Rebel Councils – Past and Future

Attacks on local government were resisted in the past and they can be again, argues Val Graham, Chesterfield CLP.

Jon Cruddas’s recent admiration for George Lansbury has yet to inspire Labour councils to follow his example. Yet the history of council rebellions is far from negative, despite their rarity and the consequences for those involved.

As Labour Mayor of Poplar, Lansbury led the Poplar Rates Rebellion, opposing not only the government and the London County Council, but also Labour’s leaders. With no government support to alleviate the high unemployment, hunger and poverty in Poplar, one of London’s poorest boroughs, measures had to be funded by the borough itself. Poplar’s Labour administration, elected in 1919, undertook a comprehensive programme of social reform and poor relief, including equal pay for women and a minimum wage for council workers. This was funded from the rates so the council demanded the equalisation of rates between rich and poor boroughs.

In 1921, the rebels, faced with a huge rates increase, refused to hand over the tax precept for the London County Council. Thirty councillors, including six women, were jailed. Council meetings were held in Brixton Prison. Public support was so tremendous, with Lansbury addressing the crowds through prison bars, that they were released after six weeks. A bill was rushed through Parliament equalising the rates and Lansbury became Labour leader in 1932. The Poplar Rebellion may have stood alone but it enjoyed popular support and a large measure of success.

FasSkinnerGrahamt forward fifty years to the small mining town of Clay Cross and another ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ rebellion. Clay Cross’s eleven Labour councillors decided not to implement Tory legislation which would increase council house rents by 25%. Like Poplar, they were committed to improving the lives of working people like themselves, carrying out a massive programme of slum clearance, council house building and affordable rents.

When councillors refused to collect the increased rents, the government appointed a Commissioner who was met with a rent strike and non co-operation. The councillors were surcharged and barred from office but a further eleven were fielded to take their place. As in Poplar, they had tremendous support and turnout at elections was 75%. Graham Skinner, one of the councillors, is proud of their success, as not one penny was collected in increased rents and the incoming Labour government repealed the legislation in 1974.

Ten years later, the Thatcher government introduced rate-capping to limit local council budgets. Several left Labour councils threatened to rebel and over one hundred councillors signed a Labour Briefing statement of defiance, but eventually only Lambeth and Liverpool refused to set a rate.

As with Clay Cross, the rebel councillors were surcharged and banned, but Lambeth leader Ted Knight counts the rebellion a success. Thatcher’s Government, he says, paid both Lambeth and Liverpool additional funds so that budgets could be set. Resistance, far from being futile, mobilised communities and forced the government back. Attacks on local government were resisted in the past and they can be again, argues Val Graham, Chesterfield CLP. The labour movement paid the fines. What was new was the ferocity of the attack on Labour rebels by then Party leader Neil Kinnock.

Today the left is weaker. Councillors have had to acclimatise to 30 years of neoliberal policies and centralisation. A few left Labour councils like Islington are doing progressive things, but there is not one council rejecting Tory cuts.

The number of councillor refuseniks is tiny, but there are some positive developments. Councillors Against the Cuts has been set up to provide a network of support and campaigns against cuts are springing up all over the country. Unite leader Len McCluskey recently said, “Wouldn’t it be incredible if all Labour councillors said they were not going to make the cuts?” But Labour council leaders dread Eric Pickles’ intervention and no trade union leader is demanding they call his bluff and promising support. Pickles would not find it easy if they did. Imagine him dispatching a Commissioner to every Labour town hall, only to be seen off by a determined and united community.

More and more councillors may rebel as the cuts devastate our communities. Without mass pressure outside the council chambers on those inside, the minority who say no to cuts will remain tiny and the majority will carry on putting law before the poor.

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