The government’s assault on the town halls of Britain is being dramatised by the Labour Party as an epic battle for democracy, civil rights and human dignity. Heroically resisting the Whitehall panzers are municipal guerrillas like Livingstone of London and Hatton of Liverpool who, if the government is ever unwise enough to prosecute them, will be rapidly raised from mere heroism to martyrdom and then, perhaps, to sainthood.
In July the guerrilla leaders held a council of war, appropriately in Sheffield. There they set out the basis of a campaign against the expenditure cuts which are being imposed on them. Boldly they faced the prospect of acting outside the law; the leader of the Islington council, supported by Livingstone and Lambeth’s Ted Knight, proposed that Labour councils should budget to protect services and jobs and refuse to make a rate. Any government, let alone one including Thatcher, Tebbit and Jenkin, would be bound to respond to this, perhaps by assuming the councils’ functions and, by more indirect means, by prosecuting the recusant councillors.
This all makes good material for Labour’s dramatists and it may even win some votes for their party (although it may also lose some; the working class have not always been grateful to councils which have been labelled as squanderers) but it is somewhat out of touch with reality. Capitalism 1984 is in a slump which affects every industrial country. As usual, workers are being subjected to an extra fierce attack called economising, living within our means and so on. As it is bound to, this attack falls partly on things which, whatever their deficiencies, do something to ease workers’ lives — medical and social services, libraries, education, recreation facilities, sanitary controls. So in a slump workers who need, say, domiciliary nursing or home help can’t get them; teachers are sacked and schools are forced to manage with disintegrating books and equipment, libraries are closed and streets left dirty, spilling uncollected rubbish. Labour resistance to these cuts is unreal because it assumes, against all the evidence and experience, that a Labour government would ride out the slump while protecting the working class and keeping all services intact. This assumption inspires Livingstone and Hatton as it inspired the Clay Cross councillors and, 40 years before them, the councillors of Poplar led by white-whiskered, benign George Lansbury.
In 1921 Lansbury was Lord Mayor of Poplar and an elected member of the Borough’s Board of Guardians. It was not the happiest of times to be mayor in any big British city and especially of a place like Poplar, disfigured by slums and grinding poverty. This was a dockland Borough, lying close by the East and West India docks; its mean houses were overlooked by gasworks and warehouses and veined with railway goods yards and canals. The docks were notorious for their insecurity, with employment handed out each morning at the gates. In August 1921, according to the dockers’ union leader Ernest Bevin, there were 62,000 registered dockers in London but on any day the most who were employed amounted to 29,000. It is common for workers in places like Poplar to be staunch supporters of the Labour Party, in the mistaken belief that that party can ameliorate their poverty. In 1921 Poplar had a Labour majority on its council and on its Board of Guardians, who administered the Poor Law relief which, like supplementary benefit today, was supposed to be a fail-safe when other benefits were not available.
The system of “outdoor relief’ was set up in 1834; it was collected through a local rate. The amount of relief varied from one Board of Guardians to another; most of them were not renowned for their generosity and to apply to them was excessively degrading, fraught with terror of being forced into the workhouse with its hard labour, starvation and brutality. By the 1920s the worst features of this system had supposedly been abolished by a series of reforms, among them the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1921, which effectively extended unemployment benefit to almost all workers and even promised “uncovenanted” benefits. This reform had seemed safe at the time; there was a mood of boom-induced optimism and the Act was designed to relieve short-term unemployment, allowing benefit for only 26 weeks. The few people expected by the experts to be still out of work after that could apply to the Guardians for “outdoor relief’.
But capitalism in the Twenties was no more under the control of the experts than it is today. The brief post-war boom was followed by a slump and in 1921 unemployment exceeded 2 million (about 17 per cent of the workforce) and it did not fall below one million until the Second World War. There was general surprise at the slump; “In April 1920,” said The Economist, “all was right with the world. In April 1921 all was wrong.” That year saw the emergence of the long-term unemployed who, as their 26 weeks of benefit ran out, were driven to apply for Poor Law relief; Between March and November the numbers on that relief rose from 224,000 to 831,000. As we have said, how these desperate people fared varied from place to place, with some Guardians being bullying and niggardly and others comparatively sympathetic and generous. Poplar was one of the latter sort; led by Lansbury, the Guardians there were prepared to allow a man and wife 33 shillings (£1.65) a week, compared to the state “uncovenanted” rate of £1.00 a week. One result of this was that in Poplar one person in five was on relief compared to one in 21 in England and Wales as a whole. The Poplar Guardians justified their policy in a defiant leaflet they published in 1922:
. . . the duty of members of the Board of Guardians is to be Guardians of the POOR and not Guardians of the interests of property. In Poplar there is no cringing or whining on the part of those who apply for public assistance . . . Relief is accepted without shame or regret — in fact in exactly the same spirit as that in which ex-Cabinet ministers, Royalties, and others accept their pensions and allowances from the Government. In Poplar it is well understood that the poor are poor because they are robbed, and are robbed because they are poor . . .
