When you’re Leader of the Opposition, you welcome almost any headlines. But “Make ‘fire-and-rehire’ tactics illegal”, following Sir Keir Starmer’s keynote address to last September’s TUC Conference, seemed risky even at the time. Fire-and-rehire is the practice openly adopted by several companies – including British Airways and British Gas – of handing employees redundancy notices, then re-employing them on worse contracts. “Against British values”, pronounced Sir Keir, and should be outlawed.
As with most Starmer pronouncements, there was no orchestrated follow-up, which here was perhaps fortunate. For the local council most prominently pilloried for exactly the same practice was the overwhelmingly Labour controlled East London Borough of Tower Hamlets. The Council termed it a “workforce investment” exercise; to the workers themselves it was #TowerRobbery.
Embarrassing, you might think, for almost any self-respecting council, but uniquely so for Tower Hamlets. For this month the borough will embark, howsoever Covid permits, on a summer-long centennial commemoration of the famous Poplar Rates Rebellion mounted by the obviously rather different class of Labour councillors of one of its predecessor authorities, Poplar Metropolitan Borough. We’ll focus here, therefore, on the history.
The 1918 Representation of the People Act transformed British politics at a stroke probably more than any other single law since the Great Reform Act of 1832. Extending the vote to all men and most over-30 women tripled the electorate, revamped elections, and potentially recast the elected memberships of local councils – though here in Birmingham and the West Midlands, as it happens, the stroke took rather longer than in most of the rest of the country. With the important exceptions of the Black Country and the Potteries, the well-organised and well-funded Unionist organisations controlled by the Chamberlains and Stanley Baldwin at least diluted and delayed the advance of Labour, if not the decline of the Liberals.
Poplar was the complete reverse, the Labour Party there being led by the radical socialist, Labour pioneer, and the party’s future national Leader, George Lansbury. By 1919 he had been a longstanding elected Poor Law Guardian and Poplar councillor, a Labour MP before resigning to fight, and lose, a by-election on the specific issue of women’s suffrage – and, particularly useful for attracting publicity during the Rates Rebellion, editor throughout the First World War of the anti-war Daily Herald.
In the 1919 local elections, Labour’s assortment of railway, dock and postal workers, labourers and housewives ousted almost entirely Poplar’s pre-war class of Conservative and Independent local businessmen-councillors.
The party took 39 of the 42 Council seats, including six women, and 19 of the 24-member Board of Poor Law Guardians, the body elected by local owners and occupiers of land liable to pay the ‘poor rate’ that funded the harsh ‘workhouse’ regime providing minimal accommodation and employment for those financially unable to support themselves. Much less surprisingly, Lansbury was elected a very non-ceremonial Mayor.
The reforms – particularly vividly recounted by Janine Booth and local historian Mick Lemmerman – began almost immediately, aimed at alleviating unemployment, hunger and grinding poverty. The big hurdle, though, was always going to be that outdated, almost intendedly inhumane, 1834 Poor Law, requiring that borough councils fund their own local poor relief – those councils with greatest need having almost by definition the least funding to do so and residents least able to afford any rate increase.
Lansbury himself, both as a Guardian and as a member of the 1905-09 Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, had long argued for complete replacement of the workhouse system by a combination of old age pensions, a minimum wage, and national and local public works projects. 112 years on, I doubt he’d be hugely impressed by our minimum wage, but certainly the workhouses have gone.
Back then, though, there was worse. In addition to collecting their own local rates, borough councils had to collect and hand over ‘precepts’ for the funding of four cross-London authorities: London County Council plus the Metropolitan Police, Asylums Board, and Water Board. And when it came to the crunch – at the Council meeting on March 22nd 1921 – it was these precepts the Poplar Councillors collectively voted to refuse to pay, but to apply the revenues instead to the costs of local poor relief while campaigning for a fairer rate system.
Which is an excuse to include one of my favourite local government photos – of a (admittedly, not the) 1921 Poplar Council meeting, showing the Mayoral chain of office draped around not the neck of the anti-ceremonial Mayor Lansbury, but a chair.
Hugely supported locally, this illegal action inevitably led to proceedings against the Council. So on July 29th, 30 councillors, including the six women, processed from Bow – accompanied by brass band and a banner proclaiming “Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison”.
The banner was prescient. Persisting in their refusal to hand over the precepts, the 30 were found guilty of contempt of court and in September sentenced to imprisonment. The men went to Brixton, the women, armed with flowers and surrounded by thousands of supporters, to Holloway – including the remarkable Nellie Cressall, pregnant then with her sixth child, and who was still serving on the Council in the 1960s.
The revolt received wide public and trade union support, neighbouring councils threatened similar action, and ‘Poplarism’ entered the political lexicon as a short-hand for both large-scale municipal poverty relief and local defiance of national government. Eventually, after six weeks’ imprisonment, the Court responded to public opinion and had the councillors released, while Parliament rushed through legislation roughly equalising tax burdens between rich and poor boroughs.
True, it took until 1929 for Poor Law Unions to be wholly abolished and the poor relief burden lifted from local councils. But try finding anyone, particularly this summer, who sees the ‘Poplar Rates Rebellion’ as anything but a stonkingly historic local government victory.
Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan. He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.