Since the recent imposition of a massive cuts agenda in Doncaster, the Poplar council revolt of 1921 helps us develop an analysis of how to fight the Tories and Labour.
The elections of May 2010 seem to have been a turning point in the fortunes of the Labour Party. Although they were defeated, the scale of the defeat was nowhere near as calamitous as the pundits were predicting.
Many voters clearly understood that the election of the Tories would presage cuts on a scale unforeseen for decades. In that sense Labour’s vote was against the Tories, rather than for Labour.
Similarly the Labour party has enjoyed some growth, and 20,000 new members allegedly signed up the week after the May election.
Labour Party analysts have drawn some distorted conclusions from all this. Mark Seddon is typical of those who argue that the election ‘marked the end of New Labour’ and their respectable vote showed that the real Labour Party was still the party of the working class.
The current candidates in the Labour leadership contest are all happy to insert the word ‘socialism’ into a speech or make reference to the working class to convey the distance they have travelled since most of them served under Blair and Brown, and this tells us that they are clearly aware of the disgust which most workers hold for their market driven, war mongering, business-friendly past.
But any serious analysis shows that dropping the ‘New Labour’ tag is an exercise in re-branding, rather than a substantive change. Ed Balls is very good at attacking the Con-Dem education plans as ‘selling off education to the Tories’ rich friends’, but for those who had his academies forced on them when he was Minister of Education, it is hypocrisy on stilts.
The contradictions that show why workers voted Labour, and what they can realistically expect for their efforts, is well exposed by looking at the example of Doncaster, where a right wing Labour group won a clear victory, but have since refused to oppose the council being run by the Tories from Whitehall.
This is followed, by comparison, to the action taken to defend the workers of Poplar in 1921, which resulted in Labour councillors being prepared to face jail in order to win their demands.
One aspect of the utter contempt that Blair had for working class democracy was the imposition of mayoral systems on towns and cities where he thought that they would always and forever return a Labour nominee. He was wrong about this. New Labour’s disregard for working class policies has seen the rise of the right in many of these constituencies.
Ken Livingstone was displaced by Boris Johnson in London. In Stoke the BNP rose to alarming levels of popularity. And in Doncaster, the town that gave birth to the Labour party, Martin Winter was replaced by the most unpleasant elected mayor anywhere in the country.
Peter Davies is the father of far right Tory MP Philip Davies. He was a devoted Thatcherite, a Doncaster school teacher who left the Tories to join UKIP when John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty. These in turn proved to be too left-wing and he then joined the English Democrats.
His policies include the deletion of all references to Equality and Diversity from council documents; the ending of the council’s translation services; the ending of funding from the council for Doncaster Pride and the abolition of Black History Month.
Doncaster ended up with this ultra-Tory because Blair wanted to ‘fast-track change’ as he put it, by using the mayoral executive to ram through policies from Whitehall that would otherwise be delayed by democratic objections. These right wing policies included the academisation of secondary education, and the building of high profile projects rather than council housing, such as Doncaster’s loss making Keepmoat Stadium, to show that Labour was making a difference.
Local democracy was by-passed, local services spiralled into market-driven anarchy - and there were real casualties. The most notorious of these was Doncaster Children’s Services where a disconnected branch of the Blairite manageocracy imposed production targets and demanded quality assurance evidence that tied up social workers in bureaucracy, while the service to its users declined.
The result made Doncaster a by-word for the neglect of children. Seven children died whilst under council care, and this was finished off by the Edlington case in which two abused boys, both in care, attacked and seriously injured two other children.
A year ago the despairing voters of Doncaster took a terrible revenge on New Labour mayor Martin Winter and elected an English Democrat replacement. Amazingly though, the Labour Party was not finished in Doncaster. Far from it - they stormed back in this year’s elections winning 19 of the contested council seats, which gave them, once again, the majority of seats on the council.
