Book review - Poplar; Lessons of a historical struggle

Alan Woodward of the Radical history Network reviews Janine Booth's "Guilty and Proud of it: Poplar's Rebel Councillors and Guardians 1919-25".

Submitted by wojtek on January 11, 2012

This book re-tells the story of the courageous and successful resistance to grossly unfair local government financial regulations in 1921 but could be sub titled – but sometimes leads to State centralisation of welfare which we can look at that below. The facts are already well known: this was the biggest local revolt against central state - George Lansbury, as one of the 30 councillors, led the Poplar fight against the worst poverty in London, who went to prison for their trouble and from there, won the issue against orthodox economic thinking and all political leaders - including that of the Labour Party. The councillors, having exhausted all constitutional methods, turned to direct action and built up a mass movement in the borough. The photographs show streets full of people in support. They defied the courts but were let out of jail without “purging their contempt” in an important first in legal and political history.

The story was first told 30 years ago in another classic [Branson] but the recent publication is predictably a big improvement . This article is in two parts, the first looks at the book itself and some implications, the second examines an alternative view of welfare provision, that of libertarianism

The background to Poplarism is scary but also encouraging. The post WW1 relative affluence was replaced by another of the economic Slumps which regularly expose the contradictions within capitalism and reduce whole sections of the population to deprivation – you know the story well I imagine.

The poverty of East London had been well documented [London] and many middle class activists were sufficiently horrified to go there and stay on - Susan Lawrence, Clement Attlee, etc. - despite the generous policies of good employers like the Lansburys. But George was better known as a leader of the growing labour movement both election-wise and in the workplaces [Holton]. The power for [most] women to vote having been secured by the suffrage movement, led locally by Sylvia Pankhurst and her Women’s, later Workers’, Socialist Federation, was giving Labour more and more seats in Town Halls and the House of Commons.


Problems remained from the bad old days, one of which was the unfair system of funding for local welfare which meant that the local taxes, or rates, were biased towards the rich areas. Poorer councils were actually subsidising them. Welfare was the responsibility of the local councillors but also the Poor Law Guardians who operated the dreaded Workhouses for those absolutely skint. Now controlled by Labour [Bush], trade union and co-operative councillors, the new regimes began a startling “revolution”- they paid out unemployment benefits, or outdoor relief, that were actually adequate and broadly equal for women. Poplar Council could not pay out proper benefits and the subsidy for the rich, known as rate equalisation, as well, so they refused to collect and pay the latter. Borough citizens were grateful, the financial authorities extremely outraged – and so to Court and prison. [ Branson]


Janine Booth goes on to describe the scandalous conditions in both men's and women’s prisons at Holloway and Brixton - these places could actually kill you - and did so frequently. The authorities tried to impose them on the Poplar councillors. Both men and women used every method available to demand humane treatment and within a fortnight had free association, food bought in, and were holding official Council meetings in the cells at Brixton. The smaller women’s group struggled to keep up but the daily mass demonstrations outside, in Islington streets, did keep morale up. The rest is history - faced with increasing public humiliation, the Minister of Health, Alfred Mond, sought the easiest climb down, gave in and the triumphant ex-prisoners left as confident as they had come in.

The dispute as such did not end there and rumbled on for three more years. The next point of conflict was the pay of council workers, far too generous for the businessmen, and they sought reductions. Then came the dock strike of 1923. London dock strikes have a central role in the history of the workers' movement. Among the recorded episodes are the “great dockers' tanner” strike of 1889, [Wood] and the pre-war dispute which cemented the relationship with the Jewish immigrants [Rocker]. Later came the 1951 conflict when the dockers defeated their union leaders and the Attlee government, and forced them to withdraw their outdated wartime anti strike regulation [Woodward 2009]. Finally the Pentonville 6 dockers, jailed for contempt again, wrecked government legislation and reputation in 1972. [Darlington]

The market in operation

The strike in question saw Poplar Council paying out something like adequate benefits , hence it was dubbed “Rate Aided” by the business interests and their friends in the gutter press. The newly formed T&GW Union began as it was to continue and their attitude led to a breakaway union, a division that was to divide workers for decades. Branson has a long chapter on this courageous but sad event. The conflict continued.


What of the political aftermath of Poplarism? A chapter in Booth outlines the consequences of 1921 as the business interests and their governments sought to avoid repetition. Personal surcharging and bans were just not effective any more. Bigger thinking was required if privilege was to be maintained.