The snag in this generosity was, of course, that it offended against the vital principle of all capitalist administration, that the accounts must not get into the red — and definitely not, as was the case with the Poplar Guardians, be forced into the red. In places like Poplar the demand for relief was likely to be high but, for the same reasons, the local rate was likely to yield that much less. As the Borough slid inexorably towards bankruptcy the gutter press, already carrying on an eager crusade against official “squandermania”, coined the word “poplarism” for the policy of pampering workshy layabouts out of other people’s money (they could not, apparently, think up a word for the real layabouts in society — the class who lived in luxury off the unpaid labour of the working class and who, while the people of Poplar fought the ravages of poverty, were wining and dancing their days away at the smart restaurants of London). A judge, who clearly did not understand a word of what he was saying, later condemned the Poplar councillors as ‘ . . . motivated by eccentric principles of socialist philanthropy”.
These criticisms did not impress the Poplar Guardians, who now came up with an unconventional proposal to regard the relief of the poor as their first priority and to refuse to collect the Borough’s precept to such bodies as the London County Council, the Police and the Metropolitan Asylum Board. This policy was later described, in the report of a clearly outraged inspector to the Minister of Health, as “. . . in many instances foreign to the spirit and intention of the Poor Law statutes”; no attempts had been made to discriminate between the “deserving” and the “undeserving”; the council had supplied boots and clothing to people who needed them (and who, complained the inspector, might have pawned them to get money instead) and they had sent children, on the recommendation of their doctors, on holiday. They had even begun to feed the inmates of the Poplar workhouse adequately.
When the Poplar Guardians ignored a court order to pay the precepts Lansbury and 29 other councillors were sent to prison in September 1921 for contempt of court. As we all know, it is a heinous crime to defy a court, especially when it is a matter of the protection of property rights and the priority of profit above all else. But no sensible person could have expected the Poplar sentences to be deterrent. At their last meeting before the councillors went to prison there were excited, emotional crowd scenes and ten thousand people saw off the women councillors when they were arrested. The fate of the Poplar councillors did not deter their counterparts of Stepney and Bethnal Green, similarly impoverished parts of London. Although the London Labour Party advised against it, both Boroughs followed the example of Poplar. On behalf of the capitalist class, The Times of 3 September 1921 gave vent to its frustration:
The unlawful cause for which some of the Poplar Borough Councillors have gone to prison has confessedly been followed, not with the sole object of relieving distress — other and more temperate methods would better have served that end — but in order to vindicate the Communist doctrine of “full maintenance” for the unemployed.
But even this attack on the idea that unemployed people should be able to live somewhat above destitution did not help the government to wriggle out of an embarrassing situation. Lansbury and his fellow martyrs sat comfortably in gaol, while their supporters sang songs to them outside the wall, apparently for the offence of trying to keep working class people above actual starvation. On 12 October, although they had not “purged” their contempt, the Poplar councillors were released. This was celebrated as a great victory but there was rather more to it. On one hand the government gave way to one of the Poplar councillors’ demands and pushed through an Act which spread the cost of relief over all the London boroughs so that rich areas like Westminster contributed to relief in the East End. On the other hand there was legislation to allow an authority like the LCC to collect its precept over the heads of a recalcitrant council through a Receiver and the Minister superseded the Guardians in West Ham, Chester-le-Street and Bedwelty. In the end, there was no widespread attempt to imitate Poplar. A more serious effect of the affair was that it tended to divert attention away from the vital question of the cause of, and remedy for, unemployment and into a spurious, futile debate about how much, or how little, the unemployed needed to survive. There was much discussion around the definition of “not genuinely seeking work” and preoccupation with the “gap” between unemployment benefit and Poor Law relief. Such debates — which today still rage on — are the very stuff of life to the reformists but they do not touch on the basic issue of capitalism’s inability to satisfy people’s needs.
The Poplar Guardians emerged from gaol to find capitalism still there, its economy switchbacking with unemployment never falling below one million. The Local Government Act of 1929 effectively brought the end of the Guardians, substituting Public Assistance Committees which would be a lot less likely to pursue a maverick course. This was just in time for the Great Crash and unemployment rising over 3 million and the hated, degrading means test which, under another name, still operates today. By any standards, this is hardly a victory for the working class.
And what of Lansbury? If he was a saint it was one who displayed some devilish political guile and will to survive. In 1928, after the debacle of Labour’s 1924 term of office, he insisted that never again should they form a government dependent on Liberal support. But when they did form such a government, in 1929, Lansbury not only failed to object but actually accepted a job in the government. His attitude in the much-reported debate at the 1935 Labour conference, when his pacifism conflicted with his place as party leader on the issue of military sanctions against Italy, was not notable for its saintly consistency. It is true that he did offer to resign but, as Ernest Bevin noticed, he carefully worded his offer to leave himself open to being persuaded to carry on. Bevin’s famously brutal speech was designed to prevent that happening, with its sneer that Lansbury was “. . . taking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it”.
So the 1984 Labour municipal guerrillas are following a tradition made disreputable by its futility, not to mention its conflict and cynicism. Since Lansbury trod the martyr’s trail the working class have endured over 60 years of suffering for capitalism. After all that they might realise that there is a lot more to the history of this society that a conflict between saints and sinners.