AS WE saw last week, the huge upsurge in industrial unrest in the East End was contained but not quelled by the outbreak of the First World War. In the first years of the 20th century the Labour movement and the unions had gained power and started to exert it, with increasing representation on local councils and the beginnings of a parliamentary presence.
Though most Labour MPs elected in the 1910 General Election were for constituencies in Scotland, Wales and the industrial heartlands of northern England, there were dots of red in London too: Woolwich and West Ham and, amid the sea of East End Liberals, there was George Lansbury in Bow and Bromley, replacing the longstanding Tory incumbent.
Alongside was the Great Unrest of the pre-War years, with a series of organised and wildcat strikes all over Britain, and with a concentration in the East End. The dockers at the East and West India Docks knew they wielded power far beyond their numbers, able to choke off a huge part of Britain’s imports and exports simply by walking out. Strikes continued in smaller number during the war, and women – now working in industry for the first time – downed tools as they sought to solidify job security and pay.
But the Christmas election of 1918 (the votes were cast on 14 December but, in those far-off and more relaxed days, the count didn’t begin until the 28th) saw a step change for Labour, being the first held since the Representation of the People Act. The law did more than the three preceding Reform Acts put together and swelled the electorate from 7.5m to over 20m, though women between 21 and 30 wouldn’t qualify until 1929. And you no longer needed to own property to vote: this was the first election in which ‘paupers’ had the ballot. With Poplarism’s coming battle over ‘poor relief’ the move would seem hugely significant.
George Lansbury would lead that movement, though he had lost his Bow and Bromley seat in the 1912 election (many voters turned away by his support for the Suffragettes) and he would be beaten by the Conservatives again in 1918. But Labour MPs rose from 42 to 57 and 1918 and, more important maybe, Labour was starting to control London councils. Herbert Morrison had built the London Labour Party into an efficient electoral machine (his grandson Peter Mandelson would appear as a similarly shrewd operator for the party 80 years later). Labour now controlled half the 28 borough councils in London and, crucially, they held the town halls and thus had a hand on the rates. Lansbury was no longer an MP but he was Mayor of Poplar – a far more powerful role as it transpired.
Lansbury and Morrison had much in common. Lansbury had been a pacifist during the First World War, while Morrison had been a member of the No Conscription Fellowship. It was a hugely unpopular stance, as most working people swallowed their doubts and got behind the flag. Morrison even declared himself a conscientious objector, despite the fact that his partial blindness would have excused him military service in any event; he did his bit by working as a farm labourer. The pair were deeply moral men and willing to suffer for their beliefs … as would become obvious as the twenties wore on. But there were deep divisions between them.
While Morrison was desperate to move Labour from the party of coal-begrimed northern men in order to court the middle class vote, Lansbury saw 1918 as Labour’s first chance to help its core supporters, saying: “Labour councillors must be different from those we have displaced, or why displace them?”
And how different they were. Poplar began to enact a welfare state in microcosm – some on the Right saw it as a mini-revolution. The councillors spent money: cutting infant mortality, building council houses, restoring libraries, fixing the roads and the housing stock, and thus putting (mainly) men back to work after the War. A 4s (20p) bonus was paid to all council workers who joined a union, and by 1920 the Council was paying a minimum wage of £4 a week to every employee, up from £1 and 10shillings (£1.50). Equal pay for women, extraordinary at the time, saw them get a wage rise of 70 per cent.
The biggest fight was on unemployment though, and here modernity came up against legislation that seemed out of the Middle Ages. The Poor Law saw unemployed people sent to the workhouses, which were paid for by a common pool raised from all London boroughs (they wouldn’t eventually be scrapped until the 1930s), but Labour councillors preferred to pay the unwaged ‘outdoor relief’ (effectively, the dole). This money came direct from the individual borough and was raised through the property rates.
The rates system was bizarre, with rates based on rent values. It meant that a poor borough like Poplar, with low rents, had to charge a much higher rate to produce the same amount raised by low rates in rich boroughs such as Chelsea. Having been stung once, the council then had to put the money into a central pot for all the London boroughs, from which were paid the London County Council, the Metropolitan Police, the Water Board and others. Effectively, the poorest were contributing the most.
View Lansbury and Morrison in a larger map
Poplar’s ambitious schemes had to be paid for, and the councillors decided to withhold the part of the rate that had gone to pay for the Met and the rest: the plan was to force a change by the Government to a fairer system. Morrison was furious, seeing the left of the party derailing his attempts to woo the middle class vote. And the Tory government was intransigent, summoning 30 Poplar councillors to the High Court in July 1921. They marched there at the head of 2000 supporters from the East End. The banners they carried bore the legend ‘Poplar Borough Council, marching to the High Court and possibly to prison, to secure the equalisation of rates for poor boroughs’. Nobody could argue with the clarity of its message, even if what wasn’t the snappiest. The banners were an accurate prediction of what would happen within weeks.
Labour and Morrison refused to back the rebels and the Councillors were sent jail. Poplar council meetings now had to be held in Brixton prison, with female councillors being driven down from Holloway. The government feared that revolution was in the air and bent – within six weeks the councillors were out. 2000 people crowded into Bow Baths to welcome them home, with another 2000 outside in the Roman Road. That weekend a huge demonstration was held in Victoria Park. The biggest victory though was that Lansbury et al had changed the future of welfare. Outdoor relief would now be controlled by the Ministry of Health, and Poplar’s external funding went from £50,000 to £300,000. Poplar and Clement Attlee’s Stepney borough now paid relief at twice the level of the dole. Many thousands had been lifted, if not from poverty, from desperation.
With thanks to A People’s History of London by Lindsey German & John Rees
George Lansbury speaks