As all the main parties agree there is no alternative to cutting back services, Janine Booth’s timely history of the struggle of Poplar’s Labour Council reminds us there is and has always been an alternative — struggle. Poplar’s revolt is generally known of on the left but speaking for myself I didn’t have had a real understanding of the significance of the struggle until reading this book.
Janine is a long-standing member of the Alliance Workers Liberty and many of the themes she draws out will be familiar from her contributions to Solidarity: the focus on community based activity, the need for the labour movement to mobilise rather than merely act on behalf of workers, and the idea that socialist candidates must be rooted in the communities they represent. Poplar is presented as an exemplar of the successes those principles can lay the basis for.
From winning a first majority of 39 out of 42 seats at the end of 1919, Poplar’s Labour council quickly moved to improve the condition of the poorest in the community. This victory owed something to the expansion of the electoral franchise in 1918, but was built on local socialist campaigning and trade union struggles over the previous 30 years.
The councillors, men and women elected under the Labour banner were deeply rooted in their communities, local trade unions and workplaces (most importantly the local docks).
George Lansbury, the leading councillor in the group, summed up their approach: “The workers must be given tangible proof that Labour administration means something different from capitalist administration... this means diverting wealth from the wealthy ratepayers to the poor.”
Lansbury already had a national profile thanks to his support for votes for women and his role as editor of the Daily Herald, a stridently socialist paper.
It wasn’t until 1921 that their commitment to this basic principle would be tested. With rising unemployment and a pressing need to defend the jobless they refused to pay the council’s contributions (precepts) to London wide organisations. Thirty of the councillors were sent to jail for contempt of court when they refused to back down. After further protests they won the right to hold council meetings in Brixton Prison with the women councillors being brought from Holloway.
The extent of their victory and its enduring effect on the equalisation of rates is a legacy to be proud of. Janine also shows how the movement eventually declined and became vulnerable to government attack. There were weaknesses in Poplarism. The long delays in any other council following their example left them isolated. With the defeat of the General Strike in 1926, the whole movement went into retreat.
Janine spends some time examining how critics and commentators have presented the Poplar experience. If there is any fault in the book, it’s in this section, as there is not room to develop that discussion further. But it is clear that we should not consider Poplar to have been a one-off. It was exceptional only in that the Labour councillors remembered that they were “in power” to change the system not just to manage it in a different way.
As we try to formulate our response to imminent cuts, this book is an excellent starting point for discussion. It would be an exaggeration to suggest we could imitate the Poplar councillors example immediately, but we can start to look at the basis on which their victory was won.
That means the consistent building of community campaigns out of which local candidates, based on labour movement bodies can emerge to challenge the three main parties. In a few places Trades Councils taking a lead in anti-cuts campaigns may be able to head down that path.
The Poplar councillors were guilty of standing up for the movement and the class they belonged to, and we should be proud of their example.