What did they do to win? Well, nothing exceptional really. Peter Davies soon revealed himself to be as inept as he was bigoted, and the EDs were trounced in every constituency. He even lost his Tory deputy’s seat to Labour. What won the vote for Labour was the fear that Doncaster voters have of Tory governments.
Before Thatcher came to power in 1979, Doncaster was a busy town with pits and factories all over the district. Thatcher’s war on manufacturing has reduced Doncaster to being an unemployment black spot, with a high level of benefit dependency, and a predominant role for the public sector.
This raises the question of how Doncaster’s majority of Labour councillors will serve their voters - and the signs to date are not good. Immediately after the May election the government’s Local Authority Audit Commission produced its report that had been commissioned under Brown. The report found that Doncaster was the ‘worst performing council in Britain’, that it was ‘dysfunctional’.
But of course it never put the blame on New Labour’s policies, or the business model it employed. The blame was put instead on ‘inter-party bickering’ in the Council Chamber that had prevented the mayor from operating. The mayor himself was rebuked for making ‘unhelpful comments’ such as saying that he admired the Taliban for their family values.
The main feature of the report however is the recommendation that the government should take over the running of Doncaster Council, and act as he executive. This is usually refered to as a ‘putsch’. Now Doncaster’s democratic mandate has been completely usurped. Tory Local Government Minister Eric Pickles has appointed three commissioners who will tell the council what to do. This will completely override democracy.
The commissioners have the power to ‘dismiss, discipline and appoint’ council officers. Their first act was to instate a new Council chief, Rob Vincent, on a salary of £179,000. While doing the same job at Kirk Lees he made over a thousand council workers redundant.His first statement was, ‘If you make cuts of 25 per cent there are bound to be job losses’. When you add this to the cuts made to the NHS, and the scrapping of Doncaster’s project of refurbishing its schools through ‘Building Schools for the Future’, the people of Doncaster are in a plight.
What has been the response of the Labour Party to this travesty? The three Doncaster Labour MPs - Rosie Winterton, Caroline Flint and Ed Milliband, plus the leader of the Labour group in the council - have all supported the Tory plans, and said they will work with the commissioners and their Tory and ED pals, ‘to make it work for the people of Doncaster’! The end of New Labour? Party of the working class?
In 1921, 30 Labour councillors in Poplar stood up to central government, refused to impose an unfair rate system and went to prison as part of a strategy involving thousands of workers. And they won! Clearly there are important lessons for us here. However, it must be noted at the outset that this is no harking back to a ‘golden age of Labour’. The Poplar councillors had to defy the Labour leadership every step of the way.
The Poplar revolt was led by George Lansbury. In his own life and after, he was loved and hated for being a ‘socialist of conscience’. Lansbury was certainly influenced by his Christian upbringing, and was indeed a man with a profound hatred of injustice. He hated war and poverty, and was a supporter of the Women’s Suffrage movement, being prepared to go to prison, charged with sedition, for his beliefs in 1913.
At the outbreak of World War I the Daily Herald which he edited carried the headline ‘War is Hell!’ His pacifism and feminism made him a target for the right, but the workers of Poplar loved him as a man of principle who acted on his conscience.
There is a profound difference to being elected to parliament and elected to local government. The national state is there to uphold the rule of the capitalists. Local government is there to provide services for the community, and invariably warrants opposition to the national government. In Poplar this was to lead thirty Labour councillors into a collision with the law and prison.
Poplar was a poor area. The main industries were associated with the docks, and wages here were low as dockers were hired at the dock gates, and denied a decent wage. Lansbury was the mayor of Poplar and did much to tackle the poverty he hated.
He had tried various unemployment schemes, helped open a school in Essex for deprived children from Poplar, and he campaigned against all manifestations of poverty such as alcohol abuse and the degradation of women.
But it was increasingly impossible to use the council funds as a vehicle for improvement when the rates collected in Poplar were required by law to be paid into a fund held by London County Council. This meant money from the poor was going to fund better-off boroughs with less needs. To fight poverty there can only be one practical solution, and that is to transfer wealth from rich to poor.
