Poplar: A Different Sort of Labour Council

An article published in Workers’ Liberty no.66 in 2001, which turned out to be a precursor to my 2009 book, Guilty and Proud Of It.

In Hackney, east London, the Labour/Tory coalition administration – the first in Britain since World War Two – is making drastic cuts to local services in one of Britain’s poorest districts after an unelected council official used Tory legislation to put a halt to any expenditure not mandated by law or required by legal contracts. The Labour councillors’ response? To continue the coalition and promise that they’re getting the council budget in order at last! The story of the very different Labour council in Poplar – also in east London – in 1919-21 shows an alternative course.

by Janine Booth

In 1919, Poplar elected its first Labour Council. The Labour Party won 39 of the 42 Council seats, and George Lansbury became Mayor. Lansbury was a Christian, a pacifist, a socialist, and was editor of the Daily Herald.

Poplar’s Labour councillors were predominantly industrial workers, including among their number rail workers, postmen, labourers and dock workers.

Minnie Lansbury was a Jewish school teacher and a member of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation. She and her husband Edgar, also a Councillor, joined the Communist Party in 1920. Councillor Julia Scurr was a Poor Law Guardian and women’s suffrage activist.

Poplar was a very poor borough, dominated by the docks and the railways (in 1921, one quarter of the adult male population was employed in transport). The borough had many small factories, workshops and sweatshops, so people in work were often poorly-paid, un-unionised and unskilled.

Around 160,000 people lived in Poplar. A survey in 1928 found that 24% of them lived in poverty – the highest percentage of any London borough. There was inadequate sanitation, chronic overcrowding and a high death rate amongst children.

The newly-elected Labour Council built houses; expanded provision of libraries, parks, swimming pools and wash-houses; established a TB officer and dispensary; improved street lighting and cleansing; distributed free milk; and brought electricity to the area. The council instituted a minimum wage of £4 per week for its own employees, with equal pay for men and women.

Slump hits Poplar

The economic recession which began in 1920 had a huge impact on Poplar, dependent as it was on the dock jobs provided by foreign trade.

The unemployed had three sources of financial support. Ex-servicemen and their dependents received allowances from the Ministry of Pensions. Officers received twice the money paid to other ranks, who were not raised above destitution. National Insurance schemes paid out very low levels of support, and were not intended to deal with long-term joblessness. Finally, there was the notorious Poor Law, dating from 1834 and designed to humiliate, degrade and punish, to deter workers from ‘idleness’.

What was to become known as ‘Poplarism’ was a challenge to the whole fabric of the Poor Law. The Council would be labelled in a Department of Health memorandum as ‘the would-be wreckers of the poor law system’, and could claim some credit for the eventual demise of the Poor Law.

Round one

Poplar Council decided to take action by setting up a public works scheme to provide employment and improve services. The Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, had announced government grants for such schemes, so in September 1920, the Council went ahead with a road and sewerage scheme at a cost of around £30,000. Three hundred jobs were created, rising to 500.

However, the government grants were to come with a big string attached – ex-service personnel had to be given priority. Poplar had decided instead to prioritise workers with the largest number of dependents. Poplar had a large number of railway workers who had been told during the war that their work was vital and they were not to join the armed forces. Now they were to be refused support when their ‘vital’ work was no longer there, and poverty weighed heavily on them and their families.

This was Poplar Labour Council’s first clash with the Liberal/Tory Coalition Government. Noreen Branson describes the situation they found themselves in: ‘The councillors were up against a situation which was new at the time, but which has faced many dedicated socialists since. Convinced of the need for fundamental changes in the system, such people have believed that if elected they will be in a position to make a major impact on the lives of those they represent. But once elected, whether in local or national government, they have found that their opportunities are smaller than expected. They are hemmed in by the structure of property relations which in turn is reinforced by administrative ties and legal props. They are bound down by the financial fetters imposed from on high. The existing framework is too strong for them.’

Faced with this dilemma, socialist councillors have a choice. They can either accommodate to the structures and rules of capitalism, attempting to administer it with a kind heart. Or they can fight in the interests of the working class who elected them. Poplar Council chose to fight.

London local government

Poplar was one of 28 Metropolitan Borough Councils in the capital. There were 28 Boards of Guardians, elected to administer the provisions of the Poor Law. There were also cross-capital authorities, the London County Council, Metropolitan Police Authority, Metropolitan Asylum Board and Water Board. These bodies were funded by precepts from the Borough Councils, but the precepts were not based on ability to pay. Moreover, each Borough was responsible for providing ‘relief’ to its own poor and jobless.

This system meant that the poorer a borough, the more its poverty-stricken residents had to pay. Poplar was paying towards the costs of rich boroughs for common services, but receiving no similar pooling to help poor relief.

