Why Poplar remains relevant today

By Janine Booth

On this day 100 years ago, the Poplar Rates Rebellion broke out. Janine Booth explores the background to this inspiring protest.

One hundred years ago, the sheriff’s officer arrived at George Lansbury’s house on Bow Road in East London to arrest him. George was a Labour member of Poplar Borough Council, the previous year’s Mayor and the former (and future) local MP. The officer arrested not just George but his son Edgar, plus fellow councillors Dave Adams and Albert Baker. They went willingly, after the officer waited patiently for them to get ready and while the Lansbury family parrot entertained the guests.

Poplar’s newly-elected Labour councillors and their supporters, 1919

Over the course of several days, a total of thirty Poplar Labour councillors would be arrested, twenty-five men taken to Brixton prison and five women to Holloway. The women – Julia Scurr, Minnie Lansbury, Jennie MacKay, Susan Lawrence and heavily-pregnant Nellie Cressall – arranged an appointment with the sheriff to be arrested at Poplar Town Hall on Monday 5th September. Thousands of supporters gathered to listen to their parting speeches and march alongside the sheriff’s car to the borough boundary.

Minnie Lansbury arrives at Poplar Town Hall for her appointment to be arrested, 5 September 1921

The councillors’ ‘crime’ was to refuse to collect and hand over to cross-London bodies money from Poplar’s working-class residents who needed it spent in their impoverished borough.

Poplar had elected its first Labour council in 1919, at the first election at which nearly all working-class people had the vote. Labour now held 39 of the 42 seats on the council, having won on an explicit platform as socialists and for independent working-class representation. It set about improving services in the overcrowded, poor, dockside borough. It built new housing and made private landlords repair and improve their stock. The council brought the small, charity-run tuberculosis clinic into municipal control and expanded it. It put council workers on more secure contracts, increased their wages and paid men and women the same.

Perhaps even more importantly, it opened the council’s doors to the labour movement and community campaigns. It hosted conferences on fighting for affordable milk and coal supplies. It received deputations at council meetings and added labour nominees to council committees. It provided a platform for Irish, Jewish and other immigrant communities that were represented among its ranks.

But after a brief, post-war boom, economic crisis struck Britain and hit the export-dependent dockside borough of Poplar particularly hard. The dock employers kicked out casual workers and made permanent workers casual, and unemployment rocketed. Local councils had to raise all their funding by taxing local people, with most paying their ‘rates’ as part of their rent to private landlords. There was a negligible amount of pooling and precious little central government support. Even poor relief – what we would now call welfare benefits – was paid for by local councils and administered by local boards of guardians.

Poplar could not afford its rapidly-escalating bills, especially as it was expected to collect and hand over money (‘precepts’) to the London County Council and three other cross-London bodies. So it decided not to. A conference of labour movement delegates in early 1921 discussed the situation and agreed a strategy whereby it would collect only the local rates. That would enable it to carry on providing its crucial services while charging rates that its residents could just about afford.

The council and the labour movement mobilised. It knocked on doors, spoke on street corners and held meetings. It explained the issue and the strategy to local people and brought them into campaigning activity. The local ‘ratepayers’ – landlords and businesses, most of whom did not live in Poplar and who paid their rates from the fruits of Poplar’s labour – were outraged at this disobedience, but everyone else supported it.

The London County Council got the High Court to issue a ‘mandamus’ instructing the councillors to collect and pay the money owed, but the councillors had no intention of doing so, so from the start of September, they continued their campaign from prison.

Every evening, crowds gathered outside the prison walls to show their support. Marches took place every week. Speakers attended the Trades Union Congress, which passed a resolution of support. The council even held meetings in Brixton prison – with the women councillors taken by car from Holloway – at which they debated both the campaign against the punitive rating system and the day-to-day problems of Poplar life. Donations flooded in to the support fund for the councillors’ children and families. Eventually, and crucially, two other Labour councils – in Poplar’s neighbouring boroughs of Bethnal Green and Stepney – voted to withhold the precepts just as Poplar had. Stepney’s resolution was proposed by a young alderman by the name of Clement Attlee.

The councillors’ steadfastness, the popular mobilisation and the (better late than never) spread of the ‘rates strike’ to other councils proved too much for the government. It backed down and agreed to the release of the councillors to attend a conference to discuss reforming London councils’ funding. It rushed legislation – that it had previously deemed ‘impossible’ – through Parliament. The Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act 1921 made rich boroughs pay into a pooled fund, which paid out to the poorer boroughs. Poplar gained £250,000 per year, in 1921 money.

The Poplar rates rebellion is an inspiring tale from labour movement history. But ‘inspiring’ does not mean ‘great to read about’. It means that it can motivate and inform our actions now.

Today, councils hand over public health services to charities rather than taking them from charities and improving them. They cut services rather than expand them. They pay huge sums to Chief Executives and much less to frontline workers. And they seal themselves off from community campaigners rather than embrace them. Yes, even – with few exceptions – Labour councils.

We still have an unfair system of local government finance, where the residents of wealthy Westminster pay £448.21 Council Tax on a Band D home while today’s Poplar residents pay £1,060.35 to Tower Hamlets Council, and residents of other working-class London boroughs pay even more. But Poplar Council’s successor does not put up the fight that Lansbury and his comrades did a century ago. Instead, it has cut services, and fired workers to re-hire them on worse terms.

Tower Hamlets and other councils’ leaders argue that today, resistance is futile, as the government would simply send in commissioners to take over the council’s work. However, Lloyd George’s government in 1921 had a similar option; it chose not to exercise it for fear of the mobilised working class of Poplar. And therein lies the key: the legacy of Poplarism is not for Labour councils to make grand gestures of martyrdom, but to become centres of resistance, to be an integral part of the local labour movement, of community campaigning, of opposition to austerity. Then, when the inevitable confrontation with central government comes, we will be ready.

Events have been organised throughout this year to celebrate the centenary. See www.poplar100.com  for more details.

On Twitter, follow @Poplar_21 for daily tweets telling you what happened on that day 100 years ago.

Janine Booth is an author, poet and RMT activist. She is Women’s Officer of Lewes CLP and Chair of Neurodivergent Labour. She is the author of Guilty and Proud of it: Poplar’s rebel councillors and guardians 1919-1925, available from www.merlinpress.co.uk and Minnie Lansbury: suffragette, socialist, rebel councillor, available from www.janinebooth.com

Images: Main image: Thousands march from Poplar along the East India Dock Road to the High Court to support their rebel councillors, 29 July 1921. All images, courtesy of Thompson’s Solicitors.

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