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Ian Townson reviews 'Minnie Lansbury: suffragette, socialist, rebel councillor' in Solidarity 491, 16 January 2019

 

Minnie Lansbury was one of the rebel Labour councillors of Poplar (East London) who in 1921 forced the Tory¬Liberal coalition government to start central government payments to equalise resources between councils in poor and in well¬off areas.

Janine Booth’s biography of Lansbury is rich in detail about her life; working¬class conditions at the time; and much more. It is a solid achievement given the scarcity of material available on Lansbury to work on.

Lansbury’s parents were impoverished Jews from Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, and had fled to the East End of London to escape antisemitic pogroms and persecution. Some in the labour movement welcomed the Jewish refugees, but others were hostile, including left¬wingers like Henry Hyndman and Ben Tillett, who, unlike Lansbury, would later support World War 1. Broader hostility helped to bring about the Tories’ 1905 Aliens Act, the first ever anti¬immigrant legislation.

During the war, Jews who, from hostility to Britain’s ally Russia, refused to enlist were condemned as traitors and cowards. Later, during and after the Russian Revolution, Jews suspected of Bolshevism were deported. The more established property-owning Jews, too, regarded poor, Yiddish¬speaking Jews as a threat, especially those with radical, revolutionary ideas.

Minnie was born in 1889 into an East End full of squalor and exploitation, with wretched housing and working conditions, low wages, sweatshops, and overcrowding. Tuberculosis was the main killer in the “rookeries”. Minnie’s East End was also a “cauldron of class conflict”, “fizzing with rebel politics”, a big base for the New Unionism born out of the Bryant and May match women’s strike of 1888.

Minnie travelled a difficult route through secondary education into a teaching job via scholarships and bursaries. She became involved in the Labour and women’s suffrage movements, and then Poplar Council. Like many fully-engaged working class activists, Minnie had little time for writing or recording her achievements before her death at the age of 32.

The historical record is biased towards other figures such as the Pankhursts and Minnie’s famous father-in¬law, George Lansbury, editor of the Daily Herald. Janine’s detective work over several years has retrieved much of a valuable period of working-class struggle otherwise “hidden from history”.

The book records Minnie’s activity in alleviating poverty in working class communities through direct action, her time as an Alderman on Poplar Council and her militant fight for women’s rights. Her crowning achievement was to stand shoulder to shoulder with 29 other rebel Labour councillors on Poplar Council in their refusal to accept and collect an inflated rates precept set by the London County Council that impoverished working class communities could not afford to pay.

Janine’s account of the build up to the councillors’ imprisonment in Brixton and Holloway jails is breathtaking. Tens of thousands of workers marched and piled into hugely overcrowded public meetings in solidarity with the councillors. Minnie spoke to large public meetings for the first time. She protested at the conditions in prison. After six weeks, Minnie was released and with the other councillors received a tumultuous welcome at huge celebratory demonstrations and public meetings.

Only a couple of months later, on 1 January 1922, Minnie died, a victim of the flu pandemic that destroyed millions after the war. Her incarceration in Holloway probably contributed. As many as ten thousand people filled the streets of Bow for her funeral with a procession of councillors, bands, floral tributes, banners, and choirs singing “The Red Flag”.

Through examining and discovering Minnie’s involvement in East End politics and her growing socialist political awareness, her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement and relationship with the Lansburys, the book shows the issues of women’s freedom, antisemitism and working¬class struggle all intertwined throughout the narrative. Those issues are still with us today. The struggle for women’s equality and liberation has yet to be won. Antisemitism and anti¬immigrant racism are on the rise globally. The disabled, pensioners, and ex¬soldiers are still discriminated against and treated with contempt. The welfare rights that Minnie and Labour fought for are under threat from reactionary governments. If Minnie was alive now, she would shame today’s Labour councillors, who, unlike the Poplar ones, will not stand up to fight against austerity.

Here is her letter sent to The Communist from jail: “We don’t care twopence for [London Labour Party leader Herbert] Morrison’s trip to Scotland to talk to the Premier. There is only one way in which the official Labour movement can help us, and that is the way Bethnal Green has chosen. It is — going to gaol in the same manner...

“We don’t, in any case, rely on the official Labour movement. We rely on the workers of Poplar, the unemployed, and even the small ratepayers.” (The Premier was Lloyd George — who did nothing — and Bethnal Green Council had voted to follow the example of Poplar in defying the LCC, as also did Stepney). Morrison was implacably opposed to Minnie “breaking the law. That split in the Labour Party between the conformists and the radicals remains with us to this day remains with us.

The greatest achievement of Minnie and the Poplar councillors was the mass mobilisation of working¬class communities to fight for social justice. Without that, little would have been achieved. Minnie was an indefatigable working-class fighter for women’s emancipation who rejected the bourgeois approach of the official women’s suffrage movement. She was a secularist who rejected the expectation that she should observe the governing laws and precepts of the Jewish community. We on the left today have much to learn from Minnie’s example. Read Janine’s book and spread it as far and wide as possible.

• To get the book, go here
• Janine will be speaking about Minnie Lansbury at the Workers' Liberty London Forum on 8 February - details and (free) tickets here