the Public Sector against the impositions of the government and the ECB/IMF. It should also make demands on the Labour Party members, patiently explaining the role of the Labour leaders.
The public sector workers not only have to pay this tax, but they also have to collect it. They represent a reservoir of support for a struggle with the government. Likewise, although the Labour Party leadership have swallowed the Fine Gael bait hook, line and sinker many ordinary members are deeply unhappy with the direction that Gilmore is taking them. Labour’s support has plummeted. There’s never been a better time to argue for breaking the coalition. The forthcoming demonstration at the Irish Labour Conference in Galway is an important opportunity to do so.