“It’s better to break the law than break the poor”
Nick Chaffey, Socialist Party National Committee
This year marks 100 years since the victory of Poplar council against austerity and unemployment, led by fighting Labour councillors who mobilised a mass movement of the working class. It was a victory for working-class struggle and independent working-class political representation. Unwilling to bend the knee and carry out cuts and attacks on the working class, 30 councillors went to jail. They stood behind the immortal slogan, ‘It’s better to break the law, than break the poor.’
At a time when the working class faces a new crisis; as Johnson and the Tories prepare to end furlough; with attacks on jobs, benefits and public services; with local councils in particular facing a gaping hole in their budgets, what are the lessons of this inspiring struggle for today?
Poplar Labour council was elected in 1919 to represent the borough dominated by the huge east London docks, and home to a predominantly working-class community. In 1918, in the aftermath of the First World War, a new Tory-Liberal coalition government had been elected.
But the sheen of victory was short lived. A new economic crisis unfolded leading to a period of mass working-class struggles. Against this background, Labour won control in Poplar, winning 39 of 42 seats and a majority on the Board of Guardians – the body that administered benefits to the unemployed.
The newly elected councillors faced a challenge: what could be done to fight in the interests of the workers that had elected them?
Poplar’s Labour councillors were not the career apparatchiks that most councillors are today, collecting their pay and shamefully carrying out Tory cuts. These were workers: dockers, labourers and rail workers. They were fighters schooled in trade union struggles, political debates conducted by socialist groups such as the Social Democratic Federation, and by the stormy international events of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
The councillors were often attacked as Bolsheviks by the capitalist press. Councillor David Adams, secretary of the dockworkers’ union, organised to prevent munitions being loaded on the Jolly George and sent to British troops fighting with the White army against the newly created workers’ government in Russia.
For these councillors, led by George Lansbury, the election meant a responsibility to act. They set about implementing a significant programme, raising the minimum wage for council workers, and introducing equal pay for women. This meant a 20% pay rise for men and 70% for women. A new house building programme was started, free milk for children, libraries, public baths and parks were expanded. Imagine a Labour council acting so boldly today!
After the war ended in 1918, initially economic growth led to increased employment on the docks and associated industries. But this ended sharply with a deep economic crisis in 1920. Unemployment rose to 23%, with workers thrown into poverty and destitution. Dockers at that time were typically only hired for half a day’s work, and 50% were registered unemployed. This had devastating consequences in Poplar.
Unemployment benefits at the time were administered locally by elected representatives, Guardians. Poplar council raised money for these benefits through the collection of rates, a proportion of which went to the London County Council (LCC) and the police. Now these Guardians were Labour, what were they going to do?
As unemployment grew, Poplar was affected more than other wealthier areas. The financial burden of providing support fell disproportionately on the poorer boroughs, compared to more affluent areas where unemployment was lower and ratepayers wealthier.
The approach of Poplar Council was to maintain workers’ living standards by paying benefits equal to the level of wages. But to do so would require greater resources. The councillors refused to make the working class pay higher rates that they couldn’t afford. Instead, they demanded ‘the equalisation of the rates’ and for the government to make more affluent areas contribute.
Previous attempts had been made to shift the government’s position with deputations to ministers who ignored the demands. Now was the time to act. Anything else would mean increasing rates on those who couldn’t afford to pay and cutting services. This has been the rotten road followed by right-wing Labour councils in the past ten years.
This road the Poplar councillors refused to take. Their policy was to organise a rate strike, to stop collecting rates for the London County Council and the police. They argued this would force the government to act, knowing it would lead to an inevitable clash with the authorities.
To build support for the council’s approach, a local conference was called involving the trade unions and Labour Party members to debate the proposals. The conference gave unanimous support to the plan, and resolved to back the fight by all means in its power. With mass support, the full council meeting voted for its fighting policy in March. So began a drawn out confrontation with the London County Council, the Tory government and the courts.
The strategy of the councillors was to delay legal proceedings for as long as possible, to give time for workers to benefit from the rate relief. With the prospect of the campaign spreading to other boroughs, pressure would grow for the government to introduce a fairer system of rates.
As the weeks and months passed, the campaign grew in Poplar and beyond. Meanwhile, the government faced mass opposition in the form of strikes and protests from organised workers across the country.
Reports to the Cabinet were forced to admit that in Poplar the “mass is solid”. Finally, London County Council decided to act by serving writs on the councillors demanding they pay the rates owed, or face jail.
The day of the court hearing, a five-mile march from the council to the court was joined by 2,000 workers and trade union banners. Pressure had already led to concessions from the government that would increase financial support to poorer boroughs, including Poplar. This helped to increase the determination of the councillors who continued with their strategy, passing a reduction on the rates.
Defying the law
Facing jail, council leader George Lansbury, writing on the decision of the court, said: “Organised labour should understand that all the judges administer class-made laws, not to do justice but to preserve the present social order.”
