Poplar rates rebellion centenary: ten lessons for today

Submitted by AWL on 20 July, 2021 - 7:12 Author: Janine Booth
Poplar rates rebellion

It is the centenary year of the Poplar council rates rebellion, an inspiring victory in London’s east end rich with lessons for today.

At the time the rebellion took place, just after the first world war, the London Borough of Poplar comprised the dockland area in the big bend in the River Thames (Poplar) and an area of similar size to its north (Bow). A quarter of its people lived in (official) poverty, 83 of every thousand of its babies died, and over thirty thousand people lived in overcrowded housing.

It had a tradition of working-class organisation and action. The east end was the centre of the New Unionism movement in the late nineteenth century, with the landmark strike by matchwomen taking place at Bryant and May’s factory in Bow. It had an active working-class suffragette movement, led by Sylvia Pankhurst, Minnie Lansbury and others, and virtually every socialist group had a branch there. Socialists educated themselves and others, running street corner meetings and classes and engaging people in politics.

In 1918, most working-class people gained the right to vote. Although the Tory-Liberal coalition won the general election it had hastily called to ride the tide of war victory, the recently-formed Labour party was in a strong position to contest 1919’s local elections, encouraging newly-enfranchised working-class voters to vote in their own interests.

Lesson no.1: Labour had built a strong movement in the east end; its council candidates were products of that movement and fought the election explicitly on the basis of independent working-class representation.

Labour romped home in the Poplar Borough Council election in November 1919, then added four new Labour aldermen. The total included six women, which may not seem many out of a forty-two, but was higher than any cohort of Labour councillors in the other London boroughs. There were postal workers, railway workers, engineers, dockers and teachers, so for the first time, Poplar had a council that looked like its electorate.

Lesson no.2: Poplar councillors were local working-class people, drawn from diverse local communities. Not just white English, they included Jewish and Irish Labour councillors, and three out of the six women councillors were the daughters of immigrants.

Poplar’s newly-elected Labour council set about the business for which it had been elected — radically improving the lives of its working-class electorate. The minutes of its meetings show that they often openly disagreed with each other. Although they did work together as a collective, they did not have a problem with taking differing views on particular issues.

Poplar Labour included a range of views, from Minnie and Edgar Lansbury, both members of the Communist party as well as the Labour party, through to avowed royalists. As the rates rebellion developed, some argued for a less combative strategy, but once the decision was made, they got behind it.

Lesson no.3: Poplar Labour operated a united front. There was a broad range of views among Labour councillors and open disagreement, but when they decided a strategy to fight, they stuck to it. They did not allow disagreement to become destructive.

George Lansbury, elected by the new council as Mayor for 1920, asked rhetorically, “Labour councils must be different from those we have displaced or why displace them?” I think it may be worth printing that on a postcard and sending it to every Labour councillor today.

Poplar’s Labour council certainly was different from its Tory and Liberal predecessors. It built new public housing, appointed inspectors to serve improvement notices on private landlords and if the landlords did not improve the houses, the council did the work and made the landlords pay for it.

The major health issue of the time was tuberculosis (TB). The council took Poplar’s small, charity-run TB dispensary into municipal ownership and expanded it significantly.

The council electrified Poplar’s street lighting. It gave proper jobs to people who had worked cash-in-hand for the council. It increased council workers’ pay and introduced equal pay for men and women fifty years before it became legally obligatory to do so. It expanded maternity and child welfare services, and improved the baths, wash houses, parks and libraries.

Poplar’s Labour council did not just serve, it organised. It added labour representatives to council committees, received deputations at council meetings about community issues, and took deputations to the government to demand a better deal for their area. The council called conferences to campaign on issues including milk prices and coal supply. And it called protests.

Poplar was not an everyday council for a year and a half which suddenly had a rates rebellion in 1921. It was doing radical work from when it was elected in November 1919, not just in employment and in services but in helping people to organise.

