Sunday, 23 August 2009

Review – Guilty and Proud of It by Janine Booth (2009)

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.


Janine said...

Thanks for the review. You raise interesting criticisms. So interesting that I'll think about them for a while before replying rather that rush off a knee-jerk defence!


Janine said...

OK, here goes:

Firstly, you believe that the book lists factors as to why Poplarism fizzled out rather than spread, rather than examining how these interlinked. Could you explain a little more what led you to take this view?

Secondly, you feel that the role of different tendencies within the movement was not explored in detail. One key point here is that amongst the Poplarists themselves, there was a notable absence of "different tendencies". Remember that the Communist Party had only formed in 1920, and was not yet a separate organisation from the Labour Party.

Among the Councillors and their local supporters, there were not 'factions' or 'tendencies' as we would now understand them. There were some disagreements eg. a couple of councillors resigned under pressure; monarchists and republicans among the councillors disagreed as to how the council should respond to the king's visit; one councillor felt that his colleagues were too ready to concede over the minimum wage. Along with a couple of others, all these are reported in the book. There is simply no further evidence of rival 'tendencies' among the Poplarists. Historian Julia Bush has argued that east London's labour movement was notable for its unity in the pre-WW1 period and I think that extended into the post-War period too.

The main fracture was between the Poplarists and the "constitutionalists" led by Morrison and MacDonald. There was also some left (maybe ultra-left) criticism from Sylvia Pankhurst which the book also covers.

Thirdly, the issue of Militant in Liverpool City Council. This is not an issue of my book's literary merit or otherwise, but of the political assessment of what happened in Liverpool in the 1980s.

Although Liverpool did hold out for longer, it eventually did the same as the other 'left' Labour councils of the 1980s: it turned away from the Poplarist path. Although not backing down until a later stage, the Liverpool story *was* broadly similar to those of Lambeth, GLC etc. I suspect that Militant (then) / Socialist Party (now) would big up the differences in order to deflect criticism, but in my view, while Liverpool shows the ability of Militant/SP to win working-class leadership, it also shows its weaknesses in what it does with that leadership. It is not a story of triumph, and with the eventual exposure of Derek Hatton as a scoundrel, it is a tad embarrassing in parts too.

A detailed comparison between Poplar and Liverpool would indeed be interesting, but it would not cast Liverpool or Militant in a particularly impressive light.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

Hi Janine,

thanks for replying to some of my criticisms.

I'll start with the question of different groupings, I have to admit I'm not an expert on this period at all or poplar, its part of the reason i bought and read your book in the first place. As I mention in the review you make the distinction in the book between the likes of Morrison and the Poplar councillors. But not knowing much about the early years of the labour party and communist party I was left wondering how well organised the communist party was - but also you raise the odd criticism of some communist party members and was left wondering what you thought the communist party should have been doing? (i mean in part from generally doing all they could to support the struggle)

As for the comparison with Liverpool - I can imagine we have different evaluations of what happened, but I feel there are a few similarities with Poplar

Both councils initially took a stand alone and won concessions - both councils also had other sections of the labour party attempt to rally around them in other councils with mixed success (I would say Poplar probably had more success) - i think these are interesting questions that should be analaysed

But as I pointed out in the review your book is about Poplar not Liverpool so you don't 'need' to discuss it, but the discussion you give in the book of related struggles is very useful and would benefitted from a little more time spent on Liverpool - in reality it would probably take a whole other work to comapre these, and that of the clay cross councillors fully really.

As for the point about the decline of Poplarism, as I point out in the review the great strength of your book is the clarity with how you explain the factors leading up to Poplars confrontation with the government and how they won concessions from the government - I came away from reading that completely clear about that.

I didn't come away from reading your book understanding why Poplarism didn't spread and I felt that the account you give is more like listing factors for its decline rather than weaving these factors together into a narrative. The one example that sticks in my head is of Lansbury's paper the Daily Herald hitting financial trouble and being bought by the TUC - to me this paper appeared to play a crucial role in the struggle of the councillors - but i didn't really get how this affected everything else that was happening at the time.
I felt like I had to work really hard to attempt to piece it all together which I didn't earlier on in the book and it frustrated me a little.

The way I try to approach book reviews is to explain what the thing is about, what i think its strengths are and what I would have liked to seen in them. Partly when I make criticisms these are influenced by my lack of knowledge of things, but then for me the entire point of writing things for this blog is to try and clarify things in my head and I appreciate you for clearing up the stuff about tendencies.

Janine said...

I'm not sure it is possible to give a definitive answer as to why a movement nearly a century ago did not spread. I also feel that to an extent, a book has a responsibility to report the facts and while offering some argument allow its readers to draw their own conclusions too.

But the basic answer would be: because others did not have the politics, determination and local support that the Poplar socialists did, and the Poplarists perhaps did not try hard enough to spread their movement.

So: in other councils, proposals to follow Poplar were defeated in a vote; while the left dominated the labour movement in Poplar, elsewhere the right was in control; nearby left councils such as Stepney and Bethnal Green were a little slow on the uptake. I also think John Scurr's pulling out of the election against Herbert Morrison for London Labour Party Secretary was an error, which cut very strongly against Poplarism spreading. All these points are made in the book.

(Also, bear in mind that the specific tactic of withholding precepts from cross-London bodies only applied in London.)


Charlie Pottins said...

Maybe if we were to consider councils which later stood out, Clay Cross in Derbyshire deserves mention before the others.
So far as Liverpool, Lambeth and the GLC were concerned the protagonists are still active, and if they can find the time there is another book(or more) to be written! But my recollection is that the tactics used by government had become smarter, and unfortunately the Left was neither as united nor rooted in working class struggle as it needed to be.
Lastly, a commercial - Janine Booth is one of the speakers at a day school on East End politics and culture hosted by the Jewish Socialists' Group on November 15, when she will be particularly speaking on Minnie Lansbury, from Suffragette to 'Poplarist'.
It's at Toynbee Hall (nrst tube Aldgate East)
More info at