SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 153 - November 2011

Poplar council 1921

Fighting for the poor

NINETY YEARS AGO, left-wing Labour councillors in Poplar used their elected positions as councillors and Poor Law Guardians to defend the unemployed, who faced starvation conditions in the slump that followed the first world war. George Lansbury and fellow councillors resisted the attempt of the Lloyd George-led National Liberal/Conservative coalition government to get them to do its dirty work. They showed that the council could be used as a platform from which to mobilise a mass struggle – and they forced the government to retreat on unemployment benefits, at least for the time being.

This was the path followed, on a much bigger scale, by Liverpool city council during 1984-87. Under the leadership of Militant councillors, the Labour council mobilised a sustained mass struggle against the cuts being imposed on local government, and especially on Liverpool, by the Thatcher government.

This is in marked contrast to the situation now, when councils led by right-wing New Labour have completely capitulated to the Con-Dem government’s massive cuts programme. This is confirmed by the left Labour magazine Labour Briefing (April 2011): "To our knowledge not a single Labour council has refused to implement a cuts budget – and no Labour councillor has voted against a Labour cuts budget – and nor have party units been queuing up urging Labour groups not to set a cuts budget". Unlike Poplar in 1921 or Liverpool in 1984, New Labour councils are effectively carrying out the government’s dirty work.

This article, by LYNN WALSH, was first published in Left (April 1972), the paper of the Labour Party Young Socialists. At that time, a Tory government under Edward Heath brought in a Housing Finance Act (HFA), which was designed to force councils to raise council house rents. In the spirit of Poplar, left Labour councillors in the mining town of Clay Cross, Derbyshire, refused to impose rent increases and used their council platform to mobilise a struggle against the HFA.

[The money values referred to are pre-1971, non-decimal ‘pounds, shillings and pence’ (£, s, d): one shilling equals 5p.]

AT THE BEGINNING of 1921 unemployment was at one million. By the end of the year it was to rise to over two million. Many of the unemployed were ex-soldiers. Lloyd George had promised them a ‘land fit for heroes’ [when they returned from the horror of the first world war], but they were now bitterly disillusioned and angry. Most of the unemployed quickly exhausted their meagre benefits under the Insurance Acts. Some were now able to draw so-called ‘uncovenanted benefit’ – the dole. But sooner or later most of the unemployed were forced to go to the Poor Law Guardians and ask for ‘relief’.

The system was still virtually feudal. ‘Relief’ was paid out of local authority funds, but was controlled by separately elected guardians. Some of these refused any ‘outdoor relief’ at all and forced the really destitute into the dreaded workhouses. Many paid only the very minimum relief. Poplar, however, took particularly generous care of the thousands of workers in the borough who could not get work. This was the result of a long struggle, led by George Lansbury, to oust the reactionary guardians and replace them with working-class representatives. Poplar paid 33 shillings for a man and wife plus ten shillings for rent, and also discretionary payments. According to the Tory-minded government, 25 shillings was quite enough for a man and his wife in London.

With unemployment growing all the time, however, it was impossible for councils like Poplar to go on paying decent rates of support indefinitely. The enormous burden for paying relief fell largely on men almost as hard up as the unemployed themselves. East London had to pay the price of the slump in trade and the silent docks. Poplar’s rates, 11s 5d in the pound in 1917, rose to 22s 10d in 1921, and a further rise to 30s seemed unavoidable. On the other hand, under the law then existing, the wealthy West End got away with contributing next to nothing to the poor rates. A penny rate in Poplar, a poor borough with mass unemployment, raised only £3,643. In Westminster, a rich borough with few unemployed, a penny rate raised £31,719.

The response of the Lloyd George government to the protest against unemployment would have made many present Tories jump with joy: brutal repression. Mounted police charged mass demonstrations of the unemployed in Sunderland, Dundee, Liverpool and Trafalgar Square. Several workhouses and public buildings, notably in Wandsworth, were occupied by men and women demanding work or full maintenance. The government made no moves. They were delighted to see Labour councils put in a position of having to cut benefits.

The march to jail

POPLAR COUNCIL, HOWEVER, decided they would not cut benefits, they would fight. On the initiative of Lansbury, his son, Edgar, and daughter-in-law Minnie, Charles Key, John Scurr and Charlie Sumner, they decided in March 1921 to refuse to pay the precepts, amounting to £270,000, they were required to pay to the London County Council (LCC).

This caused an uproar. The action was undoubtedly illegal. But, quite correctly, the Labour councillors argued that as workers’ representatives they could not force workers into destitution. Alternatively, it was impossible to squeeze from working-class ratepayers money they did not have. The consequences of the economic disaster the government did nothing to avert must, at the very least, be dealt with by London as a whole.

The Poplar councillors used some legal manoeuvres to give them some time to put over their case. On 29 July, they were duly summoned to the High Court. There was no hesitation. Far from quaking before the high and mighty law, the council marched to court in a huge procession, headed by a mace-bearer and a band, under the banner: ‘Poplar Borough Council, Marching to the High Court and Possibly to Prison’. Upset by this irreverent behaviour, one of the judges asked: "What would happen if all borough councils did this?" "Why, then we should get the necessary reforms", Lansbury replied.

Inevitably, the High Court ordered Poplar to pay the precepts. Confident of their position, the councillors refused. At the beginning of September they were sent to jail for ‘contempt’, 24 men to Brixton, six women to Holloway.

