Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

What is Poplarism?

(May 1958)

From The Newsletter, 3 May 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

‘Municipal issues are more important today than at any time since the days of Poplarism,’ said somebody in a recent discussion in my ward on the forthcoming local elections. I wonder how many of the under-forties in the movement know what ‘Poplarism’ was?

The mass unemployment that followed the short boom after the first world war hit London’s East End hard. In those days the relief of the unemployed after they had exhausted their insurance rights fell wholly on the borough where they lived.

Poplar, a poor borough, had so many unemployed that the burden on the rates was unbearable.

So in March 1921 the Labour borough council, led by George Lansbury, resolved to withhold the moneys they were supposed to hand over for maintenance of the Metropolitan Police and other all-London purposes.

The London County Council sued Poplar. During the hearing the council held town’s meetings to explain the position to the people, and organized marches to the court, headed by the borough mace-bearer, with band playing and banners flying.

Thirty councillors arrested

In September thirty councillors were arrested, the men being sent to Brixton and the women to Holloway. Large-scale marches to both prisons were organized to demonstrate solidarity.

On one occasion 15,000 people, including many women and children, went to Holloway. In violation of prison rules, Lansbury addressed the crowds from his Brixton cell window.

Back in Poplar a Tenants’ Defence League 10,000 strong pledged refusal to pay rent if their councillors were not released by a certain date.

October saw the release of the Poplar councillors. They marched out singing the ‘Red Flag’. The Ministry of Health and the LCC conferred, and relief burdens were equalized throughout London.

John Wheatley described this as ‘a real and substantial surrender to the principles for which Poplar was contending’, and Lansbury himself said: ‘We are very proud of the crime by which we forced rich London to share the burdens of poor London.’

That was not the end of ‘Poplarism’. In 1922 the Poplar Council were warned by the (Liberal) Minister of Health to desist from paying relief at a scale higher than the miserable officially-approved one, and he actually issued an Order making this illegal.

A laughing-stock

Such was the mood of the workers, however, that this Order remained a dead letter, and a laughing-stock, and in 1924 Wheatley, as Minister of Health in the first Labour Government rescinded it.

J.H. Thomas, the Right-wing trade union leader, called the Poplar councillors ‘wastrels’ for the activities that had made their borough a byword for militancy.

Lansbury replied that, while Thomas only talked about the official Labour programme of Work or Maintenance, he and his colleagues had acted to enforce it.

Opportunities of reviving the traditions of ‘Poplarism’ will doubtless present themselves to many Labour councillors in the course of the fight against the Rent Act, among other issues that will arise in the coming months.

Last updated on 10.10.2011