SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 139 - June 2010

Taking the Poplar road

Guilty and proud of it! Poplar’s rebel councillors and guardians, 1919-1925

By Janine Booth

Published by Merlin, 2009, £12-95

Reviewed by Naomi Byron

A REMINDER of the struggles of Poplar council in the early 1920s is very timely for the discussion about how best to defend council services from the ‘savage cuts’ demanded by the new government. Instead of accepting cuts in grants from central government, the Socialist Party argues for councils to lead a mass campaign for proper funding for local services, involving the local community and trade unions.

In the 1920s Poplar council in east London did just this. Newly elected on a rising tide of industrial militancy and the extension of the right to vote to men over 21 and women over 21 with property, the council fought for the resources to deal with the enormous problems of poverty, unemployment, overcrowding and bad housing.

The Poplar councillors changed local government. Instead of the corrupt rule of local businessmen and the rich, who had dominated before, Poplar council gave workers a political voice. They began one of the first programmes of mass public house-building and introduced a living wage for council workers, including equal pay for women for the first time. The lowest-paid men saw their wages rise by 25% and women by 70%!

Poplar began a programme of public works that employed thousands and increased relief payments to something approaching what was needed, and got rid of the petty rules and moral judgements used to deny help to those in need. They appointed a full-time TB officer and opened a TB dispensary, to treat tuberculosis patients, opened public baths on Sundays (when most people had no indoor toilets, let alone bathrooms) and distributed free or cheap milk for expectant mothers and babies.

One of their biggest achievements was getting local rates (the equivalent to council tax) equalised across London. This meant that, instead of the poor paying higher rates to deal with the problems of their poverty, the rich who profited from the sweat of the workers had to pay their share.

These victories were not won easily. The councillors understood that whatever decisions they took in the council chamber, and whatever the government and courts decided, they could win only if they were backed up by an active mass campaign outside the council. The councillors’ key demands, and the tactics they followed in defying the law by refusing to levy certain elements of the rates, were discussed and debated at mass meetings of the local population and trade unions, including the council workforce.

Threatened with jail for this defiance, the Poplar councillors declared: ‘It’s better to break the law than to break the poor’. Over 2,000 supporters marched five miles from Poplar town hall to the high court in July 1921, to the first hearing where it was possible the councillors would be jailed. By the beginning of September, when they were arrested for refusing to comply with a court order to collect the full rates, a demonstration of 10,000 supporters escorted the five women councillors to prison.

Six weeks later, the courts were forced to release them on a technicality, terrified that other councils were joining Poplar’s protest. The principle had been won and Poplar gained £350,000 a year from pooling the cost of poor relief across London.

Not all members of the Labour Party showed the same courage, fighting spirit or principles as the Poplar councillors. The rightwing, led by Herbert Morrison, mayor of Hackney, attacked Poplar’s strategy and demanded that Labour prove it was prepared to limit itself to ‘constitutional’ measures, managing council budgets within the constraints that the Liberals and Tories had set.

Although other councils eventually joined in Poplar’s rates rebellion, it was left to fight alone on many other issues, such as the right to decide what wages to pay its own workforce. This was protected in law but that made no difference to the House of Lords, who ‘interpreted’ the law to mean Poplar could only pay their workers what the bosses thought was reasonable. The guardians of Poplar’s poor relief board (elected like the councillors) faced similar battles to increase the level of poor relief. Local employers considered Poplar’s relief far too generous, especially when payments received by striking dockers and their families made it harder to starve them back to work.

The British state machine was ill-equipped to deal with Poplar council because it had never before had any area of local government controlled by a workers’ party, even a capitalist workers’ party as the Labour Party was then, which could be pushed to fight for workers’ interests. However many times the courts and government-appointed auditors declared Poplar’s policies unlawful and surcharged (fined) the councillors thousands of pounds that they could not pay, however much the press, local employers and the rightwing of the Labour Party attacked them, they continued to fight and be re-elected time after time.

In 1927 the government passed the Audit (Local Authorities) Act under which anyone surcharged more than £500 would be automatically removed and barred from holding public office for five years. Although, in the short term, the act cancelled the existing surcharges against the Poplar councillors, the profoundly undemocratic threat of removal from office has been used against local councils ever since.

It is under these powers that Labour councillors in Clay Cross were surcharged and barred from public office for five years in the 1970s for defying the Tories’ Housing Finance Act and refusing to increase rents by £1 per week. In 1985, 47 left Labour councillors in Liverpool were undemocratically removed from office for also following the Poplar road.

At a time of economic crisis and mass unemployment, Poplar council, unlike the majority of Labour councils at the time, did not accept the bosses’ argument that ‘we’re all in this together’, or that, if they increased local services, the poor would have to pay the price in massive rises in rents and local rates.

Any council which opposes cuts in funding from central government today will face the same choice. Will they agree to cut services locally or will they struggle to keep services going by hikes in council tax, pushing more and more people into financial difficulties? Between 1999/2000 and 2008/2009 the average council tax on a band D house almost doubled from £798 to £1,373.

The Con-Dem coalition’s ‘big society’ rhetoric is a cover for slashing public services and getting volunteers, charities or private companies to fill the gap. Any council that does not want to do the Tories’ dirty work will have a third option: set a budget based on local need and mobilise support from the local community and council workforce to demand the resources from the government. But without a real workers’ party prepared to fight for workers inside and outside the council chamber we will be fighting with one hand tied behind us. Just as the Labour Party was formed through mass workers’ struggles, so a new workers’ party must be built during the battles to come.

Producing a new book on Poplar is a real opportunity to help a new generation learn the lessons of Poplar’s rich history. Janine Booth’s book contains a lot of research and adds some new detail to the original groundbreaking work on the struggle: Poplarism, by Noreen Branson (1980). Unfortunately, however, Booth does not fully live up to MP John McDonnell’s description of her book as "a handbook for present struggles". Firstly, because of its patronising and academic tone. Secondly, and most importantly, by dismissing the massive struggle led by Liverpool city council between1983-87 which twice succeeded in defeating Thatcher.

Booth says nothing of Liverpool’s victories, more comparable to Poplar’s than even Clay Cross. Outrageously, she writes that Liverpool "went further than other [Labour councils] in confronting the Tories, but it eventually backed down and agreed a compromise which included attacks on workers and communities".

This is not just politically mistaken but dishonest. It gives the entirely false impression that Liverpool, under the leadership of Militant (the forerunner of the Socialist Party) went down the same road as the other Labour councils and implemented Thatcher’s cuts.

The legacy of Liverpool still stands: the 4,800 new council homes, built with people consulted about what kind of housing they would like; 2,000 new jobs instead of the job cuts planned when Labour was elected to run the council in 1983; the five-year rent freeze; five new leisure centres; and three new parks.

It is a shame that Branson’s book is out of print, as that is a better written and more inspiring introduction to Poplar’s struggle than Booth’s. However, the best and most detailed handbook on a socialist council defying and defeating central government remains Liverpool: a city that dared to fight.


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