As Lansbury put it, ‘the workers must be given tangible proof that Labour administration means something different from Capitalist administration, and in a nutshell this means transferring wealth from wealthy rate payers to the poor’. And here it is important to note that the councillors as a whole were elected from trade union backgrounds. Nearly half the jailed councillors had served as lay officers in their trade unions, and they were supported by the workers who elected them and demanded change.
The Poplar revolt was a working class revolt, providing the energy and drive to lift their councillors to heroic deeds. At a packed meeting in Poplar town hall, the council voted to withhold rates and improved unemployment allowances as well as raising the wage of council workers to a minimum of £4 a week. In September 1921 the councillors marched to court backed by thousands of supporters.
At the head of the demonstration was a banner that read, 'Poplar Borough Council, Marching to the High Court and Possibly to Prison, To Secure The Equalisation of Rates For Poor Boroughs'. The councillors were duly sent to prison. This was the cue for a mass campaign in Poplar that began to spread to other boroughs. The prisoners spoke through their bars to sizeable demonstrations.
A rent strike was organised and even the TUC lent support. Marches and clashes with the police occurred with both unemployed and working labourers demanding ‘Employment or Maintenance’. After six weeks campaigning the councillors were released and the government conceded the main aim of the protest - the equalisation of the rates.
They were welcomed home with a massive demonstration in Victoria Park, and held mass meetings throughout the East End. The Poplar revolt was a battle for reforms. Real reforms were won and we need to show these to the faint hearts in the movement today. The death-rate in Polar halved from 22.7 per 1,000 in 1918 to 11.3 per 1,000 in 1923.
In the same period infant mortality fell from 106 to 60 per year. Compare this to Labour in office where child poverty rose. Poplar was undoubtedly a superb victory, but it did not happen because Labour was different then. Nor did the victory lead to a shift leftwards in the Labour Party. In fact the victory in Poplar embarrassed the Labour leadership and the gains were lost in 1925 when the House of Lords ruled against the council paying its workers £4 a week- the council (by now completely Labour) caved in and instituted wage cuts.
Why had the workers become demoralised between 1921 and 1925 and proved unable to defend or extend their gains? The answer is a simple one - the election of Labour’s first national government in 1924. The scourge of the working class was unemployment and declining wages. The first cabinet meeting addressed the issue of transport strikes and ‘without a dissentient voice’ introduced a scabs charter - the Emergency Powers Act - which they immediately used to browbeat union officials.
On unemployment Ramsey MacDonald told parliament, ‘we shall concentrate not first of all on the relief of unemployment, but on the restoration of trade’. The ILP paper Forwards carried an article, without irony, entitled ‘Labour, the True Capitalism’. The Poplar revolt was an embarrassing memory that needed to be expunged.
Lenin’s view that the Labour Party was a party made up of workers, but led by ‘the worst bourgeois elements and social traitors’ is absolutely confirmed today as in the 1920s. The relationship of the Labour Party to workers is to use them as a stage army to get them elected, then dismiss them until the next election rolls round. They talk of struggle when they want votes.
The basic truth that workers only get what they fight for is confirmed positively by Poplar and negatively by Doncaster. Poplar proved the impossibility of defending the workers who vote Labour without confronting the government. When we see the democratic wishes of the people of Doncaster overturned by the dictat of the Tories it is clearly time to use the lessons of Poplar to full effect while not repeating the mistakes.
We want an end to Tory dictat, and an end to the mayoral system, as part of getting the funds for Children’s Services, schools, libraries, and housing. We need to find representatives who have a conscience and genuinely stand to serve the workers, but we will not find them unless there is a struggle against the cuts led by socialists that are independent of the Labour Party and their allies in the trade union bureaucracy.
Successful, militant campaigns produce brave and principled fighters. Revolutionaries make the best reformists, and Doncaster Counterfire stands in that tradition.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.