Poplar could not bear the burden of the rating system. In 1921, it had a rateable value of £4m and 86,500 unemployed to support; West London, by contrast, could call on a rateable value of £15m to support only 4,800 jobless. And as recession bit ever harder, Poplar’s burden grew weightier. Its weekly ‘outdoor relief’ (dole) bill rose from £4,500 in June 1921 to £7,630 three months later.

The Council decided to consult the local labour movement about how it should fight. The Labour Party called a conference of trade union branches, at which George Lansbury proposed that the Council stop collecting the rates for outside, cross-London bodies. This was agreed, and on 31 March 1921, Poplar Council set a rate of 4s4d instead of 6s10d.

The Councillors set about mobilising public support, holding well-attended public meetings throughout April.

The government considered various methods of collecting the money for the precepts withheld by Poplar. Could they suspend or dismiss the Council? Set up an alternative mechanism for levying the rate? Could the London County Council get a court order to seize and sell Poplar Council’s assets? It concluded that none of these was possible, and so on 7 July 1921, sought and obtained a mandamus – an instruction by the Court to the Council to carry out its legal duties and collect the money.

The Council refused to comply; it reaffirmed the action and set the next quarter’s rate at 5s3d. The London County Council and the Metropolitan Asylum Board applied to the Court for the Councillors to be declared in contempt of the mandamus. Writs were served on 31 councillors by the LCC, and on 29 by the MAB.

On 29 July, the Councillors were summoned to Court. They met outside Poplar Town Hall and marched to the Court with 2000 of their supporters. The Councillors did not plan to win in a court they knew to be fundamentally biased against them, but to delay proceedings, continuing the rates relief, building support, and using the platform to promote their stance. The Daily Herald reported that day’s hearing: ‘This was no case of professional oratory by barristers or stage theatrics, but the impassioned pleading of men and women whose liberty was at stake for the remedy of the intolerable conditions under which the persons whom they represent are forced to exist.

‘In simple language Councillor after Councillor, some of them unemployed, some ex-Service men, told of the terrible conditions prevailing in Poplar, and explained why it was impossible to pay the precepts.’

The Court granted an absolute rule of attachment: Poplar Councillors had to pay the rates or go to prison.

To respect the law?

George Lansbury urged the workers’ movement to learn lessons about the nature of the legal system: ‘It is well that organised labour should understand that in the Courts of Law all the scales are weighted against us because all the judges administer class-made laws, laws which are expressly enacted, not to do justice but to preserve the present social order.’

When told accusingly that Poplar Council had broken laws, Mayor Sam March replied that ‘the master class has made the laws’.

Defying the law was not simply a matter of a moral stance – it was a tactic that could win. On 2 August, Sir Alfred Mond, Minister of Health, announced a change to the Metropolitan Poor Fund in favour of poorer boroughs. It was widely accepted that Poplar’s action had won this concession, and Mond hoped that the Council would now back down.

He hoped in vain. Two days later, Poplar Council reaffirmed its strategy, and set a rate (in advance) for the next quarter of 4s3d.

Even the East London Observer, a bosses’ local paper hostile to trade unionism, had to admit that defiance had worked. Whilst imploring the Councillors to ‘save their skins by levying the rate’ and urging the government to find alternative agency for collecting the money, the Observer commented that ‘It is really a most remarkable circumstance that in modern conditions of politics and administration, authority can never be got to do anything, or to make the slightest step towards reform, until aggrieved parties have made themselves a perfect nuisance, and indulged in all sorts of threatenings. The Government has really got to be intimidated.’

Herbert Morrison keeps to the law

Some in the labour movement disagreed. Herbert Morrison ensured that the London Labour Party, of which he was Secretary, issued a circular advising Labour Councils not to follow Poplar’s actions. Morrison, also Mayor of Hackney, led his own Borough Council in a different direction from that taken by Poplar: ‘Personally, I am very determined, in this question or any other question, only to uphold constitutional action and action within the law.’

Morrison strove to split ‘constitutional’ methods from ‘direct action’. The latter term had a syndicalist origin, specifically from strike action against Britain’s war against the young Soviet Union in 1919-20.

Herbert Morrison’s argument was that the way to win the equalisation of the rates was to educate people to vote for Labour candidates in elections; and that Labour should show itself to be efficient and responsible, and had nothing to gain from creating financial chaos.

Morrison’s arguments echo down the eight decades since (and would doubtless be warmly approved by his grandson Peter Mandelson). It is easy to find Labour councillors who have taken the same line; it may be more difficult to quote examples of what they have won for working-class people.


On Sunday 28 August, a demonstration in Tower Hill brought 4,000 people from Poplar together with contingents from neighbouring areas Stepney, Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. The banner at the front of the march declared that ‘Poplar Borough Councillors are still determined to go to prison to secure equalisation of rates for the poor Boroughs’. George Lansbury appealed to protesters to step up the action with a rent strike should the Councillors go to jail.

