Historian AJP Taylor described George Lansbury as ‘the most lovable figure in modern politics’. To the people of his Bow and Poplar constituency he was a hero – going to prison to defend his beliefs and constituents.
Yet to others he was naïve, even seeing in Hitler a germ of Christian belief that could avert World War II, and continually missing out on political power because of his refusal to compromise his beliefs.
In a new biography, John Shepherd reconstructs the life of a complex figure who was all these things and more, a socialist who would be hard pressed to recognize the Labour Party of Tony Blair. For George Lansbury was ‘at the heart of Old Labour’.
George was born in Suffolk, in 1859, and his family moved to the East End nine years later. He started work in an office at 11 but, after a year, returned to school until he was 14. A string of jobs followed – clerk, wholesale grocer and work in a coffee bar among them. He then started his own business as a contractor working for the Great Eastern Railway. But the business failed and in 1884 Lansbury, now married with three children, decided to emigrate to Australia. The adventure didn’t last long, as the family found it difficult to settle. The following year they returned to England and George began work at his father-in-law’s timber merchants.
Lansbury’s bitter experience of emigration – he felt the authorities had painted a deliberately false and rosy picture of Australia – led him to politics. He joined the campaign against emigration policy.
In 1886 Lansbury joined the local Liberal Party, and was elected General Secretary of the Bow & Bromley Liberal Association. But he became disillusioned with the leadership’s refusal to support legislation for a shorter working week.
In fact Lansbury was becoming more enmeshed in radical East End politics. In 1889 he joined a local strike committee during the London Dockers Strike of that year. And in 1892, Lansbury established a branch of the Social Democratic Federation in Bow.
Then came a defiant move that foreshadowed ‘Poplarism’ 30 years later. In 1892 Lansbury was elected to the Board of Guardians that ran Poplar Workhouse. The traditional approach for guardians was to make poor relief as unpleasant as possible – the theory being generosity would encourage people to rely on the workhouse. Lansbury and his colleagues decided to change the system from within.
Over the next years the conditions in the Poplar Workhouse improved dramatically. And the Laindon Farm Colony, near Basildon, taught unemployed men the basics of market gardening and got many back to work. It wasn’t popular with the government, who in 1906 were to order an inquiry into the wasting of ratepayers’ funds on the projects. Lansbury and his fellows refused to back down, and the government relented.
After three unsuccessful shots at Parliament, Lansbury was finally elected in 1910, as Labour MP for Bow & Bromley. As ever, he pushed tough causes. He campaigned in Parliament for votes for women. In October, 1912, Lansbury decided to draw attention to the plight of Suffragette prisoners by resigning his seat and fighting a by-election on votes for women. He lost, and the following year was imprisoned for making speeches in favour of suffragettes.
For ten years Lansbury was out of the House of Commons and concentrated on journalism, helping found the Daily Herald in 1911. The paper opposed Britain entering the First World War. Then, in 1921 he became Mayor of Poplar.
Defying government, the council raised the rate to increase poor relief. Lansbury and most of the local council went to prison for four months for their stance. In fact Lansbury was often at odds with the Labour Party. He was to the left of the party leaders. And when Ramsay MacDonald formed a National Government in 1931 to combat Britain’s economic crisis, Lansbury resigned and became the leader of a Labour opposition. He was to resign again – criticised by party members for his pacifist stance on the brewing World War II.
His views were to lead him to Berlin, and talks with Hitler, then on to Mussolini, both of whom led him to believe they would enter talks to avoid war.
Another East Ender succeeded Lansbury as Labour leader. Clement Attlee looked back on his predecessor in 1954. ‘An evangelist rather than a Parliamentary tactician. Yet during those years in which he led the small Party in the House he showed great skill and powers of everyday leadership. A leading Conservative once replied to a Labour Member who said he thought George one of the best men he had known – “The best! Is that all? He’s the ablest Opposition Leader I have ever known.”‘
George Lansbury died on May 7, 1940.
George Lansbury – at the heart of Old Labour by John Shepherd, £35 hardback, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0198201648