There are certain struggles of the British working class that modern day socialists should make themselves aware of. Amongst those struggles are the 1984-5 Miners Strike, Chartism, 1926 General Strike, but there are also localised struggles that are worth our attention, and the struggle of the Poplar councillors is one of them. Booth, who writes for the blog Stroppyblog and is also a member of Workers Liberty, has done a service by bringing these events to a new audience including myself.
During the huge growth of the Labour Party in the aftermath of the first world war, Labour councillors began to be elected in ever larger numbers to local councils and even began to win control of some of them posing the question of what such councillors should do with their new found powers. After all, what local councils basically do is administer certain aspects of the capitalist system in a given area – should labour councils try and do this in a more humane manner or should they challenge the status quo by attempting to provide local services to meet the needs of the population?
As Booth demonstrates, the Poplar councillors chose the latter, demanding the money to be able to provide higher council wages (including equal pay for males and females!) and pay unemployment benefits without sending people to the dreaded workhouse. Their tactic in this campaign was to withhold the rates that they paid to all London bodies, demanding that rates should be equalised across London to pay for the larger welfare services needed in poorer boroughs, for this action they were imprisoned.
This section of the book is very well detailed, with a very good contrast between the actions of the Poplar councillors and the neighbouring councillors in Hackney which Labour also controlled who pursued the former policy mentioned above under the guidance of Herbert Morrison. One other important thing Booth notes is role of the paper, the Daily Herald, edited by the leading figure of the Poplar councillors, George Lansbury in terms of explaining the councils policy and actions.
Yet I feel the book has several points where I feel it falters. Firstly, whilst being excellent on the background to the struggle all the way up the imprisonment and release of the councillors, the book fails to portray a coherent reason for the eventual failure of the councillors struggle to spread further – certain points are raised, the role of the London Labour Party under the reformist Herbert Morrison, Lansbury being forced to sell the Daily Herald, the defeat of the 1926 General Strike etc. Yet the way these are discussed is like a list rather than explaining how these factors interlinked with each other. The role of different tendencies within the movement, apart from the divide between the councillors and the likes of Morrison, is also not explored with the detail needed to understand fully their roles in the struggle, although there is more detail in this respect within the movements of the unemployed.
A final gripe is in the final chapter dealing with the long-term aftermath of the struggle, whilst this chapter is brief in the events it deals with that is necessarily so, it is a book about Poplar and not everywhere else! Yet I feel it is to brief in dealing with the similar situation in Liverpool in the 1980s – this dispute is just lumped in with the others of that time, but Liverpool was significantly different, firstly it won concessions from the government in 1984 and secondly for the role of organised Marxists within the council. Whilst the author does refer to two books for further reference I do not feel that this does the comparisons between the two struggles enough justice.
In summary the book is well worth reading, despite the above mentioned drawbacks the depiction of the core of the struggle of the councillors around the non payment of London wide rates is excellent, and that after all is the main topic of the book.