England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Councils that dared to fight: Poplar 1921

By Cormac Kelly, Socialist Alternative West Yorkshire

Councils across Britain are facing huge financial problems. The Tories have ruthlessly cut grants to councils, leaving them with massive economic problems. Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire is reducing its budget by £47.8m this year and £61.1 million by 2026. Many fear section 114 notices, which declare them insolvent, and allow for government commissioners to be sent in to deprive an area of its essential facilities and services.

The local council leader in Kirklees, Cathy Scott has already stated that “people are going to suffer pain from losing services”. Labour councils, elected with the support of working people, have failed to put up any kind of resistance and cravenly surrender to government pressure. But in British labour history there are three councils which stood up for working people and fought Tory governments in their defence.

In this three-part series documenting councils who dared to fight, we begin with the struggle of Poplar council in the 1920s. In this momentous struggle, 30 councillors and guardians were sent to prison for defying the government.

Mural to the Poplar councillors in Hale Street, London.

Background

Poplar is a working class district in East London which suffered huge exploitation by employers, with shockingly high levels of poverty, overcrowding and unemployment. Housing was poor and disease was common, as workers toiled on the docks in poor conditions, moving goods from across the world as British imperialism bled its colonies of their wealth.

In 1919, this deprivation was to be challenged. Poplar Borough Council came under the control of a socialist Labour council elected on a mandate to implement radical change for the local working class and to support 86,500 people living in desperate impoverishment. Whilst there was a desperate and dire need for poverty relief and help for the unemployed, the council found they had no money. But the council was determined to keep their promises and make their priority the need to improve the lives of working people.

The Poplar councillors were overwhelmingly working class, being dockers, rail workers and labourers. Many had been steeled in the class struggle even before election. Unlike other Labour councillors, they were not there to fulfil their ego needs or to live off allowances. Some had been involved in action when dockers refused to load munitions to the Jolly George to be used against the Russian working class and the Bolsheviks. They were fighters schooled in trade union struggles, political debates conducted by the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and by the stormy events of the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Many of the women came from the socialist wing of the suffragette movement. They came from the working class and they had living experience of exploitation.

The council undertook a number of significant social reforms, including equal pay for women, the building of houses, parks and wash houses, distribution of free milk, and a minimum wage for council workers above the national average. They planned the demolition of overcrowded and unhealthy housing, appointing three new sanitary inspectors who would order slum landlords to carry out improvements. Poplar suffered endemic tuberculosis. Infant mortality was rampant, with 1 in 8 babies born before the war not surviving their infancy.

“Better to break the law than break the poor”

The council not only had to meet local needs and raise poor relief, but also to pay rates towards the upkeep of London wide authorities, including the Metropolitan Police, Metropolitan Asylums Board and the Metropolitan Water Board. But these rates were distributed extremely unfairly.

Wealthier West London boroughs had just 5,000 poor to support as opposed to 86,500 in East London, yet equal amounts were expected to be paid to the London wide authority. But Poplar’s rates were significantly higher as a proportion than more wealthy boroughs, because of the poverty of the area and the lower rateable value of properties.

The council developed a plan to refuse to collect this rate and deny any money to the London-wide authorities. They raised the immortal slogan “it’s better to break the law than break the poor.” However, for this to succeed they had to be organised.

The first thing they did was to organise resistance. A conference was called involving trade unions and Labour Party members to build support and develop unity. The conference gave unanimous backing to the action and resolved to support the fight. The council set a lower rate and raised the demand for equalising rates across the city. By the end of Spring, the first payment was due and the council refused to pay it. In response, the council was taken to the High Court.

On the day of the court case, 28 July, 1921, a demonstration of 2,000 workers marched on the building. The judges showed their usual lack of sympathy for the working class and gave them 14 days to pay or face prison. This time was used to organise resistance. All the borough’s ratepayers were contacted as the council explained its position and Poplar Trades Council circulated fellow trades councils in London to urge them to put pressure on their local Labour councils to support the action. From 1 September, arrests of councillors started to occur over a period of several days.

“On the day of the court case, a demonstration of 2000 workers on the 28 July 1921 marched on the building.”

The judges indefinitely imprisoned thirty councillors, including six women, one of whom was Nellie Cresall, who was pregnant at the time. Cresall was a seasoned suffrage and labour activist, jailed for ‘contempt of court’ for refusing to remit the monies.

In prison, the councillors demanded to be treated as political prisoners. They demanded good food, books and the right to run the council whilst in jail. They insisted that cell doors be kept open for some of the evening to be able to conduct council business. As elected officials, they demanded the right to meet together as a council which involved women prisoners taken from Holloway to Brixton. In total, 34 council meetings were held.

Mass response

These arrests prompted a backlash from Poplar residents, who flocked onto the streets in support of the councillors. There were nightly demonstrations outside the prison, with marching bands and The Red Flag being sung loudly. Trade unions passed motions of support and collected funds for councillors’ families. George Lansbury, the council leader, was able to address demonstrators through a window.

Council and rates rebellion leader, George Lansbury.

Demonstrations were held every weekend in East London to rally support. Thousands came together in support in Trafalgar Square on 10 September. With unemployment rising throughout the country, unemployed demonstrations (and in some cases, riots) broke out in cities such as Dundee and Liverpool. Meetings of angry workers were frequently held. The unemployed held meetings throughout London in August and September, giving particular focus to the struggle in Poplar.

Enormous pressure was put on the government and the courts. If the councillors were dismissed, new elections would see more elected in their place, determined to continue the policy of defiance, such was local feeling in Poplar. When the threat of the withdrawal of police was made, Poplar secured a promise from the Police and Prison Officers Union that they would supply the area with a ‘trade union police force’, earning an average workers wage.

Relentlessly the movement grew, with neighbouring boroughs Bethnal Green, Battersea and Stepney councils all threatening to withhold their rates. The Poplar councillors gave leadership which encouraged widespread solidarity action. The right wing of the Labour Party was furious, and people like Herbert Morrison (grandfather of the hated Blairite Peter Mandelson) campaigned against the actions of Poplar councillors. They wanted cosy discussions with the government and compromise.

Some right-wing Labour councillors adopted the position of political scabs, and voted with the opposition to undermine support for Poplar. History demonstrates that without a clear class analysis and understanding of the need to fight in order to win gains for working class people, many can end up betraying those who elect them. Careerists can often be found in the labour movement, who will take any opportunity to sabotage socialist policies.

“Several Poplar councillors passed away within a few years of their release as a result of their prison experience. One such fighter, Minnie Lansbury developed pneumonia and died at the age of 32, just a year later in 1922.”

The phenomenon of ‘Poplarism’ was spreading, and the Tory/Liberal coalition government under Prime Minister David Lloyd-George realised that real danger of revolution was spreading. After six weeks of relentless campaigning and pressure they backed down. The High Court ordered the prisoners to be released. A law equalising rates and reducing financial pressure on councils in East London was passed. Poplar never paid the money it owed.

Sadly, not everything was positive. Several Poplar councillors passed away within a few years of their release as a result of their prison experience. One such fighter, Minnie Lansbury developed pneumonia and died at the age of 32, just a year later in 1922.

However the sacrifice and struggle of the Poplar rebel councillors should serve as an inspiration to all labour movement activists and workers. What are the lessons for today from the struggle and victory of the Poplar councillors? They were elected on a socialist programme and they were determined regardless of the obstacles to carry out their pledges.

Councillors came from the working class, knew about real poverty and they had already a wealth of experience fighting the capitalist state. They knew that being involved in a class struggle was the only way to raise the living standards of working people. Finally recognising the nature of the struggle, they were able to give leadership to the working class.

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