Mark Palmer meets
the man who has made himself Mr Anti-Poll Tax
'WE have a name for people like him up here,' said the Glasgow taxi driver as we rounded the last corner on the way to the office of the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Wankers.'
The description proved to be one of the kinder comments I heard levelled at Tom- my Sheridan, the 26-year-old Stirling Uni- versity graduate, who founded the federa- tion two years ago, shortly before being expelled from the Labour Party for his connections with the militant tendency. Indeed, the contempt for him crosses party lines in a manner that very little else in Glasgow can. Conservatives, what's left of them north of the border, think him more dangerous than Arthur Scargill, while the top brass of Labour-held Strathclyde Re- gional Council have as much time for Sheridan as they do for Margaret Thatch- er, who introduced the community charge in the first place. 'I have spent 20 years in active politics and have never seen any- body whose skills as a speaker are so circumscribed by his own sense of self- importance,' said James Dunnachie, the Labour MP for Glasgow Pollok. But every- one I came across agreed that Tommy Sheridan is running a brilliant campaign. Effective, high-profile, orderly.
'We are making the poll tax unworkable and uncollectable,' Sheridan assured me, 'and we are the only ones prepared to fight. Everyone else has left the battle- field.'
The telephone rang. It was BBC Scot- land anxious for Sheridan's reaction to
claims that 1, and his colleagues have been harassing chttdren of sheriff officers, Scot- land's equivalent of bailiffs. He had already spoken to four national newspaper
reporters that morning, which is about normal. He gives three press conferences a week, has speaking engagements six nights a week and on Saturday afternoons, and finds time to turn out for his local football team.
Articulate, unfailingly polite, dedicated
and alarmingly handsome, Tommy Sher- idan is the Anti-Poll Tax Federation. With- out him there would be no protest move- ment. It was Sheridan who organised the Trafalgar Square rally last March, and has now set up more than 50 branches of the federation in England. His latest.wheeze is a march from Glasgow to London next month, culminating in a mass rally on Clapham Common.
I expected a monster but found nothing other than a sincere young man with noble, unworkable ideals, whose school report might read, 'If guided correctly, should go far.' Sheridan has no idea where he is going but intends to apply to rejoin the Labour Party in four years' time when his ban is up. The party would do well to let him back in, though Dunnachie promises, 'I will never allow it.'
'I am a socialist not a Stalinist,' said Sheridan. 'I have always spoken about the Soviet Union and its lack of democracy and have always believed that a strong econo- mic system is essential in distributing wealth. But I know I have a burning anger inside me.'
Sheridan's socialism, nurtured in part by his parents (his mother was an official in the Transport and General Workers' Un- ion, his father a shop steward), is rooted in his observation of the way people around him live.
'The 83-year-old man in the flat above me has been waiting four years for a hip replacement operation. Sometimes the pain is so awful he has to crawl up the stairs on all fours. And my uncle, who was blind,
applied for a council house and was offered a 14th-storey flat in a high-rise.'
Observing his neighbours is also why he doesn't smoke and will never drink CI hate the effect alcohol has on working-class life'); why he prefers the Daily Telegraph to the Daily Mirror (The Telegraph isn't afraid to come out in favour of capitalism, while Mr Maxwell is a capitalist mas- querading as a socialist') and why he thinks Derek Hatton is not worth discussing.
Sheridan joined his local Labour Party at 17. His first campaign was for more street lighting in Glasgow's depressed housing estates. At Stirling, where he graduated with a 2.1 in politics and economics, he was secretary of the Labour Club and campus picket organiser for the miners. After university, he worked briefly for Strath- clyde Council, tracking down pensioners in danger of hypothermia. The Guardian has described him as 'the missionary tenden- cy'.
Financing the campaign is not easy. Running costs for the shop-front office alone are £500 a month. Support comes from several sources, including Dave Nel- list, MP for Coventry South-East, who has a £10 a week standing order. Three weeks ago, Sheridan and ten colleagues held a seven-day fast in George Square. They ended up hungry but £2,000 the richer in donations. It's hard to imagine Derek Hatton going without his grub for seven days.
Sheridan's campaign may indeed be bril- liant but is it helping those who need help most? It can't be doing much for Thomas McGee, who mans the office three days a week. McGee, 24, married with two chil- dren, hasn't worked for four years. He refused to pay poll tax in 1988/9 and failed even to register in 1989/90. As a wanted man his chances of ever landing a job are slim. I suggested to Sheridan that McGee's plight grows ever more hopeless with each day the campaign continues.
'It's a pity and I would encourage him to register and apply for a rebate, but the real crime is that he should be asked to pay the same poll tax as the Duke of Roxburghe. And we genuinely believe that if we keep up the pressure Mrs Thatcher will be left with no alternative to repealing the tax.'
Certainly the degree of non-payment is impressive. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities estimates there are approximately 850,000 debtors in Scot- land, or one in five of the poll tax-paying population. Threats of warrant sales, the process by which sheriff officers sell off non-payers' household goods, are expected to reduce slightly the regional councils' shortfall in revenue, but the eventual level of non-payment in Scotland will be at least 10 per cent, double the level for which most councils had budgeted. And the Chancellor has already admitted that non- payment of the tax, combined with higher public spending, is threatening the Gov- ernment's budget surplus.
Mark Palmer is on the staff of the Daily Telegraph.