Thursday, 5 March 2009

London Labour, Poplar or Popularistic? and how the poor still suffer

Clyde Loake's (Labours Candidate for Northampton South) well publicised local difficulties as Leader of the Council in Waltham Forest are well documented on the web and have led some to surmise that his lack of campaigning activity to date in Northampton is maybe down to the national party holding him back and keeping him out of the picture until the matter is concluded?

If you haven't caught the gist of the story you can do so here:

and here:

But this incredible inquiry into funds for the poor allegedly being mismanaged by Labour Councillors made me think how very far away from Labours original ideals the party has come in its 109 year history.

Some of you may recall the history of the proud London Labour Councillors of Poplar. This newly-elected, post world war 1 Labour Council built houses; expanded provision of libraries, parks, swimming pools and wash-houses; established a TB officer and dispensary; improved street lighting and cleansing; distributed free milk; and brought electricity to the area. The council instituted a minimum wage of £4 per week for its own employees, with equal pay for men and women.

And then in 1921 they were imprisoned for promoting public works to create employment and setting an illegal rate of 4/4d for the poor in Poplar against the wider rate of 6/10d in outer London.

Five women Councillors were sent to Holloway prison; 25 men to Brixton. The picture below shows Cllr Minnie Lansbury (daughter in law of George) on her way to be arrested

Prison conditions were appalling, but outraged protests soon yielded improvements. On 11 September, the Councillors were given permission to meet. They did so a total of 32 times in prison, with, from 27 September, the women Councillors brought from Holloway to Brixton to join the meetings. They discussed prison conditions, Borough business and winning their release. Demonstrations were held outside the two prisons on most evenings.

On 21 September, public pressure led the government to release Nellie Cressall, who was six months pregnant. Embattled Ministers conjured up the 'Official Solicitor' to order Nellie's release. This little-known functionary seems to appear only to get governments out of the tight spots they are forced into by working-class struggle. He was to appear again in 1972 to release the Pentonville Five, dockers imprisoned for opposing anti-union laws.

Eventually all were released again under some conveniently found ancient act of law and the Daily Herald described their homecoming:

'Joyful reunions inside their homes and joyful demonstrations without, the Councillors must have felt a sense of triumph that compensated for the bitterness of the past few weeks.

'In the crowd that followed the band round the streets faces were smiling as they seldom smile ordinarily in that poor borough.

'Men took off their caps and waved them in the air, women shouted and laughed, and the children made sympathetic noises. The whole babel was a spontaneous outburst of working-class sympathy with its self-sacrificing champions.'

Minnie Lansbury however did not celebrate for long, she died on 1st January 1922 of pneumonia as a direct result of her prison treatment

Poplar Council's fight casts a light of inspiration on the potential of direct action and mobilisation; but also a shadow of shame on Labour Councils since then which have failed to show the same courage.

I wonder what the then good folk of Poplar would make now of the alleged missing £250,000 from the BNI fund? Money for the poor which dissapeared under the stewardship of Labour Councillors? Probably the same as the good folk of Waltham Forest do now according to their comments in the local newspaper.

Meanwhile word reaches me of more alleged wrongdoings at another London Council by a London Council Leader, this time in the early 1990's The information involved a Mrs S Porter. (and it's not Dame Shirley) and the unsolicited and anonymous 300 page bundle of papers which arrived on my doormat the other week kept me amused for hours. It has probably been circulated elsewhere, given the intent stated in the accompanying letter, and I hazard to guess may lead to further questions being asked in the future as to how London's Labour Party together with the NEC really does conduct it's "internal" business.

How I wish the ideals of those elected to office today lived up to those of our early predecessors.


  1. The story of'Poplarism' was well documented in a book of the same name and served as an inspiration to many of us who beccame labour Councillors in the early 70's.
    It was Labour Councillors during the dark and depressing Thatcher years who kept the spirit of optimism alive-think of Clay Cross,Liverpool,Sheffield,the GLC and many London Boroughs.
    But sadly many Labour politicians misunderstood the word and thought it was popularism-the sort that trduces services and tries to attain impossible Government tragets-and of course thinks PFI's are good things!
    there are some labour Councillors whose respect for their history even attempted to curtail activities of the William Morris House,the only museum in London apart from Marx House devoted to socialist pioneers.
    It was Wm.Morris's great misfortune to be based in Waltham Forest!

  2. Just to be clear, there have been significant problems in Waltham Forest over Neighbourhood Renewal Fund monies ever since 2003-04. Millions of pounds have been spent, but there is little credible paperwork documenting outcomes. Moreover, research on some specific projects has uncovered a trail of mismanagement and impropriety.
    The sum of £250,000 mentioned relates to a specific group of nine projects supposedly aimed at promoting community cohesion. Asked by the Council - rather late in the day - to investigate, PricewaterhouseCoopers discovered that none of these projects had been procured properly, and none had been audited. Several appeared decidedly peculiar. Project 74 was named ‘Cohesion Training for Head Teachers and Teaching Staff across LBWF Schools/Colleges’. From an FIA inquiry, it appears that this took place on 28 March 2007, at the Olympic Conference Suite, Leyton Orient, and the hope was that it would attract an audience of 50. According to the Waltham Forest Guardian [WFG] of 29 October 2008, Orient stated that ‘it charges £600 plus VAT to hire the relevant suite for a day’. In the light of all the facts, it is difficult to see how this event could possibly have cost £24-26,000. Project 32, named only ‘Community Cohesion’, involved a payment of £66,011 to ‘Heaton Wilson Communications, P040 9QH’. The post code in question is on the Isle of Wight. When the person who lived at this address in 2008 was traced, he said that he had done some work for the LBWF press office, though not on social cohesion, and also claimed that he had only received £6600. When this was then put to the Council, it claimed ‘the discrepancy in the figures is down to a misplaced comma and an extra digit being recorded by accountants working for consultants PricewaterhousCoopers’ (see WFG, 22 and 29 October 2008).
    I agree with the point made about how sad it is to see the Labour Party behaving like this. The frustration in my ward is at the sense of wasted opportunity. If the Council had worked in partnership with local people, so much could have been achieved. Instead, there is only a legacy of bitterness and cynicism. And now local people are having to pick up the bill for the Council’s seven – SEVEN – inquiries into the fiasco, which it is reasonable to estimate at c. £300,000…




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