Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Changing Times

MINNIE LANSBURY'S MEMORIAL CLOCK , commemorates fighting East End councillor.

THE Prime Minister has announced a fire sale of public assets, the political parties are arguing who can best make cuts, MPs are arguing how much if anything of their generous expenses they ought to pay back, and a century after the first state pensions were paid out, which are still somewhat less generous, our politicians tell us we are living too long, and the retirement age must be raised. Meanwhile in the City, financial institutions that are pillars of 'free enterprise' are flush with the taxpayers' cash, and the Fat Cats have not had to repay anything, in fact we're told the bonus culture is back.

Youth unemployment is at a new high, but never mind, our leaders are competing to 'get tough' on teenage crime and anti-social behaviour. There's also talk of lowering the voting age. In my teenage years, whether concerned about jobs and conscription, joining apprentices' strikes, or marching with CND, many of us clamoured for "votes at 18". Nowadays, as many if not more young people are dissatisfied and want to change the world, but not many feel enthusiastic about elections, or place much faith in the parties in parliament. It is difficult enough these days for older working people to remember the differences between the parties, or that it had anything to do with class. For those young people who have grown up under New Labour, it is nigh impossible.

History is not everything. We need to keep up to date with events and we cannot live in the past. But the working class does need its memory, as surely as any individual, if we are not to forget who we are, and what we have learned, or lose sight of where we are.

At the beginning of the last century, in February 1900, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, forerunner of today's Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union helped sponsor a conference in London which decided to set up the Labour Representation Committee(LRC). The Gasworkers' union, founded in 1889 at Beckton Street gasworks in London's East End, and later to develop into today's General, Municipal and Boilerakers' (GMB) union, was also represented. Socialists had argued for some time that workers ought to have their own politial party, rather than leave it to rich Tories and Liberals. The Independent Labour Party was founded in 1893 in Bradford. Earlier a young Keir Hardie had been given a hard time when he raised the idea in his mining union. It was after the 1901 Taff Vale judgement in the House of Lords, arising from a rail strike in south Wales, and allowing employers to sue trades unionists for striking, that Ramsay MacDonald wrote to every trade union: "The recent decision of the House of Lords should convince the unions that a Labour Party in Parliament is an immediate necessity".

By 1904, affiliations to the LRC had risen from 41 to 165 unions, with almost a million members, and the LRC had agreed to a levy of penny per member, and to pay MPs (who were not then salaried). Two years later Keir Hardie succeeded in getting the Liberal government to adopt a Trades Disputes Act which effectively overturned the Taff Vale decision, and legalised the right to strike and peaceful picketing. Who could have foreseen that a century later a Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, would be dismissing trade unions (though not their funds) as just another "interest group", that Labour would be courting dodgy billionaires for loans rather than feel beholden to the unions; or that Labour in government would be keeping Tory laws which set back union rights 100 years, so that we have less freedom now than was obtained under the Liberals?
(for more on Taff Vale and the LRC see the pamphlet 'The Story of the Taff Vale Railway Strike' , by Geoff Revell, published by the RMT).

It is 90 years since Labour won control of several East London boroughs, among them Poplar, a waterfront neighbourhood of docks, railway yards, factories and sweatshops. George Lansbury, who had been a member of the Gasworkers' union and the Social Democratic Federation, as well as doing his best to help the poor when he was chair of the Poplar Board of Guardians, became the borough's first Labour mayor. His daughter in law, Minnie Lansbury, a former suffragette who had campaigned on behalf of war pensioners, widows and orphans, became a Labour alderman.

Poplar council strove to improve conditions for working people, providing council housing and public baths, and raising council workers pay, with equal pay for women. In 1920, Poplar was badly hit by recession. To maintain services and assist the unemployed, the council was expected to raise rates, but how could it rely on taxing the poor to pay for the poorer? Lansbury and his comrades came up with another answer. Poplar would withold payment of its precept which it was supposed to cough up, along with rich boroughs like Kensington, towards things like the Metropolitan Police.