Mass action had forced concessions from a determined government. This was much to the consternation of Poplar’s opponents in the Labour Party like Herbert Morrison, leader of neighbouring Hackney council. Following Poplar’s victory, other councils were encouraged to act too. Meanwhile, Morrison pleaded for a ‘constitutional’ approach ‘within the law’, echoing the right-wing Labour councillors of today who wave the white flag, swing their little axes and administer brutal cuts.
One Poplar councillor responded that when the unemployed are hungry, “they do not care much for constitutionalism.” Lansbury added, “All reforms came from those who are prepared to break bad laws.”
The night before councillors faced arrest and jail, 6,000 massed outside Poplar Town Hall. Councillor Rugless told the press: “All the prisons in the country will not alter our determination to win.”
The courageous stand of the jailed councillors, including five women, made the fight a national issue. 10,000 marched with the five women councillors to Holloway prison where Councillor Julia Scurr called for a borough-wide rent strike to be prepared.
Elsewhere, Councillor Charlie Sumner was in Cardiff building support at the Trades Union Congress for the fight against unemployment, getting unanimous support for the Poplar stand. Broadening the fight against the opposition of Morrison and the right wing was not easy, but Bethnal Green and Stepney councils voted to join the battle, including taking up the demand for the release of the Poplar councillors.
Seeking a way out, the LCC and the government looked to engage the Labour Party in negotiations, but the jailed councillors rejected any talks while they remained in prison. Their slogan, backed up by growing support, was to demand “release first, negotiations afterwards.”
The firmness of their position left the government facing a bleak position and considering new laws to take over the collection of rates. But they had to take into account the mass opposition they would face in Poplar, where the councillors had issued a call to tenants to declare a rent strike if outside bodies attempted to collect the rates. Thousands had signed up, and committees were set up across the borough. Posters in windows throughout Poplar stated: ‘We support our borough councillors.’
After six weeks, under intense pressure, the authorities climbed down and released the councillors who were met with a ‘monster demonstration’ in Victoria Park.
Under the direct action of the rate strike, the determined stand of the councillors, the mass support across Poplar and beyond with other councils joining the fight – concessions were won. There were significant increases in funding from the government to Poplar and other poor London boroughs.
Poplar laid down a marker. It inspired future council battles with central government, including the stand of Clay Cross councillors in the 1970s who refused to raise Tory-imposed council rent increases.
The mass struggle of the socialist Liverpool council from 1983-87 also built on the traditions of the Poplar struggle. Led by Militant supporters, now the Socialist Party, Liverpool council went further. Once again mobilising a mass campaign of council workers, trade unions and wider national support, it set a needs budget and demanded the Tory government pay up. The Thatcher government was forced to retreat, returning over £60 million to fund the council’s programme.
Liverpool council put the ideas of socialism into action, building 5,000 council homes – freezing rents, raising council wages, creating jobs, apprenticeships, leisure centres and parks. A fighting socialist council gained mass support with record votes for Labour across the city.
Once again the famous Poplar slogan: ‘It’s better to break the law, than break the poor’, was to be raised across Liverpool, and again during the mass anti-poll tax movement, led by Militant and the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Thatcher and the Tories introduced a new tax where millionaires and workers paid the same rate. The campaign mobilised at its height 18 million non-payers who defied the courts and prison to force its abolition and the resignation of Thatcher herself.
In the weeks ahead, Britain will enter a new era of struggle as the government plans to end furlough, with the possible loss of a million jobs. Families thrown into poverty by the Covid crisis – forced onto universal credit, left for five weeks without money – now face a £20 cut in payments.
Proposed attacks on pensions, cuts to public services and the public sector pay freeze, will be added to the economic instability of Brexit and the faltering of the post-lockdown economic bounce. Facing the impact of these cuts, local councils will once again take the axe to jobs and services provoking renewed opposition from council unions and working-class communities unwilling to accept another round of austerity.
Labour under Starmer has shown its intent to act in the interests of capitalism, abandoning Corbyn’s manifesto for measures to protect the profits of big business. This means making the working class pay.
Rebuilding fighting traditions
In the period ahead, new fighters will emerge and the question will be posed more sharply: how is it possible to end and reverse the cuts, and how can councils meet the needs of our impoverished communities?
The Socialist Party, as a leading component of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, calls for councils to fight like Poplar and Liverpool. To use their powers to set no-cuts budgets and build mass support for the restoration of government funding to local authorities.
We call for councils to implement rent controls and build affordable council housing. At the same time, we call on the trade unions to organise a conference of those inside and outside the Labour Party prepared to fight, to launch a new workers’ party with socialist policies that will offer an alternative to capitalist crisis.
The fight of Poplar will inspire a new generation of the possibility and necessity of mass struggle, to build on the traditions of Liverpool and the anti-poll tax army, and to create a new fighting tradition.
In the course of that struggle, capitalist crisis will drive many to draw the conclusion of the need for a new socialist society. Reforms won through struggle will be made permanent through the nationalisation of the banks and big business under working-class control and management. Society’s resources can then be used to develop a democratic plan of production to abolish poverty and insecurity forever.