The overall strategy of breaking working class power was enforced through a series of carefully planned strikes [heard it all before?], culminating in the general strike fiasco, courtesy of the TUC. Welfare payments were removed from elected local politicians, the old Poor Law was finally ended after a hundred years of punishing the poor. Soon central government took control of the amounts paid out by funding the payments centrally, themselves. The hated “means test” still tightly regulated the poor so that appalling poverty continued, until unsurprisingly, yet another war came to the rescue of those who survived. The post-war Labour government introduced their version of the welfare state and industrial nationalisation but the compromise kept capitalism going, until Thatcher’s New Capitalism began repeating the old story yet again.

A final consideration concerns the impact of the dispute on the leadership of the labour movement over these decades. The Labour Party first: George Lansbury, a dedicated christian and long term activist in the interests of the poor, was rewarded for his conduct of the dispute by being elected to parliament, against the trend of a miserably reforming Party. He was so popular and diligent that in the second labour government in 1929, Ramsay MacDonald could not avoid giving him a place in the administration, albeit as minor and insignificant as possible.

Even so when MacDonald deserted and formed the Coalition Government, George was seen as the most senior surviving Member of Parliament and became Leader of the split parliamentary party. He presided over its re-building, in a leftward direction, but lost the vote over his pacifism in 1935/6. The issue came down to military opposition to Hitler. Speaking personally, I must say that I believe my own position on this issue would have been to vote for war preparations, knowing the fate of all oppositionists in Nazi controlled countries. Be that as it may, George had reached a very high position of leadership, largely as a result of Poplarism .

Further left, the battle in London district E 14 occurred as the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed. Among the considerable opposition was Sylvia Pankhurst. She was associated with the international opposition to Lenin’s government which had broken with the Official movement, but strangely not over the Bolshevik dispersal of the Russian workplace councils and total neglect of the area workers' councils, or soviets. The split was over Lenin’s insistence that the Bolshevik policy and tactics had to be adopted by all national communists - despite the very different nature of the advanced West compared to agrarian Russia. The dissident “council communists”, strongest in Germany, formed their own Communist Workers' movement and it was to this that Sylvia belonged.[Pankhurst]

Quickly expelled from the CPGB, her Workers' Socialist Federation, with its newspaper the Workers' Dreadnought, retained its base in East London, having its own Unemployed Workers' League in opposition to the CPGB-controlled National Unemployed Workers' Committee. In the meanwhile George’s son Edgar and his partner Minnie had joined the CP. There is not much doubt that the successful conclusion of the Poplar events was a great benefit to the Moscow-led Party, even with Minnie’s sad death in 1922. She had been one of the brightest stars.

It is still necessary to assess the contribution of the communist workers' movement. It is clear that the strength and depth of the mass organisation was aided by the powerful organisation of Pankhurst’s WSF. The Workers' Dreadnought journal was a widely respected newspaper in the area. [Shipway] It did not have the power of the national Daily Herald, edited by Lansbury. The Herald had started as a strike paper for printers in the pre WW1 wave of anarcho–syndicalism described as the Great Unrest and was still both widely read and admired. Its Herald League was a force in the anti-war movement for example in industrial areas of the country [Weller].

Sadly both journals were to go under soon after 1921. The Herald was taken over by the prevaricating TUC in 1922 [later with a commercial contract], and the Dreadnought folded two years after that. At the time however they functioned together to advance the cause of the resistance in the borough.

Not much of the paragraphs above will be found in the two publications. One writer was from the CPGB while the present one has trotskyist beliefs so neither will be encouraging the perspectives of libertarian socialists. A comparison of the two differing ideologies of anarchism and marxism can be found in the publications of a writer who has experience of both [Guerin] .

The CPGB was to go on and form the workplace leadership of the labour movement for several decades with disillusionment following initial success. Its disastrous role has yet to be finally recorded.

Part Two – an alternative view

For libertarian socialists, some of the lessons of the Poplar events are clear. The Poplar councillors provided a clear model for “left “ councillors to revolt against the invariably moderate Labour Party, especially in government. Why has this not be followed in the 90 years since then? With the honourable exception of the Derbyshire councillors in Clay Cross, all the overblown blusterings and plots by local representatives have come to nothing. No other comment on the death of reformism is needed.

The Poplar struggle was exceptionally courageous and well worth the effort but today the levers of power are securely in the hands pf the ruling class; we have only the pretence of “democracy” and political action however useful in the past, now has zero chances of success.

Secondly, as both books make clear, Poplar was a victory for direct action. The well conditioned councillors had tried repeatedly all the proper procedures but been ignored and treated with contempt. Their fiercest critic was Herbert Morrison leader of London Labour and Mayor of Hackney. His grotesque antics are reminiscent of his near relative Peter Mandelson, in the modern situation, and the thought of Ken Livingstone keeps looming up too.