Even in the daunting prison conditions the councillors kept up the spirit of struggle. The first thing they said to the chief warder who greeted them was: ‘Where’s your union card?’ They refused to work, demanded footballs, newspapers, etc, and insisted on being allowed to conduct council business. Lansbury supported the demands of the other prisoners, fellow law-breakers, for similar improvements and generally embarrassed the authorities.

Now the government was being made to think again. Bethnal Green council voted to do the same as Poplar; Stepney and Battersea were discussing similar action. Twenty thousand marched to Downing Street in support of Poplar council. Just as with the Pentonville dockers in 1972, crowds of supporters gathered outside the prison, and Lansbury and others addressed them through their bars. The government began to waver, trying to find a way out.

Misleading the movement

UNFORTUNATELY, POPLAR’S fight and the support of the rank and file were not backed up by the TUC and Labour Party leaders. Jimmy Thomas, [leader of the National Union of Railwaymen] who had broken up the Triple Alliance of trade unions on ‘black Friday’ [1921, when the rail unions failed to back the miners, who were facing wage cuts] , denounced the councillors as ‘wastrels’. [Ramsay] MacDonald’s attitude may be gauged from the fact that [the right-wing leader of the Labour Party] later wrote: "public doles, Poplarism… not only are not socialism but may mislead the spirit and the policy of the socialist movement".

Lansbury replied that while the leaders talked about the party programme of ‘work or full maintenance’ the Poplar council was acting on it. There is no doubt on which side the movement was on. The unmistakeable verdict of history on these events is that it was MacDonald, Thomas and the like who ‘misled’ the movement. The ‘moderate’ Labour mayors, led by Herbert Morrison, opposed Poplar’s action and tried to undermine the movement of support. Repudiating direct action, Morrison led a small delegation of mayors on a wild-goose chase after Lloyd George, who had cleared off to his retreat in Scotland.

Lloyd George gave a vague promise of reforms, but without volunteering details. Morrison warned Lloyd George of a ‘growing lack of faith’ of the unemployed in state institutions and that the unemployed struggle was falling into the hands of ‘irresponsible elements’. Instead of giving a lead to the growing workers’ movement, Morrison adopted the position of a ‘responsible’ defender of the rotten system and of self-appointed, unpaid advisor to a prime minister who cynically ignored the workers’ demands. What faith could the working class have in a system that produced a 25% drop in production in 1921, that put two to three million on the dole, and kept working-class living standards below their 1913 level until well after 1930?

Using his position as leader of the LCC Labour group, Morrison sent a circular to Labour groups urging them not to support Poplar. Like his present day counterparts, unfortunately still to be found in the Labour Party, he used all manner of what he called ‘sensible’ arguments to the effect that direct action would hold up the fight for social reforms. As if social reforms were piling up in the depression! In any case, the LCC was Tory controlled. Later, in his autobiography, Morrison had the gall to claim that the results achieved by the Poplar action were in reality due to his negotiating skill and that Lansbury was jealous of it!

A powerful battle cry

THE POPLAR ACTION did achieve its immediate object. Lansbury and his comrades refused to ‘purge their contempt’ before the court. They simply demanded to be released to discuss the changes they wanted. In October, the authorities were forced to give in and release them without getting any promises or apologies. A conference was held, and a bill equalising the rate burden between the London boroughs brought in at once. Poplar’s rate immediately went down 7s 6d in the pound. (Westminster’s and Kensington’s went up by one shilling.) This victory led to more generous provision for the unemployed even in those boroughs not controlled by Labour.

But this very limited victory could not solve the problem of unemployment. Yet inaction certainly would not have solved it either! ‘Poplar’ men increased their majorities and went on to win other seats in the following elections. Lansbury won Bow and Bromley in the 1922 general election with a majority of nearly 7,000.

But above all, as a participant wrote at the time: "It broke down the intolerable bourgeois-instilled veneration for the office and dignity of mayor, councillor, etc; it afforded the local unemployed a powerful battle cry; it exposed the empty wordiness of the normal run of Labour mayors and councillors".

The Poplar councillors had waged a successful fight on behalf of the working-class interests they were elected to represent.


UNEMPLOYMENT IS AN organic crisis of the capitalist system itself. Lansbury felt that palliatives could provide no real solution to the workers’ ills: "Money should be spent on social services, poor relief, etc, where the need exists; but there should be no such need. When a Labour government comes to power, its first task should be to deal with unemployment on a national scale".

Only a thorough-going socialist programme could have done this. The spokesmen of big-business interests continued to denounce ‘Poplarism’ for many years to come. They at least recognised that there could be no solutions for the workers under their rule. "Mr Lansbury and his friends may not care", thundered The Times in September 1924, "but it must be clearly understood that their way leads to the overthrow of the existing social and economic order".

Unfortunately, the Labour government of 1924 (and Labour governments since) betrayed the workers’ hopes for a socialist society from which unemployment would be for ever banished and set out on the futile path of trying to run the system better than the capitalists themselves.

On the other hand, the fight of George Lansbury and the Poplar council was in the best tradition of the British labour movement. It is to this tradition of struggle that we must turn once again when, after decades of developing reform, we are once more faced with blatant, all-out attacks on our living standards.


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