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Poplar 1921: 'Better to break the law than break the poor'
Video: Peter Taaffe addresses London Socialist Party meeting on the lessons of the Poplar struggle. Below, Vik Chechi tells the story of the Poplar councillors and Tony Mulhearn, one of the 'Liverpool 47' councillors, tells of the historic struggle of Liverpool city council in 1983-1987.
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the struggle of councillors in Poplar, east London, against government cuts. This culminated in their going to prison with the slogan 'better to break the law than to break the poor'.
Their ultimately successful battle was a major inspiration for Liverpool council to take on the Tories in the 1980s and shows the way forward today in fighting against the Con-Dem government's attacks. Linking all three periods are profound crises of the capitalist system.
Poplar council's main struggle was to gain a reduction of the rates, the forerunner of the council tax, but they also battled for adequate relief for the poor and a decent minimum wage for council workers.
Poplar has always been a poor area. In the 1920s over a quarter of the borough's men worked in transport, mostly casual dockworkers, yet the docks were vulnerable to trade depressions. Unemployment and poverty rose enormously in the economic bust that followed shortly after World War One.
In 1919, socialists won 39 of the 42 seats on Poplar council and consolidated their hold on the 'Board of Guardians' that administered poor relief. The new councillors were not middle class armchair socialists. They included seven dock workers, seven railwaymen and four labourers.
The capitalist press had a fine time sneering at them as 'unfit to govern', but their first year in office saw impressive achievements. Council housebuilding was inaugurated, the electricity supply developed, the library service expanded. Free milk was provided for expectant mothers and babies and measures were taken to reduce the threat of TB. Poplar paid a minimum wage to council workers well above that elsewhere and introduced equal pay for women.
Poplar levied rates on behalf of London County Council (LCC), the Metropolitan Police and other all-London bodies. It also levied its own rates, including part for the Poplar Board of Guardians. Since the Board of Guardians paid all poor relief in the borough, it was paying out far more, due to the rapid rise in unemployment.
Yet wealthy boroughs like Westminster with few unemployed did not face this problem. In effect, the poorest boroughs were having to pay far more than their share in looking after London's poor.
Campaigns for "equalisation of the rates" in London, to make rich boroughs pay their share, had been going on for decades with no effect on government policy. Poplar faced a choice - to stay within the law and show Labour in power could be "responsible" as Herbert Morrison, Labour mayor of Hackney advocated, or defy the law in order to change it.
Obeying the law would have meant cutting services, pushing rates above what most of the population could pay, or reducing poor relief to a level which would not stop the unemployed and their families starving.
The Poplar councillors wanted to make a protest which 'would force the central authorities to pay attention'. George Lansbury, the Labour group leader, proposed that they should just levy the rate for their own purposes and the Board of Guardians, not for the all-London bodies.
This strategy was discussed and agreed at mass meetings of the council trade unions, and in every local area. Backed by this mass support, councillors voted to break the law and did so.
The LCC took a writ out to try to force them to change course. Poplar council then used every avenue to delay the writ, even though they had no chance of a court victory. They were playing for time to build the movement and get other councils to support them.
Finally the LCC took proceedings against them for contempt of court. On 29 July 1921, the councillors and 2,000 supporters marched from the town hall to the High Court, under the now famous slogan, 'better to break the law than to break the poor'.
In prison, the councillors soon made their voices heard. On arrival, Lansbury asked to see the warder's union card. The food was terrible initially, but a campaign led to a big improvement in their conditions.
They also won the right to hold council meetings in Brixton prison, and the women councillors were brought over from Holloway prison specially. Every evening there were demonstrations outside the prison in support of the class-war prisoners.
The government hoped the councillors would compromise. However, Stepney and Bethnal Green councils made moves to follow Poplar. The pressure was such that even Clement Attlee (future Labour prime minister and no radical) then a Stepney councillor, moved the resolution to go down the Poplar road. Poplar also won the TUC's backing.
A formula was eventually accepted that the councillors would apologise for contempt of court, but without agreeing to levy the disputed rates - in other words a crushing victory for the 'law breakers'. A subsequent conference to discuss the issue, organised by the government, accepted nearly all of Poplar's demands.
The rebel Poplar councillors were under no illusions that what they were fighting for was a simple reform. They all saw the ultimate solution for the ending of unemployment in a socialist society.
Today, the present mayor of Tower Hamlets, that includes the Poplar area, invoked the spirit of 'Poplarism' and Lansbury in his election campaign. He then implemented a savage programme of Tory and Liberal cuts (without any resistance) making a mockery of his earlier pronouncements.
If Tower Hamlets followed the Poplar road today, as well as the successful example of the 1980s Liverpool city council struggle, then a campaign could be built that would draw other councils behind it and force the government to retreat.
London Socialist Party public meeting:
"How do we fight for a better future? Better to break the law than break the poor."
Thursday 29 September 7.30pm.
Room 2.40, Francis Bancroft Building, Queen Mary's university, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS.
Nearest tubes. Mile End, Stepney Green.
Speakers include Tony Mulhearn, Liverpool 47 group of councillors, Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary.
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