Poplar 1921: Guilty and Proud of It

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(297)

Keith Flett explains how the Poplar councillors in the 1920s took on the government.

We know Old Labour as being a bit more principled and usually a bit more to the left than Blair's New Labour. We don't think of Old Labour as a party that organises street theatre and film and sees women as activists rather than 'wives'. Yet this is exactly what happened in Poplar in the East End of London in the 1920s, and the example still speaks down the years to those who voted in Respect in East London on 5 May.

The amazing results for Respect in East London in the general election suggest that socialists could be well placed to win seats in local council elections in May 2006. This begs the question of what socialists can do on local councils and what historical models there are for this. In the last 20 to 30 years there have been left wing Labour councils that have fought central governments (invariably Tory ones) for more resources for working class communities and ended up being victimised for their pains. Well known cases include those of Lambeth in south London in the mid-1980s and Clay Cross in Derbyshire in the early 1970s.

But these fights took their inspiration from the earlier and victorious struggle in Poplar in the 1920s. The fight for money to provide assistance to the poor, often unemployed dockers, took place near to the very constituency that George Galloway won for Respect last month.

Fight for justice

It was led by the former mayor of Poplar, George Lansbury (1859-1940), who was also a Labour MP and went on in the 1930s to become leader of the Labour Party. Lansbury was originally a member of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation, edited the left wing Daily Herald in the period around the First World War and was still in that position when, in 1921, he led the fight for justice for working people in Poplar.

Lansbury and a group of fellow socialists had been working away in the East End since the 1890s. They had won seats on the Board of Guardians, which administered the poor law. Before unemployment and other benefits were introduced those unable to support themselves were sent to the 'workhouse', a cross between a hospital, an asylum and a hostel. It was a vicious system dating back to 1834. Lansbury aimed to improve conditions in the workhouse, to turn it into an 'agency of help instead of a place of despair'.

Consistent work among the poor saw Lansbury elected as a socialist MP for Bromley and Bow in December 1910. However, by November 1912 he had resigned to force a by-election over the issue of votes for women: women did not have the vote before the First World War. He lost to the Conservative candidate, the aptly named Mr Blair.

Lansbury, a lifelong pacifist, was an opponent of the war. The conclusion of hostilities saw Labour take office throughout the East End in November 1919 for the first time. In Poplar Labour won 39 out of 42 council positions and Lansbury became mayor. He was very clear that things must change. He argued that 'Labour councillors must be different from those we have displaced or why displace them?'

The first Labour council in Poplar really did make a huge difference. Infant mortality was reduced and a council house building programme launched. Libraries were improved, as was the local electricity service. The vision went further than this though, and included a huge tree planting programme in Poplar.

From 1920, after agreement with trade unions, Poplar council paid a minimum wage of £4 a week to its employees, whose previous wage had been £1.50 a week. It also introduced equal pay for women, who saw a wage rise of 70 percent. An earlier four shilling bonus had been paid to all council workers who joined a union. The aim was to move beyond the council, providing services to local people, and to make it a model employer as well.

However, the impact of the end of the war produced a rise in unemployment. In 1921 in Poplar out of a total population of 160,000 people, 15,574 were unemployed. The council was determined to finance decent services and provisions on the principle of 'work or full maintenance'. To do this meant a fight with the old London County Council and the government about money. The argument was simple. People in Poplar had to pay rates that were used to fund services in much wealthier parts of London. Yet there was no requirement on better off areas to provide money to help the poor and unemployed in a place like Poplar. In 1921, according to John Shepherd's recent biography of Lansbury, a penny rate in Westminster raised £29,000, but in Poplar the same rate pulled in just £3,200. Lansbury and his fellow Labour councillors worked out an easy solution to this. They would stop paying the money to other boroughs and use this instead to directly help the people of Poplar, in effect redistributing wealth from rich to poor.

The demand for equalisation of the rates - that all councils should have the same funding based on need - was passed at a meeting of Poplar council in March 1921. The councillors were summonsed to the High Court and on 29 July 1921 they, and 2,000 supporters, marched five miles there against the backdrop of a banner stating 'Poplar Borough Council, Marching to the High Court and Possibly to Prison, To Secure The Equalisation of Rates For Poor Boroughs'. Unsurprisingly the Poplar plan for equalisation of the rates was declared illegal, even though the councillors and local organised labour had fought every inch of the way. Nor did they get any backing from the Labour Party nationally.

Red Poplar

Writs were served on 30 councillors, who were jailed for their pains in September 1921. Twenty four male councillors went to Brixton prison, while six women were held at Holloway. The arrests took place over a number of days and attracted huge attention, and a film was made of them. Fifteen thousand people marched to Holloway to support the jailed women councillors with trade union banners much in evidence. The struggle was also reported in the Daily Herald, of which Lansbury remained the editor. The edition of the paper for 5 September 1921 had the headline 'Our Editor In Gaol For Justice'. The fight of the councillors attracted national attention and the area became known as 'Red Poplar'.

Conditions in prison were not pleasant. Several councillors became ill and within a few weeks of her release Minnie Lansbury, 32, one of George Lansbury's sisters, had died, partly as a result of her treatment in Holloway. Even so, supporters singing the Red Flag and a huge number of visitors continually harassed the prison authorities. The campaigning pressure forced the Home Office to allow all 34 councillors to hold Poplar council meetings in Brixton prison.

After six weeks, on 12 October 1921, such was the campaign in their support, the councillors were released with their principal demand won. The concern of the Liberal government had been that councils in Bethnal Green and Stepney would now take the same line as Poplar. An extra £400,000 was found to help the poor in Poplar, with an emergency Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act. It was just the first in a series of battles in which Poplar councillors had to defend the working people who voted for them against central government.

In fact it is impossible to get a sense of the full scale of the battle to defend working people that the Poplar councillors carried out if we stop in 1921. In March 1922 the Ministry of Health claimed that Poplar was overspending by the then huge sum of £100,000 each year. Lansbury and others published a pamphlet, Guilty and Proud of It!. Then the district auditor surcharged councillors for overspending, including 'excessive' wages to council employees. The councillors ignored the auditor. By 1926 attempts were being made to personally surcharge Lansbury for £43,000.

In the summer of 1923 the Poplar Guardians paid benefit to dockers involved in a national strike, against the line being pushed nationally by their union, the TGWU, which had agreed a pay cut. However, there were limits to how far the system could be challenged from a local base. Eventually financial problems and lower wage levels in Poplar generally forced a reduction in benefit levels. Sylvia Pankhurst, a leading socialist in the East End, organised a protest against the reduction and Lansbury called the police.

Lansbury himself was an MP in the first, minority, Labour government of 1924. Despite his national profile he was not given any government post. He had argued that he wondered if Labour was doing its job 'by proving how adaptable we are and how nicely we can dress and behave when we are in official, royal or upper class circles'. The king, George V, also complained to Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald that Lansbury had made a speech referring to the fate of King Charles I, who was executed in 1649.

Many of the powers and structures of local government have changed since 1921. The central point of Poplarism remains. Through consistent work to defend and promote the conditions of working people socialists can win electoral support and gain control of local councils. They can then use the position to promote the interests of those who voted for them, rather than bowing down to the rich, cutting or privatising services. As the struggle in Poplar showed, this is not an easy process and central authority can and will fight back. But the example of Lansbury and his fellow councillors in the early 1920s shows that it can be done.