From Socialist Review, Vol. 6 No. 8, May 1957.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up for by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
On July 29th, 1921, a strange procession wended its way from Poplar, through Whitechapel, and on to the City of London. Led by the corporation mace-bearer, the procession consisted of the worthy Mayor, aldermen and councillors of the Borough of Poplar. Confident but determined, they marched to the accompaniment of a band a number of supporters and a big banner bearing the inscription “POPLAR BOROUGH COUNCIL marching to the HIGH COURT and possibly to PRISON.”
The elected representatives of Poplar had been summoned to appear before the High Court judges because, it was claimed, they had not carried out their statutory commitments. They had failed to pay outside authorities the “precepts,” that is, a levy made out of the rates for services rendered to the ratepayers by other bodies. Poplar’s main debt was to the then Tory-dominated London County Council of about £270,000.
The decision not to pay the “precepts” had been made on March 22nd, 1921. A short, jovial, old-style trade unionist, Charlie Summer, moved, and Charlie Key, a schoolmaster, seconded the resolution not to pay on the grounds that the council’s resources were already overstrained. The council had to pay relief to a large number of unemployed because at that time the whole administration of unemployment benefit was done on a local, not national, basis.
If Poplar Council had paid the “precepts” it would have involved cutting the amount of relief granted to the unemployed or, alternatively, increasing the rate burden. As both unemployed and ratepayers were ordinary workers, to take either course of action would involve further reductions in the living standards of that section of the community least able to make it.
The capitalist government of the day, led by Lloyd George, looked forward with pleasure to seeing the elected representatives of the poor being compelled to take measures that would adversely affect the poorer section of the community. Like the present Minister of Housing and Local Government, Henry Brooke, the Government relished the idea of Labour Councils up and down the country meekly carrying out Tory directives from Whitehall – increasing the burden of rates cutting down municipal services – and probably getting blamed by the electorate for these measures. Far better let Labour get the blame than the real culprits.
To carry out such a policy successfully, the Lloyd George Government calculated, just as Macmillan has today, that Labour representatives of local authorities would be so engrossed with trivial local problems that they would make no effective protest against the government’s economy cuts. However, the government miscalculated: it had not reckoned on George Lansbury and the rest of the Poplar Council standing by their socialist principles as firmly whilst they were in the council chamber as outside. With pungency, Lansbury pointed to the growing problem of unemployment – at that time it numbered about a million throughout the country – and said that he did not see why those working-class areas which had the misfortune of having a large number of unemployed should have to bear the burden of maintaining them while middle-class residential areas, places with far more wealth, did not have any unemployed to maintain. Lansbury illustrated his case by taking two nearby councils – Westminster and Poplar – both with roughly the same population. In Poplar a penny rate raised £3,643, in Westminster £31,719. Yet Westminster’s rate for unemployment relief was negligible while Poplar’s took a large portion of its 2s. 10d. total rate.
It was a fight on the broad principle that the workers should not be made to foot the bill for unemployment maintenance, that other sections of the community were in a far better position to do so, that George Lansbury & Co. stuck out, despite threats, despite the taunts of right-wing Labour leaders such as J.H. Thomas, and despite prosecution.
One judge asked, “What would happen if all borough councils did this?” “Why, we should get the necessary reforms,” Lansbury benignly replied.
But while this statement was no doubt true, it did not satisfy the judges. They sent nearly the whole of the council to prison. Only the Tories, one renegade Labour councillor and the Deputy Mayor, to conduct official business, remained free. The other thirty members were sent to Brixton jail for “contempt of court.” They were to remain there indefinitely until they were prepared to carry out the judge’s decision that they must pay the “precept”.
Brixton prison was hardly hospitable, but the Poplar councillors made the best of it. When they arrived the chief warden spoke to them in his usual stern tone and was greeted with, “Where’s your union card?” Worse jolts for prison discipline were to follow. The councillors refused to work; they demanded footballs, exercise, open cell doors and newspapers. Every day, council officials would visit them because it was necessary to consult them “on business.” Brixton prison rapidly became an adjunct of Poplar’s town hall.
The rest of the prisoners quickly became envious. They sent deputation to the Governor asking for the same privileges as the Poplar councillors. The Governor sent for Lansbury, hoping that he would back the authorities in their attempt to maintain rigid discipline in the rest of the prison. But Lansbury would not do this. He said, “These people should have the same privileges as us; after all, they’ve only broken the law, just as we have.”
But it was not only the prison authorities who were becoming increasingly disturbed by the activities of Poplar Borough Council. Lloyd George’s Government were also disturbed. They were finding the Poplar Council as much trouble in prison as they were outside. While they were behind bars, they were the centre of public interest, the vocal point of opposition to the Government’s economic policies. Inspired by the self-sacrifice of the Poplar councillors, Bethnal Green voted to follow their lead, while Stepney and Battersea looked likely to come out – or rather be locked in – because of their solidarity with Poplar. Lloyd George’s Government was confronted with the dismal prospect of placing more and more borough councillors behind bars.
Meanwhile, Lansbury and his comrades were unperturbed. Each night large crowds would congregate outside Brixton prison to hear Lansbury denounce the Government through the gratings of his cell-window. “Where’s young Edgar?” they would sometimes shout up. Amid cheers the face of Lansbury’s son would appear in the prison window.
But there was nothing to cheer the government. The situation was getting out of hand. Even moderate Labour Mayors headed by Herbert Morrison, who deplored Poplar’s action, sent a deputation to the Prime Minister. They realised that unless agreement was reached the whole of London local government would soon break down.
As a result, in October, after little more than a month in jail, Poplar won their case and were released from prison. Their courageous stand received national acclaim. This action of a small east London borough had defeated the Government and its corrupt legal system. Faced with the threat of “Poplarism” spreading – that is to say, other councils “going on strike” and refusing to pay their precepts – the Government was forced to hold a conference and then introduce a bill that equalised rate burdens, increasing unemployment benefits and making them a matter that was administered nationally.
What Lansbury did 30 years ago we can do with far greater success today. Labour’s support throughout the country is great; the Tory Government is groggy and unsure of itself; and its policies are unpopular.
What are local councillors going to do about it? Are they meekly going to administer the various Government decrees, to apply the Tory policy of cutting down workers’ living standards? In which case they are making themselves the eunuchs of Whitehall, the unpaid servants of the Conservative Central Office. Their servility, lack of backbone, and reactionary policy will undoubtedly result in widespread unpopularity. People will say – and rightly so – that they are just as bad as the Tories.
Or are Labour councillors going to take the road to Brixton prison? The road tramped so courageously by those who built our mighty Labour Movement. Such leadership would not only prevent Tory attempts to increase rents and rates, but would also provide an invaluable spearhead to the movement to get the Tories out now.
Last updated: 18 February 2017