The commemoration of the heroic stance taken by Poplar council and the workers 100 years ago has many lessons for activists today, writes John Westmoreland
Poplar’s councillors led a mass movement for radical change to benefit the working class in London’s East End. They defied the government and the courts, served time in prison, and had to defy the leadership of the Labour Party too.
‘Poplarism’ is an ideal that many in the Labour movement hold dear.
At the end of war in 1918 there was a short-lived boom. By 1921 it was over and unemployment blighted much of the country. In Poplar, the decline in trade hit the dock workers hard. Poplar had a population of 160,000 people, but with some 15,574 unemployed, poverty was widespread.
The needs of the unemployed had to be met by the council. Yet instead of funds being made available for Poplar by the government or the London County Council (LCC), rates flowed away from the needy in Poplar to fund wealthier councils in the city.
In 1921, Poplar was ordered to pay an increase in city-wide rates of some 25%, and this ignited the historic Poplar rates revolt. The response of the Labour movement was decisive.
A conference of trade union branches was called. George Lansbury, leader of the Poplar Labour councillors, proposed that the council stop collecting the rates for cross-London bodies. The proposal was voted through, and on 31 March the council set a reduced rate that would set them against the LCC, the government and the Labour leadership.
Of the 42 Poplar councillors elected in 1919, 39 of them were Labour, 30 of whom would go to prison. Before 1919, councils were dominated by the wealthy, businessmen and Conservatives. But war and revolution had changed working class politics.
Poplar’s Labour councillors were from trade union and campaigning backgrounds. George Lansbury was the leading figure in the Poplar revolt. Lansbury was influenced by his Christian upbringing, and was 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 for his beliefs in 1913.
East End politics had also been influenced by the women’s suffrage movement. Poplar’s women councillors had been involved in Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes. Julia Scurr, Minnie Lansbury, Jennie MacKay, Susan Lawrence and Nellie Cressall were fighters for the East End workers and had a massive base of support.
Grassroots involvement propelled the councillors to their heroic deeds. The councillors’ aim was summed up by Lansbury:
“The workers must be given tangible proof that Labour administration means something different from Capitalist administration, and in a nutshell this means diverting wealth from wealthy ratepayers to the poor.”
True to his word, Poplar was, among other things, to introduce equal pay from women workers and increase the pay of council employees with a minimum wage that would support a family.
The battle ground of the Poplar revolt was the ‘equalisation of the rates’. This was a fight with a clear socialist demand: to redistribute wealth from the richer boroughs to the poorer ones.
The rates paid by workers went as part of their rent. A rent strike became the way to withhold rates and involved working class families across the borough in support of the rates campaign.
On 28 May 1921, the first instalment of increased rates to the LCC was due. But Poplar stood firm and the LLC decided to take the matter to the High Court. They thought the threat of legal action would make the councillors back down. They knew that it would also encourage the Labour Party to move against Poplar.
George Lansbury summed up the choices to a huge crowd outside Poplar town hall:
"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."
George Lansbury and the councillors spoke to a crowd of supporters on the morning of their court appearance outside the Poplar town hall. “If we have to choose,” said Lansbury, “between contempt of the poor and contempt of court, it will be contempt of court.”
A march of 2,000 set off to the High Court from Poplar. 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'.
25 men and five women were duly sent to prison. One of the women, Nellie Cressall, was heavily pregnant. It took courage and the solidarity of a mass movement to carry the fight forwards.
There was a massive campaign in Poplar that began to spread to other boroughs. Stepney and Bethnal Green councils were to refuse the new rates. There was solidarity action in Liverpool and Dundee too where unemployed workers rioted. Crowds gathered outside Brixton and Holloway prisons. Poplar’s councillors addressed the crowds from behind bars and continued to fight and organise.
A movement was building. Despite the best efforts of Labour leaders to isolate Poplar, it wasn’t working. Peter Mandelson’s grandfather, Herbert Morrison, campaigned to stop other London councils joining the rebels. But he was all too aware of the potential of the movement to spread. Morrison was forced to plead with the prime minister: “A sheer lack of faith in the whole of the institutions of State is growing among those bands of hungry desperate men - which is dangerous to National Government and to Local Government.”
After six weeks of imprisonment the Poplar councillors were refusing to move. The statement they had issued was read up and down the country:
"Thirty of us, members of the Poplar borough council, have been committed to prison. This has been done because we have refused to levy a rate on the people of our borough to meet the demand of the LCC and other central authorities. We have taken this action deliberately and we shall continue to take the same course until the government deals properly with the question of unemployment, providing work or full maintenance for all, and carries into effect the long-promised and much overdue reform of the equalisation of rates."
On 10 September a massive demonstration was held in Trafalgar Square, and the government was desperate to find a way out. Suddenly the ‘impossible’ demands of the Poplar revolt were met. New legislation was brought in to equalise the rates. Poplar had won!
Short-lived victory with crucial lessons
The Poplar rates revolt gave rise to the word ‘Poplarism’. The term recalls an heroic fight that made a real difference to working class lives. For example, child poverty and children’s mortality declined substantially across the borough between 1919 and 1925.
Poplarism showed that elected office can be used to build a mass movement, mobilise workers and defeat the establishment. But reforms gained through struggle can only be defended through struggle, and the Labour Party was not transformed into a party of struggle by the rates strike. Rather Poplarism was an embarrassment to Labour leaders who only saw reform coming through parliament.
When the Labour Party was elected to office in 1924 Poplarism needed to be buried by a Labour leadership extolling ‘responsible government’. In 1925 the House of Lords ruled that the £4 minimum wage paid to Polar council’s workers was ‘extravagant’ and illegal.
The electoral logic of Labour in office is that ‘we don’t fight with ourselves.’ Poplar council was 100 per cent Labour by 1925, but there was no fightback. The need to keep Labour electable outweighed the needs of the workers. Child poverty began to rise again. Poplarism was dead, except as an ideal.
Nevertheless, the lessons of Poplar are still highly relevant today. Labour councils continue to implement Tory cuts and good socialists elected into local government are silenced and side-lined. Starmer’s authoritarian and useless leadership has to be confronted in the trade unions and Labour Party.
Local government finance remains beset by inequalities. Today, Westminster’s Band D residents pay less than half of today’s Poplar residents, while residents of other working class London boroughs pay even more. Meanwhile, in a far cry from the rebellious spirit of 1921, Labour councils have cut services and implemented fire and rehire tactics against workers.
But it is worth remembering that the legacy of Poplarism does not lie purely in gestures of martyrdom by councillors. Rather, Poplar was a centre of popular resistance and community activism which drew in sections of the local labour movement. Herein lies the key to generating a fighting unity today against yet more attacks on jobs and conditions and against Johnson’s government.
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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