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Guilty and proud of it!

One hundred years ago, a group of East End councillors were proud to go to prison in their fight for social justice. Here PIPPA CATTERALL, chair of the George Lansbury Memorial Trust, explains why and reflects on the significance and legacy of the great Poplar Rates Rebellion

THE public now are often deeply cynical about our politicians. One reason Boris Johnson gets away with his toxic combination of lies, callousness and incompetence is because expectations are so low. 

Dawn Butlers, willing to be punished for speaking truth to unaccountable power, are rare.

In contrast, 100 years ago this week, a group of Poplar councillors were proud to be imprisoned for their stand against injustice. 

On September 1 1921 George Cressall was the first of 30 Poplar councillors to be arrested. 

Four days later his heavily pregnant wife Nellie was among the five women councillors committed to Holloway Prison. 

Their crime? Contempt of court. The councillors were imprisoned for refusing a court order to pay a precept to London-wide bodies. 

A campaign for fairer taxes is not perhaps the most exciting of political causes. 

Yet their stand reflected lessons about political campaigning that need relearning today. 

Keir Starmer might reflect on the words of his 1930s predecessor as Labour leader, George Lansbury. 

Before being sent to Brixton Prison, Lansbury observed: “We have got nothing by being passive and quiet.” 

For him, “if we have to choose between contempt for the poor and contempt of court, it will be contempt of court.”

At the time there was much talk about direct action, using strikes to win political change. 

Poplar’s direct action was of a different type, using political resistance to change the climate of opinion.

Being sent to prison drew attention to their fight against poverty and for social justice. 

Unemployment was soaring in the recession that swiftly followed the first world war. 

As the cost of supporting the poor was then met locally, this affected poorer boroughs much more than the rich ones. 

Wartime inflation had also hit the poor hard, not least in terms of housing costs. 

War veteran Chris Williams said: “I should be a traitor to those left behind on the battlefield if I did not stand against the attempt to overburden soldiers’ widows with heavy rates.”

There weren’t any soldiers’ widows among the gaoled councillors. But they were almost all poor working men and women. 

After long hours of labour as dockers, railwaymen or in other trades, they frequently then spent their evenings in meetings. 

Nor, unlike present-day councillors, did they receive substantial compensation for such sacrifices. 

Few could readily afford to impose penury on their families by going to prison. Yet that is what they were prepared to do.

One councillor suggested that at least in prison they would be better fed than Poplar’s unemployed. 

This proved optimistic. Then as now, prisons were appalling and overcrowded, reflective of a vengeful ideology focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation. 

Lives were and are destroyed by being locked up for petty offences just so some right-wing politician can look tough on crime at enormous and wasteful cost to the public purse. 

“Prisons are hells,” the Poplar councillors rapidly concluded. “No-one is bad enough to be treated as men and women are treated in these modern Bastilles.” 

Not least, pregnant women are often worse treated as Nellie Cressall was.

The councillors’ sacrifice evoked a powerful public response. There were 6,000 supporters outside the last council meeting before the arrests. 

“We support our borough councillors” appeared in windows throughout Poplar. 

Plans had been laid for a rent strike if there was an attempt to collect the precept from residents while the councillors remained in prison. 

Faced with such public support, and with no prospect of getting their money, after six weeks the London County Council allowed the High Court to release the councillors.

The Tory-controlled London County Council had made martyrs of the councillors for a cause the justice of which was recognised widely. 

Fairness is a key concept in politics, one which has been misleadingly used to devastating effect by the political right in Britain in recent years. 

Even with the gross inequalities of sacrifice during the pandemic, the left has been unable to reclaim ownership of this important concept. Yet it needs to if it is to regain political ascendancy.

In contrast, the Poplar councillors’ willingness to go to gaol in 1921 drew attention to the unfairness with which that poverty-stricken borough was treated. 

In neighbouring Stepney future prime minister Clem Attlee pointed out that it was unfair that the poor should be asked to pay for the even more poor as he successfully moved that Stepney join Poplar’s actions.

Instead, Labour argued that unemployment should be funded by national, not local, government. 

This was not conceded until the 1930s. Nonetheless, major redistribution of costs from rich to poorer boroughs in London was agreed. 

There was no doubt that this success had been won by Poplar’s direct action.

This victory was important in promoting awareness that welfare should be a national charge. 

The Poplar Rates Rebellion was thus a key staging post in the development of the welfare state. 

It also helped draw attention to the poverty experienced by many through no fault of their own, thereby undermining the ideology of the Poor Law. 

Yet that ideology has very much come back since Margaret Thatcher’s day. 

A pernicious language of “strivers v skivvers” has successfully obscured growing inequalities and associated social costs. 

Last year the Marmot review pointed out “inequalities in poor health harm individuals, families, communities and are expensive to the public purse.” 

Current penny-wise, pound-foolish policies are not only inimical to a fairer, healthier society, but also bad on the Tories’ own terms of supposed value for money. 

The Poplar councillors demonstrated a willingness to make sacrifices to draw attention to the plight of the most vulnerable. 

In the process they changed attitudes and language. We need to remember the Poplar Rates Rebellion if we are to confront the political cynicism which enables the casual callousness and attacks upon the welfare state of the Johnson government.

Pippa Catterall is professor of history and policy at the University of Westminster. She will be speaking at the unveiling of the renovated mural to commemorate the Poplar Rates Rebellion, which takes place today, Saturday September 4, from 3-6pm at Hale Street in Tower Hamlets, E14 0DJ. For more information visit www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/parks

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