The form of DA adopted was linked to non violence [Carter] and enormous care was taken to avoid giving the police grounds for their well known violence. There were practically no arrests or disorder despite the strong feelings aroused - the truncheons remained unblooded in docklands, to the regret of the “floggers and beaters” brigade .

Whose welfare state?

A third point concerns the possibility of Ms Booth’s account inadvertently lending weight to the assumption that Labour later imposed a welfare state on a working class helpless before market forces. This was not the complete picture. Colin Ward writes of "huge welfare networks built up by the poor in the rise of industrial Britain" [1987 & ‘96]. The story is clearest in health provision and we examine it through a libertarian perspective

This is set of ideas which benefit from the growing present recognition of the limits of the state centred philosophies – that of libertarianism. This idea is based on the self activity of workers, their families and miscellaneous self-managed organisations. Mutual aid, voluntary bodies, friendly societies, federal structures, trade unions, co-ops, etc, are its hall mark. This very basic “democracy”, not the dissolute parliamentary version, is the core of the movement – workers control, members rights, elected and fully recallable leaders , a minimum of full time staff and total accountability, are the watchwords. This is real hidden history, as Colin Ward identifies in his articles on The Path Not Taken. [1987 & ‘96]

The market, as it existed in the first historical phase, had no place for the welfare of people like workers and their families - all that taxation could be more fruitfully re-invested. Only a few philanthropists thought differently. Medical treatment for the vast majority of those that preceded us frequently depended on charity schemes or institutions, a chancy business, with a restricted access anyway

Improvement came on two fronts:

- firstly from the growth of workplace based provision, a consequence of union organisation
- secondly the establishment of friendly societies of one form or other - which functioned on the basis of weekly contributions in return for a minimal medical service.

Voluntary provision, often a mixture of the above, grew to cover millions of the population by 1911, An authority on friendly societies comments that every district of every town and city in the country had a society making social provision for the poor, available nowhere else [Green]. David Green, it should be noted, advocates non state provision from a free market standpoint and his writings should be approached with caution.

The workmen’s Medical Aid Society

Within the present context, we can only snatch a glimpse of the best provision of friendly society non state institutions . One well publicised example originated from the Tredegar Workmen’s Society and Institute, TWS&I, of South Wales, in the old century. For our enquiry , the relevant result of this vigorous friendly society was the Tredegar Workmen’s Medical Aid Society, TWMAS. Based on the steel workers and miners union organisation in the Welsh pits in 1890, this collected 2d or 3d in the £ [old pence, old money] from the general population in exchange for which the workers and their families got medical services [Foot, M ].

A workers "welfare" state

Friendly society provision pre 1911 catered for around 8 million people of the estimated 12 m included in the National Insurance scheme. It was provided by doctors as medical officers, with a minimum of statutory assistance [Green, p 95]. The estimates vary about exact figures but the fact of friendly society success cannot be doubted.

It attracted the attention of the growing powerful commercial insurance industry who feared its competition. Despite the rhetoric used by Lloyd George, the resulting legislation gave a clear run to this despicable branch of capitalist enterprise and the new scheme, copied from Bismarck’s state run German style model, severely wounded the friendly society provision. Now “ approved societies”, some managed to hold until the parliamentary representatives of “Old Labour” killed them off in 1948. An awareness of the political inheritance of the whole provision – a widespread and deeply felt libertarianism in South Wales especially, no doubt swayed their minds in 1911.

Revelling in its triumph, the “Combine” of commercial interests shared its power with the doctors national organisation, and the state bureaucrats. Compulsory state taxation rather than voluntary payment funded the exercise. In two stages we had a consolidation of power away from working class bodies like friendly societies, and towards the institutions of capitalism , the privileged monopoly of doctors and institutional structures

Non state provision in action

By 1946, the TWMAS, in collaboration with five other medical aid societies from the South Wales and Monmouthshire Alliance of Medical Aid Societies, provided a panel of doctors, a surgeon , two pharmacists , one physiotherapist, a dentist and assistant, and a district nurse. Glasses could be obtained for 2s 6d and false teeth for less than cost price. Artificial limbs were free, as were injections, patent foods, drugs, wigs and X-rays. For those who had to go to hospital, a car was provided to the railway station and first class rail fare provided. For 4d a week, free hospital treatment was also available The doctors were paid an average of £380, dependent on their patient list size, [Green p 165, 172 ]

Left Labour as destroyer

The TWMAS was significant as its the whole set up was extremely well known to the 1948 Heath Minister, one Aneurin Bevan. Born in the area to a mining family, he had worked for the TWS&I for many years , mainly on the provision for the townsfolk of the magnificent municipal Library. Bevan was able to spend a reported £300 [old pounds] a year on new purchases. Thus this famous left wing parliamentary leader did his duty, along with attacking housing squatters elsewhere, to destroy the fruits of working class initiative – should the Blair events surprise us?

A second view on the TMAS can be found in A J Cronin’s celebrated autobiographical novel “ The Citadel.” [1937 ]. This book examines the working of the MAS Committee in an unusual portrayal of working class democracy in action. Cronin’s account of the fictitious society, drawn from his experience, is a rare description of a lost treasury.

A last comment from an old activist from the Valleys. He said that in 1948 “We expected the creation of a whole nation of Tredegars, but got something different” [Ward]. In other functions of council responsibility, Ward writes of the Sick Club, the trade union benefit, the friendly society, the co-operative, the building society, various self managed institutions and so on. The libertarian organisation of welfare has been proved as a viable alternative to State provision, though not one that has any recognition from orthodox sources .


This rather long digression has been necessary to contrast the libertarian analysis from other sources. Opposition to the pervasive influence of capitalist control has always been a principle feature of the labour movement. Over the twentieth century, we can discern the growing influence of the political ideas of broadly marxist or labour reformist nature . We are speaking of course of the organisations known for the complicity of trade unions in social democracy, or the Labour Party in Britain, and Russian style “communism” of various descriptions, including leninism and trotskyism. We cannot provide a complete political analysis here and can only note that these twin souls of socialism were originally the source of hope against naked capitalism but their ideas and structures have been corrupted and become distrusted. Their role has now expired into being part of the problem not the solution.

The Poplar struggle had the unintended consequence of removing local control. Central state provision moved forward for a key aspect of welfare benefits. Given the circumstances this may have been unavoidable but the possible alternative is a dimension we should note ‘

The book is an excellent modern publication, perhaps a little less detailed than its predecessor, but using many of the published sources of recent years. In comes from a identifiable political source , as befits one of the most political disputes in workers history. It is likely we shall see more publications from its author and this is an auspicious beginning.

By Alan Woodward, Radical history Network, written 18 November 2009

Reading Notes

Books listed alphabetically by author’s surname:

- Noreen Branson : Poplarism 1919-1925 – George Lansbury and the councillor’s revolt [1979, 279 pp] .
- Julia Bush ; Behind The lines – East London labour 1914-1919 [1984 , xx pp],
- April Carter : The Political Theory of Anarchism [1971, 118 pp]
- A J Cronin : The Citadel [ 1937, 380 pp],
- Ralph Darlington & D Lyddon : Glorious Summer - class struggle in Britain 1972, [ 1998, 316 pp],:
- Michael Foot : Aneurin Bevan two vols , 1897 – 1945 and 1945 -1960, [1962, 468 pp; 1973,]
- David G Green : Working Class patients and the Medical Establishment – self help in Britain from the mid nineteenth century to 1948 [1985, 211 pp],
- Daniel Guerin: Anarchism - from theory to practice [1970, USA, 166 pp] ;
- Jack London: The People of the Abyss [ 1902, 198 pp] ;
- Sylvia Pankhurst ; Communism and its tactics , intro by Mark Shipway [1921/3 & 82 , 26 pp],
- Rudolf Rocker : The London Years [1958 and 2005, 228 pp] ;
- Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn : Liverpool – a city that dared to fight [1988, 522 pp] ;
- Colin Ward; The Path Not Taken [ The Raven, 3 , 1987, 6 pp],
- Colin Ward ; Social Policy – an anarchist response [2000, 89 pp] ;
- Ken Weller : Don't be a Soldier - the radical anti war movement in North London 1914-1918 [1985, 96 pp],
- Peter Wood : The Price of a Cigar, [1996, 230 pp]
- Alan Woodward ; Life and Times of Joe Thomas [2009, xx pp] ;



11 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by wojtek on September 4, 2012

Tom Brown wrote in 1942:
Coffin Clubs

The failure of trade unions as fighting organisations is partly due to their friendly society character. They pay out sick, superannuation, unemployment, and death benefits, tasks now undertaken by the State. They have become not militant working class bodies, but coffin clubs. In the craft unions most of the contributions (often 2s. a week) and most of the energy of the organisation go to this end. Now the paying of friendly society benefits entails the accumulation of large funds. The existence of such funds means Investment Capital. Investment in property, investment in capitalist enterprises which exploit their workers for profits, investment in WAR LOAN. These funds give the unions an interest in the welfare of capitalism which paralyses their activities as fighting bodies. The officials and the more timid members who hope to draw benefits fear a strike which might imperil the funds. Cut out the coffin club and a union can be run on a membership contribution of 3d. or 4d. a week...