One hundred years ago, a big movement grew in the east London borough of Poplar, headed by thirty councillors who went to prison rather than levy extortionate rates or cut services to the working-class population that elected them. ‘Poplarism’ won.
Why did Poplar win? Here are ten key points, which contain lessons for today.
- Labour had built a strong movement in the east end. Its council candidates were products of that movement, and fought the election specifically on basis of independent working-class representation.
- Poplar councillors were local working-class people, including diverse sections of the community eg. Jewish, Irish, English. Half of the six women councillors were the daughters of immigrants.
- Poplar operated a labour movement united front, with a broad range of views among Labour councillors, open disagreement, but united in action.
- Once elected, Poplar Council acted as the working-class representative body it had been elected as – in service provision, as an employer, and by making itself a centre of resistance.
- Poplar’s labour movement consistently campaigned for better local government funding. It explained the issues, making a socialist critique of a system biased towards rich areas while ‘the poor keep the poor’. This provided the foundation for defying the law.
- Poplar Labour council took its orders from the local labour movement. It was politically committed to a policy of democratic debate and decision-making in Poplar Labour, in contrast to the view taken by Labour figures elsewhere.
- Poplar’s action took account of the law of the time when devising strategy, but did not defer to it. Local government laws are different now, so the detail of the strategy would be different, but the approach could be the same.
- Poplar’s rates refusal was a mass movement. Marches, window bills, public meetings, door-knocking and more took place throughout the campaign. When two councillors dropped out, it was straightforward to replace them.
- Poplar did not settle for less than it was fighting for. In August 1921, it could have accepted the significant concession the government made, but instead continued to fight.
- Poplar council and its supporters worked to spread its action to other councils, but did not wait for this to happen before taking action itself.