Saturday, 24 October 2009

Book Review: Popular Revisited

From LSHG Newsletter, Autumn 2009

Poplar's Rebel Councillors and Guardians 1919-25
By Janine Booth: 216 pages Paperback
The Merlin Press Ltd 2009
ISBN 978-0850366945

Poplar revisited: When Old Labour fought

The crisis of capitalism, that is the latest one we are currently in, has led to bailouts of bankers and banks
and a consensus amongst the three main parties, and if Ireland is anything to go by, the Greens as well, that
there is no alternative to cuts in public spending. This will bring huge pressure to bear on local councils to cut public services which will wallop the most poor and disadvantaged in society. Many local councillors seeing themselves as managers of the local State will go along with this. Some may oppose it and they will certainly be joined by trade unions, community groups and tenants associations.
The last time there was a serious fight around such issues was against Thatcherite rate capping in the mid- 1980s but for those who can remember that far back — aged around 40 and above — it was not a successful fight. The surcharging of Lambeth Councillors and the vicious attacks on Militant in Liverpool underline the point. That is not to say the fight was not worthwhile or without impact but it did not, unfortunately, lead to positive results for working people.
Before that there was, in the early 1970s, the fight of the Clay Cross Councillors against rent rises for council tenants. That had more success but the Councillors were victimised.
And before that we had the struggle of Poplar Councillors in London’s East End for equalisation of the rates and hence for decent and affordable public services.
Janine Booth, a leading activist in the RM T union has written a new history of the Poplar struggle. The
timing, given the above, could hardly be better. There is a standard history written by Noreen Branson and published by Lawrence and Wishart, and more recently Preston socialist Councillor Michael Lavalette
produced a pamphlet on the same theme.
Booth’s book, aside from a final chapter which draws some wider political conclusions, focuses very strictly
on the period of the struggle in Popular itself, broadly the early 1920s. That means as a narrative it is an excellent introduction to what went on. The Poplar Councillors’ fight was for decent public services and decent public employment practices paid for out of the rates. To achieve that they demanded that the rates should be equalised across London so that the richer areas paid in more than the poorer ones like Poplar. It was of course resisted and the Councillors were pursued and jailed for refusing to compromise and cut services and jobs.
Unlike today in many cases Labour members in Poplar in the 1920s were solidly working class, trade union
based, and rooted in their community. Their campaign had mass support and eventually the Government had to be back down and provide more funds.
There remain historical questions that could do with some further research here. The role of the early Communist Party in these events is one. Branson does not have a great deal to say about it, and since this was a period when dual membership of the CP and Labour Party was allowed, disentangling exactly what
went on is no easy matter.
Then there is the question of the left opposition around Sylvia Pankhurst. Booth criticises Pankhurst for
ducking out of an electoral struggle that very clearly got results for working people in Poplar. But Pankhurst and others actually mobilised a significant movement of the unemployed in the 1920s and the pressure of that must have had an impact both on the Councillors and the Government. Unfortunately it also remains an obscure episode.
However, Booth should not be criticised for not writing a book she did not claim to be writing, as it were. She holds up the Poplar struggle as an example of what Labour can achieve when it is rooted and militant.
One might look at New Labour and suggest this seems quite distant, and I suspect Booth might suggest that
the possibility of raising a similar struggle outside its ranks looks equally difficult.
But the point is Poplar took place and it should be an historical inspiration to a new generation of people determined to fight cuts in public services today. That anyway was the conclusion of a Guardian journalist in
2000 whom Booth quotes. His name? Alan Rusbridger, the current Editor of the paper…

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