Lesson no.4: Poplar council acted as the working-class representative body it was elected to be. It did so in service provision, as an employer, and, crucially, by making itself a centre of resistance.

After a brief post-war boom, export trade collapsed, causing an economic crash which hurt Poplar even more than other areas because its local economy relied so heavily on the docks. In response, socialists advocated public works: spending public money on work that needs to be done, providing work for people who need it.

So in late 1920, the council set up a road-building scheme which provided jobs to thousands of local men, and the government gave an informal pledge to fund it. But the government backed out and Poplar council was left to fall back on its regular funding.

But the funding system for local government then was even more unfair than the system now. Apart from a very small amount, councils had to raise all their money locally. Unlike now, poor relief was a local responsibility, so to give welfare benefits to poor and unemployed people, councils had to tax local people, most of whom in Poplar were poor or unemployed! Socialists demanded the “equalisation of rates” across London, by which they meant a system of pooled funding under which rich boroughs put more in and poor boroughs got more out.

They made a socialist critique of the system that was biased towards rich areas while, as they described it, “the poor kept the poor” in the poorer areas. They did not treat local government funding as too complex for working-class people to understand, or as something to be discussed behind closed doors. They engaged people about it, they explained how funding worked, and people came to public meetings about it. Those people understood the demand for “equalisation of the rates” and they took part in campaigning for it.

Lesson no.5: Poplar’s labour movement consistently campaigned for better local government funding, and explained the issue. This provided the foundation for the council going on to defy the law.

There were contrasting approaches within the Labour party to these issues, personified in the contrast between George Labour and Herbert Morrison, who was Mayor of the neighbouring borough of Hackney (and is the political and literal grandfather of Peter Mandelson).

The two wings of Labour at the time were referred to as the “direct action” wing and the “constitutional” wing. Lansbury and the Poplarists were direct actioners, and Morrison was a constitutionalist. Morrison argued that Labour has to prove itself trustworthy enough to run local government, while the Poplarists countered that if they came up against an unfair system then they did not have to bow down to that system.

Lansbury and Morrison also disagreed about who tells Labour councils what to do. The Poplarists were politically committed to the idea that the local Labour party debates the issues, draws up the strategy and tells the council what to do, and the council does it. Morrison, however, argued that Labour councils were elected by everybody, not just by Labour people, so had to represent everybody, so did not have to follow the local Labour party’s orders.

Today, Morrison’s view dominates, although its advocates tend not to set up any mechanism by which “everybody” can tell them what to do. I might have more sympathy for their argument if they were calling open meetings which voted on what the council should do, or if they set up committees of street representatives to direct ward councillors.

Having hit financial crisis, Poplar council faced a choice. It could balance its books by cutting services had set up or putting the rates up. Or it could defy the law. It chose to defy the law.

Lesson no.6: Poplar Labour council took its orders from the local labour movement. It was politically committed to democratic debate and decision-making in Poplar Labour, in contrast to the view taken by Labour figures elsewhere.

In early 1921, a conference of delegates from Poplar’s trade unions and Labour party bodies thrashed out the strategy of withholding the precepts to cross-London bodies. These were the monies that borough councils collected and handed over to the London County Council, Metropolitan Asylum Board, Metropolitan Police and the Water Board (water supply was still in municipal ownership), the equivalent of today’s precepts to the Greater London Authority and other bodies. Refusal to collect and hand over the precepts meant that Poplar council would only levy rates on local people to provide local services and poor relief.

Poplar justified this with a critique of the law being biased against them. Councillor Edgar Lansbury said that “the law and justice are two different things”, and Sam March, Poplar’s Mayor for 1921, said that “the master class has made the laws”. They asserted that they were not obliged to adhere to laws that the ruling class had created to keep them down.

The London County Council took Poplar to court. Poplar’s Town Clerk, J Buteaux Skeggs, warned the council against breaking the law, but when the council confirmed that it would do so anyway, he followed its instructions. This contrasts with those Labour councils today which allow their well-paid Chief Executives to tell them what to do.