As a result, mayor Lansbury and the Poplar council members were taken to court. They marched, with municipal mace bearer in front, and crowds behind. They were jailed, the men in Brixton prison, the women in Holloway. Supporters held demonstrations, and Lansbury addressed them through the bars. trade unions passed resolutions of support. After six weeks, the Poplar councillors were released, and legislation passed to ease the unfair burden on poorer boroughs. Lansbury went on to be leader of the Labour Party, though Poplar remained the high point in his political life, and Poplarism - the use of local government to defend working people, even defy the law, rather than do the capitalist state's dirty work - remained his lasting legacy, even though it was one most Labour leaders would rather forget.

Two articles on Poplarsim:



About George Lansbury:

Minnie Lansbury caught pneumonia as a result of her time in prison, and died in 1922. A memorial clock on Electric House, Bow Road, Tower Hamlets, was erected in her honour in the 1930s. actress Angela Lansbury, George's granddaughter, helped pay for its restoration.

There have been two books about Poplarism. Poplarism, 1919-25: George Lansbiury and the Councillors' Revolt' , by Noreen Branson, was published by Lawrence and Wishart in 1979.
This year has seen the publication of Poplar 1921: Guilty and Proud of It!, by Janine Booth.
Here reviewed by Keith Flett, who also wrote the forward to it:

Known to many of us as a socialist and RMT union activist, Janine, who is also a mother of three, owed her time off work to a painful eye injury, though it can hardly have been a help to writing a book. Still she has succeeded and though I haven't seen it yet, by all accounts it is a good one. I'm looking forward to meeting the author next month, when she is speaking at 'Rising in the East', a day school on East End communities and politics hosted by the Jewish Socialists' Group.

It's at Toynbee Hall, near Aldgate East, on Sunday, November 15, and other speakers include John Eversley on Eaat End doctors and politics, Ben Gidley on Rudolf Rocker and the Jewish Anarchists, and Ansar Ahmed Ullah on the changing politics of the East End's Bengali community. Admission for the day is £5, or £3 unwaged. See: www.jewishsocialist.org.uk
for details and how to register.

To bring us up to date on Labour politics, the day before the day school will see the conference of the Labour Representation Committee(LRC), not a direct continuation of the body which became the Labour Party, of course, though the choice of its name is significant. This is the campaigning alliance of Labour Party members, trade unionists and socialists which MP John McDonnell has led to fight 'New Labour', raising the need for socialist policies to go with repeal of anti-union laws, and again, the question of working class representation in politics.

Though I'm one of those who sees the need for a new workers' party rather than waiting for Labour to change,I know that the Left cannot achieve this without people waging a fight in the unions, and in the Labour Party. I attended last year's LRC conference, and was impressed by the level of comradely discussion and enthusiasm, the number of trade union activists and youth who took part, and the sense that, whatever our differences, people were not there to advance their careers nor score sectarian points; but, without losing anything in good humour, .were serious about uniting for socialism. So I am going to attend again.

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At 11:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for that picture of the restored clock in all its glory. It's a proper commemoration again now, though it was always an eye-catcher even when it was neglected.

At 9:53 PM, Blogger Janine said...

Hi Charlie. Keith Flett's article was actually written a few years before my book, and if it was a review of anything, it was probably a review of Michael Lavalette's pamphlet on Poplar (which I criticise in my book!). I would contest both Keith's and Michael's contention that Respect was somehow the flag-bearer for Poplarism in east London.

The foreword to my book has been written by John McDonnell MP. I asked him not only because he is an all-round lefty good egg, but because of his experiences in the GLC in the 1980s, when he held out for defiance of Tory rate-capping laws while Ken Livingstone turned tail and capitulated to them.

Anyway, corrections now done - I look forward to seeing you at the JSG dayschool. It sounds like a really good event, and I shall plug it lots between now and then.


At 12:15 PM, Blogger Charlie Pottins said...

Thanks for correction, Janine. That will teach me to just google references without reading them properly!
Look forward to seeing you at the dayschool!

At 1:44 PM, Blogger Janine said...

And if anyone can't wait until the dayschool to buy it, click here: http://www.merlinpress.co.uk/acatalog/GUILTY_AND_PROUD_OF_IT_.html


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