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Kings and queens are immortalised in statues, prime ministers are remembered with official portraits, but an opposition leader best known for his pacifism before the second world war has to make do with a fading mural, knocked up on a crumbling wall beside an east London housing estate in the middle of the night by a local rugby player.
The mural of George Lansbury, who led the Labour party from 1932 to 1935 before resigning over his opposition to rearmament, may not be the world’s finest piece of street art. But it depicts a lesser known and arguably more important moment of his political career – one that only those with a keen interest in Labour party history will know much about.
Before leading the national party, Lansbury was the mayor of Poplar – elected in 1919, he was at the vanguard of a new generation of Labour leaders in London. Next door in Stepney, the council was run by Clem Attlee; down the road in Hackney, it was Herbert Morrison. The end of the first world war, coupled with an expansion of suffrage that saw the number of people eligible to vote triple from 7 million to 21 million, created a moment that the Labour party hoped to exploit.
Lansbury was elected on a radical agenda, including a £4 minimum weekly wage for municipal workers, and equal pay for women. As he put it himself: “Labour councillors must be different from those we have displaced, or why displace them?”
His attempt in 1921 to reduce the amount his poor residents had to pay towards the wider London authorities, known as the Poplar rates rebellion, ultimately led to Lansbury and 29 councillors being sent to prison. It was a moment of martyrdom that, while initially unsuccessful, paved the way for the end of the poor laws and helped to define a young party’s reputation as radical representatives of the working class. Where Lansbury led, Attlee eventually followed.
Lansbury’s achievements have been long forgotten. For most Britons he’s no longer even the most famous Lansbury – that’s his granddaughter Angela. For the past few years, if George merited a mention in the national media it was an unflattering comparison to another anti-war London politician who led the Labour party. But 100 years on from the Poplar rates rebellion, some in east London believe that Lansbury’s radical direct action deserves to be remembered.
Without the words “George Lansbury” beside it, the bowler-hatted, mutton-chopped man depicted on the wall of the Tower Hamlets Parks Department depot would be unlikely to be recognised by his surviving grandchildren. On a warm summer afternoon, I’m standing in front of it alongside Lansbury’s modern-day successor, John Biggs, the current mayor of Tower Hamlets. “It’s fairly primitive stuff,” he admits, peering closer at the fading paintwork.
As we move on from the mural and take a tour of Poplar – “it’s a perambulatory date”, as Biggs puts it – the mayor describes the scale of poverty his predecessor was trying to ameliorate in a “heaving” borough of 160,000 people. “There was no real proper planning control, so you’d have a factory churning out chemical fumes next door to a tenement where families lived in a block with no bathrooms.”
What employment existed was insecure and badly paid. Workers at the docks could be blacklisted “because they were too lippy … there was no entrenchment of employment rights. Life was short and brutal for poor people.”
There was a profound sense of injustice, and a desire to use the local authority to achieve social reform and progress
John Biggs, mayor of Tower Hamlets
After the first world war “people came back, and they expected better”. Labour’s landslide council victory in 1919 – it won 39 of the 42 seats in Poplar – brought hope, but change was slow. “They had a lot of ambitions and ideas, but not a lot of experience of how to deal with them. There was a profound sense of injustice, and desire to use the local authority to try to achieve better social reform and progress.”
Lansbury had a problem. His council desperately needed funds to pay for unemployment benefit and poverty relief, as well as his promise of a £4 minimum weekly wage for municipal workers – a promise that also extended to women. But the rates Poplar could raise on properties, a precursor to council tax, were low. At the same time, much of what little money the council raised had to be sent to central government to pay for services including the police.
Lansbury and his councillors decided they would only raise the rates needed to pay for Poplar council’s services, and refuse to pay those due to central government. The matter was taken to the high court: on the day of the hearing, Lansbury led a march of thousands from the town hall to the court. “Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to Prison,” read one banner.
Prison was, indeed, where they ended up. The court ruled that the council had to pay and it was given a month to do so. The month passed, they stood firm, and the arrests began. The 25 male councillors were taken to Brixton prison and a few days later the five female councillors – including Nellie Cressall, who was six months pregnant – were locked up in Holloway.
The arrests backfired. Other councils began to follow suit as “Poplarism”, as it became known, began to spread. After six weeks of public pressure, all 30 were released despite still refusing to pay up.
“Poplarism was a threat to the established order,” says Pippa Catterall, professor of history and policy at the University of Westminster and chair of the George Lansbury Memorial Trust. It was, she says, a revolutionary promise to “spend money on the working classes”.
Their decision to go to jail was “an expression of sacrifice”, Catterall says. “Lots of these people were Christian socialists – the word ‘sacrifice’ really meant something to them. They believed that looking after the wellbeing of the poor was something worth standing up for.”
No council leader today can repeat Lansbury’s trick. “Governments have successfully tied our hands,” says Biggs, “so that if we refuse to set our rates tomorrow we would be overruled by our chief finance officer, who would then impose a budget over us. You can’t be a martyr any more.”
The nature of poverty may have changed over the past century, but in Poplar – now in the shadow of shimmering Canary Wharf – it is no less of a problem. Biggs lists programmes his council has introduced to combat the issue, from food to housing. They are, he admits, pragmatic steps rather than revolutionary action. There is a difference between “what you can actually achieve physically” and the “dreams and aspirations and hunger for social justice”. Both, he says, are important.
“My colleagues on the council probably wouldn’t call me a radical, they’d probably accuse me of being too much of a managerialist. But in my bones, I’m driven by desire for social justice. And I think we haven’t quite got there yet.”
We have reached our destination: the old town hall, from where Lansbury led the procession to the law courts. “There’s a balcony here,” says Biggs, head back, looking up, disappearing around the side of the building, searching for the spot he thinks Lansbury spoke from before the march. The town hall is now a hotel: a sign advertises a spa with steam room and sauna. Biggs reappears, disappointed. “Actually, I’m not sure there is.” We stand for a moment outside as the traffic roars past on Poplar High Street. The only hint of what happened here 100 years ago is the name of the hotel: the Lansbury.