August 31 saw the last Council meeting before prison. Six thousand people attended a mass meeting outside Poplar Town Hall. Arrests began the next day. Five women Councillors were sent to Holloway prison; 25 men to Brixton.

Prison conditions were appalling, but outraged protests soon yielded improvements. On 11 September, the Councillors were given permission to meet. They did so a total of 32 times in prison, with, from 27 September, the women Councillors brought from Holloway to Brixton to join the meetings. They discussed prison conditions, Borough business and winning their release. Demonstrations were held outside the two prisons on most evenings.

On 21 September, public pressure led the government to release Nellie Cressall, who was six months pregnant. Embattled Ministers conjured up the ‘Official Solicitor’ to order Nellie’s release. This little-known functionary seems to appear only to get governments out of the tight spots they are forced into by working-class struggle. He was to appear again in 1972 to release the Pentonville Five, dockers imprisoned for opposing anti-union laws.

Support or solidarity

Whilst the Councillors were in prison, TUC Congress passed a resolution saluting their action. The National Union of General Workers also agreed a resolution of support which was delivered by their representative J.R. Clynes to the Councillors in jail, together with a £25 donation to the hardship fund for the Councillors’ families.

More than money and messages, what Poplar’s fight really needed was other Labour Councils to take the same action. But they did not.

The imprisoned Councillors were coming under pressure to ‘purge their contempt’ and accept a compromise to secure their freedom. They refused, insisting that it must be release first, negotiations later.

Herbert Morrison busied himself trying to intervene, to involve the Councillors in negotiations, and to act as mediator. He was, in effect, trying to take control out of the Councillors’ hands.

Morrison even took a deputation of London Labour Mayors to Scotland in pursuit of an audience with Lloyd George. He desperately wanted to prove that deferential lobbying and ‘constitutional methods’ could achieve progress, but he came back empty-handed on the questions of rates equalisation and jobs.

Faced with Poplar’s intransigence and big public support, the Government and the London County Council were desperate to find a way to back down and arrange the Councillors’ release. They found a way. They called a conference to discuss the issue, and allowed the court to release the prisoners to attend it. Again, a ruling class under working-class pressure was creative with the law. On 12 October, the Councillors were set free.

The East London Observer had called on the Government to ‘order the unconditional release of all the Poplar prisoners, and leave the solution of the civic problems at issue to reason and not to force – to peaceful persuasion and not to violent terrorism’. The government backed down out of fear of a working-class uprising.

The Councillors’ release was celebrated enthusiastically in Poplar. A women’s meeting at the Town Hall on 12 October, originally called to campaign for the prisoners’ release, went ahead with the (unexpected) attendance of some of the freed Councillors.

The Daily Herald described the homecoming: ‘Joyful reunions inside their homes 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 with its self-sacrificing champions.’

Poplar’s victory

The government had abjectly failed to defeat Poplar Council, to break their resolve or force them to collect the central precepts. Further, Poplar won real advances. For years, there had been calls for a Royal Commission to inquire into local government in Greater London. This call had been ignored until Poplar took action; then it was granted. It was similar with the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, which was punitive to the poor boroughs. Lobbying had been fruitless: Poplar refused to pay, and the Ministry of Health backed down and adjusted the Fund.

The London Authorities (Financial Provision) Act 1921 was hurriedly enacted by the Government, sharing outdoor relief and some indoor relief expenses through a common fund levied on all boroughs. Whilst not representing the full equalisation of rates, this Act reduced Poplar’s rate by 6s6d in the pound, whilst adding 1s to the rate in Westminster and the City of London.

Poplar Council’s fight casts a light of inspiration on the potential of direct action and mobilisation; but also a shadow of shame on Labour Councils since then which have failed to show the same courage.

Councils that dared not fight

On too many occasions, Labour Councils have backed down from a fight when the law threatened. In the 1980s, the Greater London Council abandoned its cheap-travel Fare’s Fair policy when told to by a judge. Militant-led Liverpool Council signed a shabby deal with the Tory Government rather than pursue a fight alongside the miners in 1985. In both cases, the Councils had an alternative: they could have fought the way that Poplar fought.

The Poplar Councillors were not revolutionaries. And the failings of more recent Town Hall ‘socialists’ are not the failings of brave but misguided reformists, but of cowards and collaborators. Even former Speaker of the House, Labour right-winger George Thomas, was able to say of George Lansbury: ‘There was nothing Marxist about him. For him it was a moral movement, about social justice. It was not a struggle for power, it was a struggle for values – and that put him head and shoulders above men like Herbert Morrison and Ernie Bevin.’ And David Blunkett. And Derek Hatton. And Ken Livingstone.

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