On the evening of 10 November 1919, the council chamber in Poplar Town Hall, east London, was packed. Labour activists and supporters had come to see the installation of Poplar’s first Labour mayor, and witness the Labour group assert its control over the council’s various committees.
Labour had just won a landslide victory in the local elections, clinching 39 of the 42 seats on the council.
Similar scenes were being repeated across the country. But the results were particularly good in London, where Labour had taken control of 12 out of the 28 councils.
In Poplar’s neighbouring borough, Stepney, 40 out of the 60 Labour candidates were victorious. In Bethnal Green it was 24 out of 28.
In Poplar, George Lansbury became the borough’s first Labour mayor – and broke with tradition by refusing to wear the robes of office, carry the ceremonial mace or wear the mayor’s cocked hat!
Lansbury had been active in left wing politics in the East End since the mid-1880s.
From the early 1890s onwards, he stood in elections for local councils, school boards, and the board of guardians – whose job was to administer “poor relief” to the borough’s poor and unemployed.
In 1910, he was elected to parliament – though he resigned his seat in 1912 to force a by-election over the question of women’s suffrage (he lost to the Tories).
Lansbury was well known as an advocate for the poor and the unemployed and a supporter of “direct action”, strikes, women’s suffrage, and Egyptian, Irish and Indian independence.
He was also a pacifist and a passionate supporter of the early gains of the Russian Revolution. He was a respected local politician and the recognised leader in the council.
The new councillors were men and women whose backgrounds were significantly different to those who had traditionally represented the area.
Poplar, one of the poorest boroughs in London, was an overwhelmingly working class part of the city, dominated by the docks and the railways.
Yet historically the council had been run by the Municipal Alliance – a mix of “independent”, Liberal and Tory lawyers, businessmen and clergy.
The Labour group, by contrast, consisted of seven dock workers, seven railway workers, four labourers, two postal workers, a road engineer, a toolmaker, a boilermaker, a lead worker, a farrier, and four who were described as “housewives”.
The remaining Labour councillors had various white-collar jobs, including trade union officials.
The social composition of the new council group, therefore, was a much closer reflection of what Poplar looked like.
The contest for the council was the third election to have taken place in Poplar in 1919. In March, the borough’s four seats on the London County Council had been taken by Labour.
In April, Labour gained the majority on the Poplar board of guardians Together, these changes represented a huge breakthrough for the Labour Party in the East End. They were now the dominant political force in Poplar.
Labour had to show that it could make a difference to the lives of ordinary people in the area.
The councillors faced a series of practical questions. What do you do when you get a majority on local elected bodies?
How much room does the legal and administrative framework allow to bring about the changes you campaigned for, and for which you were elected?
What relationship should you have with the movement outside the council chamber?
These were questions raised in Labour councils across the country. The answers provided by the councillors in Poplar led to a militant, fighting campaign to defend the interests of those who had elected them.
Unfortunately, it did not set a precedent for how Labour councils should act while in office. Indeed, Poplar council’s stand was an aberration, though a magnificent one, in the history of Labour.
Almost 90 years after Labour councillors were asking these questions in the East End they are posed once again, but this time by the growth of Respect.
Poplar’s struggle offers a glimpse of what it is possible to achieve if organised radical councillors act according to principle, and prioritise the needs of working class and minority communities.
It’s an example that Respect councillors should draw on as we attempt to forge a radical electoral alternative to Labour.
It is now incumbent upon Respect to show that it can make a difference to people’s lives, that it will defend our communities in whatever way is both possible and necessary.
George Lansbury and the Rebel Councillors of Poplar (£2) by Respect councillor Michael Lavalette, with a foreword by George Galloway MP, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com