Chris Game profiles a remarkable figure from Labour history - and grandfather of a TV heroine

A true political actor

Here’s a nice coincidence of events. The actress Angela Lansbury, now in her 84th year, opened recently on New York’s Broadway as the eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati in Nöel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

Lansbury’s best-known roles have originated in the United States – the musicals Mame and Gypsy, the amateur detective, Jessica Fletcher, in the television series Murder, She Wrote. But she grew up in the distinctly unglamorous East London borough of Poplar (now Tower Hamlets), which her grandfather, the socialist pioneer and 1930s Labour Party leader, George Lansbury, famously represented as Member of Parliament, Mayor and councillor.

The pleasing happenstance is that Angela Lansbury’s return coincided precisely with the, albeit lower-key, commemoration of the 150th anniversary of her grandfather’s birth. George was himself a bit of a blithe spirit: “ the friendliest person” Margaret Cole, the Labour historian, recalled ever meeting – as he was for many constituents.

To one: “I knew he was MP for Bow, but with his white hair and pink cheeks he was my idea of God, Father Christmas, and a favourite uncle, all rolled into one.” For another historian, AJP Taylor, he was simply “the most lovable figure in modern politics” – and that’s not a phrase you hear every day.

Not all his party comrades, however, were as charmed. For Lansbury was the ultimate politician of principle, many principles: Christian socialism, pacifism, anti-colonialism, social justice, feminism, teetotalism – and Poplarism, a brand of municipal socialism as different from that sometimes associated with Birmingham’s Joseph Chamberlain as were the two men themselves.

Principles are admirable, but even the worthiest, unyieldingly held, can jeopardise personal relations and Lansbury’s prompted regular clashes with early Labour leaderships desperate to show everyone from King George V to newly-enfranchised voters that Labour was politically responsible to govern.

His emotional socialism, opposition to the First World War and, particularly, his support for the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ execution of the King’s Romanov cousins, cost him a post in the first Labour Government in 1924.

Later, as leader, he would later rescue Labour following its electoral annihilation in the 1931 Great Depression – Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald abandoning his party to head the kind of all-party National Government that some think we need in the current economic decline. But his Christian pacifism and opposition to rearmament increasingly presaged another party split and led, in 1935, to his resignation.

Lansbury’s political career, then, was a long and combative one, divided into two almost equal periods by his late entry into Parliament in 1910, aged 51.

Significantly, this late entry owed little to MPs being, until 1911, unpaid. It was more that Parliament for Lansbury was but one arena for the furtherance of his socialist convictions and rarely the most important. Local government affected more directly the lives of the poor, unemployed, and the vote-less working class generally – and Boards of Poor Law Guardians.

These elected bodies collected the Poor Rate and administered the often scandalously harsh and punitive workhouses – the only channels through which poor relief was payable. It was as a Poplar Poor Law guardian that Lansbury won his first elective office: one of a small, but influential, socialist minority among the ranks of doctors, clergy, undertakers and freemasons.

Lansbury swiftly defined his role – guardian not of the Poor Law, but of the poor themselves and his mission: to transform workhouses from places of stigma and despair to agencies of help and decent treatment of the poor, until they could be abolished – and he remained a guardian until, in 1929, they finally were.

Just as they would be today, the Poplar Guardians were accused of over-generosity towards the poor and municipal extravagance. But Lansbury also acquired sufficient reputation to be appointed in 1905 to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws – perhaps the most famously-divided Commission of the century.

A minority of Commissioners, led by Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb and Lansbury, rejected the traditional Poor Law philosophy that a person’s destitution stemmed from their own moral character failing and that deterrence and punishment should be central features of poor relief.

Their scathing minority report, the centenary of whose publication was also recently commemorated, argued that poverty had causes beyond the individual’s control – in ageing, illness, poor education, unemployment, and in the inherent inequalities of capitalist society. The priority, therefore, must be prevention, not relief and a shift from the punitive institution of the workhouse to differentiated services for the individual causes of destitution: in short, the welfare state that Lansbury himself would not live to see his party introduce.

Eventually, in December 1910, Lansbury was elected to Parliament. Then, barely a year later, principles intervened again and he unelected himself. Long a supporter of the militant suffragettes, he so passionately opposed the Government’s policy of force-feeding the hunger-striking women imprisoned for their protests that, like David Davis last year, he resigned his seat to fight a single-issue by-election – as a Women’s Suffrage and Socialist candidate.

But, unlike Davis, he lost – overwhelmingly, in a constituency where no women and few working-class men had the vote. Worse still, he upset the suffragettes, who now lost their greatest parliamentary supporter.

Out of Parliament for ten years, Lansbury turned to journalism and local government. Under his wartime editorship, the Labour-supporting Herald newspaper became the most prominent anti-war publication in the country.

Then, in 1919, he was among the many Labour councillors – industrial workers, dockers, railwaymen, housewives – swept to power in East London’s poorest boroughs on an uncompromising platform of raising higher rates to pay for improved housing and local amenities and increased sick and unemployment benefits.

Lansbury immediately became Poplar’s first Labour Mayor, but minus ceremonial robes, mace and cocked hat. The radical message was clear. This council would use its economic clout to extend its remit beyond the delivery of better services to control of the whole local economy – starting with a greatly increased minimum wage of £4 per week for all council employees.

More provocatively still, it would collect rates only for Poplar Council itself and the Board of Guardians; not, as legally required, for the London County Council (LCC), the Metropolitan Police, Water and Asylum Boards.

Richer boroughs should finance them, or poor boroughs compensated through rates equalisation. Poplarism, as these defiant policies became known, would be put to the test: ‘Sue us! Bring it on!’

The LCC duly obliged; in July 1921, Lansbury and 29 Labour councillors, accompanied by drum-and-fife band, processed triumphantly to their day in court. They lost, then lost the appeal and, in September, 25 men and five women councillors – including one who was seven months pregnant – were publicly arrested and transported respectively to Brixton and Holloway prisons.

Within weeks, an increasingly embarrassed Government engineered their release – though not before Holloway’s horrendous conditions had led to Minnie Lansbury, George’s daughter-in-law, contracting the pneumonia from which she died on New Year’s Day 1922.

Even she, however, lived to share the councillors’ famous victory: London-wide rates equalisation and poor relief pooling schemes from which Poplar borough was the biggest beneficiary – an indisputable triumph for these municipal socialists and their direct action.

As a young West Ham supporter, I was familiar with the Poplar/Bow area and its political history long before I came to Birmingham and it has always struck me as odd to hear the municipalisation, housing improvement and regeneration achievements of Mayor Joseph Chamberlain and his colleagues, outstanding as they were, termed municipal socialism’.

Chamberlain, unlike Lansbury, may have been London-born but he was a highly successful capitalist manufacturer in Birmingham, like several other leading Liberal councillors. And it was their profit-making instincts and commercial experience that underpinned the creation of the city’s gas and water monopolies and, had they had their way, municipal public houses too.

Indeed, it was said that the Mayor ran the city’s gas and water enterprises as he had run Chamberlain and Nettlefold.

These men were certainly radical reformers and as strong supporters of powerful local government and municipal enterprise as the Poplar councillors. But was the monocled, frock-coated, orchid-buttonholed Chamberlain a socialist?

Surely, the term is better reserved for those who wore it as a badge of honour and literally sacrificed their lives and livelihoods in its name – and my bet is that Angela Lansbury, one of the funders of last year’s restoration of the Minnie Lansbury Memorial Clock, would think so too.

n Chris Game is from the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham