Noreen Branson's excellent work looks at one of the great high points of the British Labour Party's history. In the early 1920s, when the Labour party still remained very much on the fringe of mainstream electoral politics, it started to make gains out of the radicalisation that followed the First World War.
Almost immediately debates took place inside the organisation that would continue in one form or another to this day. Basically, to what extent should socialists within the Labour Party accomodate to mainstream politics in order to win elections, or fight for a more radical set of ideas, using electoral politics as a platform for the struggle for socialism.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the East London borough of Poplar (now part of Tower Hamlets). George Lansbury and a number of other Labour candidates took a majority on the local council in November 1919. Lansbury was a well known socialist and pacifist. He and many of the other newly elected councillors had long roots in the socialist and trade union movements locally. On the back of increasing radicalisation, they were elected to improve the lot of a borough, which was then, as it is now, one of the poorest places in England.
Initially the election of Lansbury et al, had little impact. They made some significant changes to local services, building baths, increasing library use and so on. But then, as the economic crisis of the early 1920s started to take hold, they set upon a path that was to bring them into radical confrontation with the government. This hinged on the allocation of rates. The Poplar councillors recognised that the existing system, whereby all the London councils paid into a pot and money was then distributed back out, was discriminatory to the poorest of boroughs which had the most need to help the poor and unemployed. The Poplar councillors refused to pay a section of this money to the government, instead spending it on employing the unemployed and insuing poor relief at much higher than normal levels.
This illegal action, though clearly morally fantastic brought down the wrath of the courts, and the Poplar councillors served weeks in jail, until they were released by the pressure on the government from outside.
The story is a complex one. The Poplar councillors refused to bow down to the powers that be. Mobilising thousands of local workers in a huge protest movement that started to radicalise the wider London population. But this was not in the interests of the fledgling Labour Party, many of whom wanted to court legitamacy to ensure they were seen as respectable.
Noreen Branson's history is detailed and passionate. Particularly if you've been involved in radical East End politics at any time since the 1920s - she draws out the problems that face those who would struggle for radical change using Bourgeois methods.
"The councillors were indeed up against a situation which was new at the time, but which has faced many dedicated socialists since. Convinced of the need for fundamental changes in the system, such people have believed that if elected they will be in a position to make a major impact on the lives of those they represent. But once elected, whether in local or national government, they have found their opportunities are smaller than expected. They are hemmed in by the structure of property relations which in turn is reinforced by administrative ties and legal props. They are bound down by the financial fetters imposed from on high. The existing framework is too strong for them."
Many of the victories of Poplar are considered normal today - that working people should receive unemployment benefit when thrown on the scrap heap of the dole. Family Allowances that don't force extra suffering on larger families. No means testing and so on. But the real lessons from Poplar's struggle is that fighting for change means mobilising large numbers of people, and socialist organisation is crucial to do that.
Note that Noreen Branson's book is out of print. If you can't find it, but want to know more about Poplarism, the radical socialist councillor Michael Lavellette has written a short and very readable pamphlet about the topic. It's available for purchase from Bookmarks, The Socialist Bookshop here.
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