… and why it matters today
By Janine Booth, published in RMT News.
The two biggest employers in the east London borough of Poplar one hundred years were the railways and the docks. Our forerunner unions had plenty of members there. Their jobs involved long hours and low pay, but they were unionised, so they were fighting for, and winning, improvements.
Like the rest of Poplar’s residents, they lived in overcrowded housing, breathed polluted air and died of poverty-related illnesses such tuberculosis (TB). But they were fighting back in their community too. The unions were heavily involved in the local Labour Party, which in turn supported the unions and their struggles – including the pre-war dock strike and the post-war national railways strike.
POLICIES FOR A WORKING-CLASS BOROUGH
In 1919, Labour won a majority on Poplar Borough Council for the first time. Previously, most working-class people – and all women – did not have the right to vote, so a privileged minority had elected Tories, Liberals, employers and clerics to run the borough; they feathered their own nests and allowed the working-class people of Poplar to continue living in destitution.
The newly-elected Labour Council included several transport workers and union activists, including Albert Baker, Joe Banks, Joseph Hammond and James Jones of the Poplar no.1 branch of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). It included socialist women such as Minnie Lansbury and Julia Scurr.
The Council immediately began improving the lot of the people who had elected it. It built new housing, expanded maternity services, improved libraries and swimming baths, brought the charity-run TB clinic into municipal ownership, increased council workers’ wages, and did much more besides.
But in 1920, economic recession struck. Export trade collapsed, so dockers were thrown out of work, and the knock-on effects saw thousands of other jobs lost too. Local people needed their council services more than ever, but Poplar Council did not have the money to fund them.
Councils had to raise all their money by taxing local residents. There were no significant central government grants or pooling of costs across London. From the meagre amount that Poplar’s working-class residents could afford, its council had to fund all the services they needed, including maintenance for those who were unemployed or impoverished (what we would now call welfare benefits).
DEFIANCE AND MOBILISATION
Poplar Council faced a choice: abandon the improvements by cutting services or raising rates, or defy the law. It chose defiance.
In early 1921, a conference of Poplar’s labour movement thoroughly debated the options available, and decided that the council would refuse to collect and hand over that portion of the rates (known as ‘precepts’) that was owed to cross-London bodies such as the Metropolitan Police and the London County Council.
This was not a clever trick by a small group of leaders; it was the strategy of a large, popular movement that set about building and mobilising its strength. Poplar Labour activists knocked on doors and spoke to workmates. They gave out leaflets which explaining the issue of local government funding and why the council was taking this action. They held outdoor marches and indoor rallies. Socialist newspaper the Daily Herald (edited by Poplar Councillor George Lansbury) reported on Poplar’s struggle to its readers across the country.
The London County Council took the issue to court, and convinced the judge to issue a ‘mandamus’: an instruction to Poplar Council to collect and hand over the precepts. When the councillors refused to do so, the court gave them the month of August to think about it, telling them that if they did not do as they had been told, they would go to prison. The councillors, and the local labour movement, spent the month holding more marches and rallies, giving out more leaflets, and holding a week-long fair to raise money and support!
PRISON AND VICTORY
Over the first five days of September 1921, the sheriff’s officers arrested thirty Poplar Labour councillors. They took the twenty-five men to Brixton prison. The five women arranged to be arrested together at Poplar Town Hall, where they gave speeches to a crowd of thousands of supporters who walked alongside the sheriff’s car to the edge of the borough, from where they were driven to Holloway prison.
Now behind bars, they kept up their fight. NUR branches help to organise marches to both prisons to show support for the councillors. Solidarity messasges and donations came in from around the country. And finally, two other councils – Poplar’s neighbours in Stepney and Bethnal Green – voted to take the same action as Poplar and withhold the precepts.
Under this pressure, the government arranged to release the councillors from prison and rushed a new law through Parliament that made rich boroughs contribute to a fund to help poor boroughs. Poplar and other working-class boroughs would no longer have to cut their services or raise their rates. They had won!
One hundred years on, the Tory government is again plunging councils into financial dire straits, taking away the central grants that they rely on. Although some Labour councils are doing some good work in a difficult climate, they are generally going along with cuts rather than resisting them. Working-class people suffer as a result: rents go up, special educational needs provision is slashed, libraries close, social care is stretched much too thinly.
RMT’s Annual General Meeting in October unanimously passed a resolution about the Poplar rebellion, agreeing that we could do with a revival of the Poplar spirit today!