Janine Booth’s recently published book “Guilty and Proud Of It!” is a story about how a group of socialist Labour councillors in Poplar, East London, refused to bow to the “norms” of capitalist economics and politics, and stood up for the working-class people who voted them in. They went to prison rather than accepting inequitable taxes. Newly-enfranchised working-class voters elected Labour to run the Council in 1919. For the next two years, it improved life for Poplar residents, coming into ever-increasing conflict with the central authorities and the local government funding system. The crisis came in 1921. With unemployment rising, Poplar Borough Council could not provide relief drawing only on the limited wealth of one poor London borough. Poplar councillors, including future Labour leader George Lansbury, demanded that rates from richer areas should help. Rich Kensington had a hugely greater rateable value and far fewer jobless people: it could afford to pay more. So Poplar refused to pay over rates to the London County Council, and thus began the Poplar Revolt. Poplar’s fight took its Councillors to prison in September 1921. After six weeks, the courts released them from prison and the government changed the law to redistribute funding from richer to poorer boroughs: they had won! Over the following years, they continued to battle, but lost momentum. The following extracts from Janine’s book are a summary of this tremendous of the story. Janine is a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a London Underground worker and an activist in the RMT union. She lives in Hackney, East London.
Storm clouds gathering
Labour’s appeal to Poplar voters in November 1919 found shocking success. The local press announced “Great Labour Victories”. On a 28% turnout, Labour had won 39 of the 42 Council seats. A riverside area in East London, Poplar ranked tenth in size and population of the 28 Metropolitan London boroughs… One of its new Labour Councillors, Edgar Lansbury, described it as “a place where money is made and lives destroyed.” … Labour had hoisted its own flag, and George Lansbury explained that “all the muddle-headed Fabian intellectualism which caused the old Poplar Labour League to unite itself with Liberalism masquerading as Progressivism, has been swept away… We are all clear class-conscious socialists working together.” November 1919 was a new dawn for working-class politics in Poplar and elsewhere…. In 1919, for the first time ever, Poplar’s Council looked like its electorate. It included railworkers, dockers, labourers, postmen, a road engineer, a toolmaker, a lead worker and a farrier. … Having established the principle of contesting elections independently for working-class interests, Poplar’s socialists now turned their attention to governing independently in working-class interests. Now Labour had power in Poplar Council, what was it to do? Make small improvements here and there? No. These Councillors made a clear and bold choice: they would use all their powers to dramatically improve the lives of Poplar’s working class.
Defying the system
The five poor areas of East London had a rateable value of just over £4 million, with 86,500 poor to support. The East End carried 17 times the burden of the West End but with only a quarter of the capacity to pay. If Westminster increased its rate by 1d, it would raise £29,000; in Poplar, a 1d rise would raise just £3,200. Poplar Council issued a leaflet to residents denouncing a system that it called “robbery of the poor in poor Boroughs to save the purses of the rich in the rich Boroughs” …. By March 1921, the precepts were overdue. Poplar Council owed the LCC £30,000, the Metropolitan Police £25,000 and the Metropolitan Water Board £40,000. … Poplar could not, and would not, pay…. The Poplar Councillors knew that their action was illegal and that they could not win in court. They understood, as Sam March put it, that “The master class has made the laws”, and took the stance that if the law makes you choose between breaking it and attacking the people you represent, then you break it…. On the morning of their court appearance, 29 July, the Councillors assembled outside Poplar Town Hall. George Lansbury told the crowd of supporters: “If we have to choose between contempt of the poor and contempt of court, it will be contempt of court.” Two thousand people, including 3-400 dock trade unionists carrying banners, marched with their Councillors the five miles from Poplar to the Court.