Poplar had examined what the law required it to do, how the LCC and other bodies could get the courts to enforce this, and how the council and its supporters could organise around that.

Some people argue against the Poplarist approach today, saying that it worked a century ago because rebel councillors would be sent to prison and their supporters could mobilise (as though that were easy!) whereas today, if a Labour council refused to make cuts, the government would send in commissioners to take over, strip elected councillors of their power, and make the cuts anyway. In fact, the government nearly did that to Poplar. In August 1921, the Cabinet debated quickly passing a law enabling it to send in officers to take over Poplar, but decided not to. Ministers made this decision not for any legal or technical reason, but because they knew there would be uproar in Poplar.

Lesson no.7: Poplar took account of the law when devising its strategy, but did not defer to it. Local government laws are different now, so the detail of the strategy would be different, but the approach could be the same.

The high court convened on 29 July 1921 to enforce the mandamus (an instruction to collect the money) issued by a previous hearing. But Poplar’s councillors had worked out how to use the platform that the legal action offered them. In court, they gave evidence that yes, they were breaking the law, and explained why. The hearing saw a succession of speeches about poverty and unfair funding, and five thousand supporters marched from Poplar to the high court in the Strand.

The court told the councillors to collect the precepts or go to prison, but gave them the whole of August to calm down and see the error of their ways. As their ways were not in error, the councillors instead spent August campaigning even more. They held an Old English country fair, promoting their cause to the thousands who attended. They held public meetings in every part pf the borough and ended the month with a demonstration at Tower Hill.

On two occasions during 1921, Labour councillors resigned, but they were simply replaced in by-elections by activists drawn from the thousands that Poplar Labour had mobilised.

Lesson no.8: Poplar’s rates refusal was a mass movement. Poplar Labour held marches, put posters in windows, hosted public meetings, knocked on doors, and used the Daily Herald newspaper to spread news of the rates rebellion.

The government was under so much pressure from this mobilisation that it offered a significant concession. In August, it announced a degree of pooling of rates and a royal commission to revise the way that local government was funded in London. Poplar council could have accepted this concession and called off its refusal to collect the precepts. It could justifiably have claimed that its defiance had won something real. This would have been the equivalent of what Liverpool council did in the 1980s: an active, defiant fight that won real advances but not an outright victory. But Poplar did not do this, because it knew that continued resistance could win more.

Lesson no.9: Poplar did not settle for less than it was fighting for. In August 1921, it could have accepted the significant concession the government made, but instead continued to fight.

At the beginning of September 1921, the sheriff arrested the councillors, taking twenty-five male councillors to Brixton prison and five women to Holloway. Thousands mobilised to show their support for their elected representatives as they were arrested and continued to do so outside the prisons.

The councillors continued to organise the campaign from behind bars. They even convinced the prison authorities to let them hold official council meetings in prison.

Supporters of Poplar’s strategy had battled hard to persuade other London councils to also refuse to levy the precepts, but many had voted this down, often with Labour right wingers voting with Tories against it. Although they could have done so earlier and perhaps speeded Poplar’s victory, in September Poplar’s neighbouring courcils Bethnal Green and Stepney voted to follow the same tactic.

Lesson no.10: Poplar council and its supporters worked to spread the action to other councils, but they did not wait for that to happen before taking action themselves.

In the middle of October, Poplar’s councillors were released to attend conference about reforming London local government funding, which led to the government rushing the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act 1921 through Parliament, introducing cross-London pooling of outdoor relief (welfare benefits) costs up to scales set by the Minister of Health. Poplar had won. It gained over a quarter of a million pounds per year and other poor boroughs gained as well.

Jimmy Thomas, General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen and also a Labour MP, said that “This is a great discouragement to those who believe in constitutional action and a great encouragement to those who believe in revolutionary methods”. I agree with him, except that he thought that was a bad thing while I think it was good!

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