In and out of prison
Arrests began on 1 September. The Daily Herald’s headline that day was ‘‘Over The Top for the Workless”, stirring working-class people to fight for those betrayed by the government that had sent them to a bloody war in the trenches. The Herald would give its prime front-page slot to the Councillors for the next seven issues too. Thousands of local people were willing to physically prevent the arrests, but that was not part of the Councillors’strategy. Minnie Lansbury wrote to The Times, explaining that they had no wish to be martyrs, but had they so desired, “nothing short of a machine gun detachment” could have got them to prison. So the thousands gathered at the Councillors’ homes to show their support…. Edgar Lansbury recalls that: “Enormous processions marched with bands and banners round the prison walls. Leather-lunged orators addressed the crowds from the upper windows of houses facing the prison. We could see them plainly over the prison wall, and they could see us peering between the bars of our cell windows. We all sang the Red Flag, the Internationale, and other socialist songs, shouted greetings to each other over the wall, and as a rule father would wind up the demonstrations with one of his rousing speeches which could be heard throughout the prison.” … [Minster of Health Sir Alfred] Mond was looking for a way out, forced to do so by the Councillors’ determination, the mass mobilisations in their support, and the moves by other Councils to follow their lead. The result of Poplar’s choices was that the Minister of Health had no choice but to meet their demands…. They returned to Poplar as heroes, welcomed by a huge crowd, with brass band and red flags. They went first to Sam March’s house, “and from there the Irish band took them home, one by one, with pipes and drums playing Irish music.” The Daily Herald reported: “Joyful reunions inside their houses and joyful demonstrations without, the Councillors must have felt a sense of triumph that compensated for the bitterness of the past few weeks. In the crowd that followed the band round the streets faces were smiling as they seldom smile ordinarily in that poor borough. Men took off their caps and waved them in the air, women shouted and laughed, and the children made sympathetic noises. The whole babel was a spontaneous outburst of working-class sympathy for its self-sacrificing champions.”
The years after
Mond appointed as his inquisitor Mr. H.I.Cooper, Clerk to the Bolton Guardians and a stern defender of the Poor Law’s oppressive principles. … Poplar’s opponents who anticipated an exposé of corruption were disappointed, as there was none to expose. Instead, Cooper’s report, finished on 10 May, condemned the Guardians’ policies as “foreign to the spirit and intention of the Poor Law Statutes”. They did not discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor! They thought that parents should not have to live off their kids! They served butter in the workhouse! And sent 140 poor children on a summer holiday! And handed out a couple of shillings extra at Christmas! Workhouse staff were in a trade union! These Guardians even gave dole money to people who were not on the very edge of starvation!… The Poplar Guardians responded to the Cooper Report with a pamphlet, Guilty And Proud Of It. Their duty, they wrote, was “to be Guardians of the poor and not the Guardians of the interests of property … the poor are poor because they are robbed, and are robbed because they are poor.”… Several Labour Councils, including Poplar, had introduced a minimum wage of £4 per week in 1920. [Conservatives] attacked the minimum wage from day one, and the further that industrial wages fell, the more hysterical the employers’ demands that municipal wages should fall too…. £4 per week, said the judges, was “unreasonable”. A bitter George Lansbury pointed out afterwards that four of the five Lords received over £120 per week. The exception was “poor Wrenbury who drags out a hungry existence on about £55 per week — often when I see a man shivering at a street corner, I say ‘That may be poor Wrenbury’… It needed high moral courage to announce to the world your profound conviction that any one of you was worth thirty ordinary men. Except of course poor Wrenbury, who is worth only fourteen ordinary men.” Lord Atkinson reserved particular outrage for the suggestion that charwomen might deserve £4 per week, a sum so high that it could not be considered wages at all, but “gifts and gratuities disguised as wages and therefore illegal”…. Over the next three years, Chamberlain introduced new legislation to: disqualify rebel Councillors from office; place the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund under the control of Ministry of Health nominees; and abolish Boards of Guardians… One of his biographers recognised that the “roots of Chamberlain’s battle for control of the Poor Law can be traced back to the ‘Revolt of Poplar’ in the autumn of 1921” . He had completed a long and ultimately successful counter-offensive.
Outcomes and conclusions
Why did Poplar win in 1921? I suggest five key reasons: it was a labour movement fight; based on popular mobilisation; acting in unity and solidarity; with a clear understanding of the political issues; and prepared to defy unjust laws…. Poplar’s Councillors knew that their people already suffered poverty and ruin, and the idea of abandoning them was fantasy of the horrific kind. Their choice was between two prisons: the literal one; and political imprisonment, caged by unfair laws. Many Labour Councils today choose to cut and privatise services. They may feel uncomfortable at first but soon move from apologetically justifying these policies on the basis of “no choice” to positively advocating them. And some choose policies that should be anathema to socialists – such as fat-cat salaries for Chief Executives – without any law or budget forcing them to…. In the 1920s, Poplar’s Councillors and Guardians chose to fight. Had they chosen differently, we would not even remember them.