Minnie Lansbury – a different kind of Labour councillor

RMT and Hackney South Labour activist Janine Booth, author of the book Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians, 1919-25 and the pamphlet George Lansbury, Minnie Lansbury and Modern Feminism, tells the story of Minnie — class-struggle socialist, teacher, trade unionist, migrants’ rights activist, suffragette and a leader of Poplar council’s victorious 1921 “rates rebellion”. You can read more and buy Janine’s writings here.

Minnie was a Lansbury but not by birth; a suffragette but not a Pankhurst; a political prisoner and martyr but some how not remembered by history.

Her name, Minnie, means ‘rebel’. She was born in 1889, the second child of Jewish immigrants Isaac and Annie Glassman, who had fled anti-semitic persecution in Russian-ruled Poland.

Socialists and anarchists amongst the Jewish immigrants promoted left-wing politics, trade unionism and integration with the British workers’ movement. But Britain’s first law to restrict immigration was aimed at the Jews, the Aliens Act 1905.

As East European EU immigrants do today, those Jewish migrants faced open racism from the right wing, and also pseudo-left-wing hostility that swallowed falsehoods that immigrants were driving down wages and undercutting native Brits.

Then, as now, it was employers, not foreign workers, who drove down wages.

In 1911, Minnie Lansbury became a school teacher at a London County Council school, most of whose staff and pupils were Jewish.

Women teachers were paid £90-£130 and men £95-£140. There was an even bigger gulf between the classroom teachers and the head teacher, whose salary was more than double Minnie’s.

Minnie became active in the National Union of Teachers and its local branch, the East London Teachers’ Association.

In the two years before the First World War, the Great Unrest saw a wave of strikes and a significant increase in union membership. The Unrest involved many thousands of women workers, though in 1914, still over 90% of trade union members were men.

In 1913,Minnie supported a motion for union conference to her East London Teachers’ Association, proposing that the union “should support the principle of equal pay for men and women teachers of the same professional status”. The motion was defeated by 26 votes to 25.Two years later, Minnie seconded a similar motion: it was defeated by 26 votes to 20.

Trade unions are important and potentially powerful in the fight for women’s rights, but sometimes it takes a fight to make them stand up for us.


Edgar, Minnie and George Lansbury

The WSPU

Minnie was a suffragette. Her father-in-law George Lansbury was the most well-known male supporter of women’s suffrage in Britain. He resigned his parliamentary seat in 1912 to fight a by-election over it. Several members of the family were imprisoned for suffragette activities.

The Women’s Social and Political Union marched, they smashed windows, they got arrested, they refused food and water in prison. This massively increased the profile of their campaign, intensified pressure for the vote and accelerated its victory.

East London suffragettes, including Minnie Lansbury and Sylvia Pankhurst, built a working class-based mass movement for universal suffrage, welcoming men’s support and using, but not fetishising, militant tactics.

The national WSPU, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, demanded only that women have the vote on equal terms to men.

Only better-off men had the vote; millions of working-class men did not. So the demand amounted to ‘votes for ladies’ only.

Christabel expelled Sylvia from the WSPU for sharing a platform with George Lansbury and Jim Larkin at a rally in support of locked-out Dublin workers at the Albert Hall in 1913. The East London WSPU branch continued as the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. The national WSPU went on to be actively pro-war and Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst became Conservatives.

Today’s version of feminism that emphasises women in boardrooms (or in Downing Street or the White House!) while ignoring the demands of low-paid women workers is the modern equivalent of ‘votes for ladies’. It is not just militancy that is important, it is politics and class.

A mass, working-class-based women’s movement, with the active support of the labour movement offers the best prospect for a feminism that is relevant and effective.

Minnie and George Lansbury opposed the First World War. At the start many Labour and union leaders supported the war, and the antiwar stance Minnie and George continued to hold was very unpopular.

George Lansbury’s Daily Herald was the leading anti-war paper. Minnie and her husband Edgar, George’s son, took part in an anti-war protest at the Dock Gates on 17 December 1916.

When the government started to run out of volunteers and introduced conscription in 1916,the Lansburys campaigned against it.

During the war,the East London Federation of Suffragettes threw itself into campaigning for – and providing for – the welfare of the people, primarily women,suffering on the home front.

Minnie became Assistant Secretary of ELFS, working full-time for the suffragette cause after resigning her job as a teacher. ELFS ran a day nursery, cost-price restaurants, a toy factory to employ women, milk distribution and more.

At the same time, ELFS demanded higher, and more prompt payments of, separation allowances, higher wages for women workers and control of prices.

Putting food on the table in working-class households sometimes required direct confrontation with businesses and the state. In this unpublished passage, Sylvia Pankhurst reports on Minnie Lansbury’s response to one such confrontation:

“Minnie Lansbury burst in, exultantly announcing ‘a riot in the Roman!’[Road] A crowd of women had threatened to storm a fish and chip shop for potatoes. A policeman attempting to stop them had been swept aside and ‘they tore off all his buttons!’, her black eyes twinkled with merriment. To save further disturbance the policeman had compelled the fishmonger to bring out his store of potatoes and sell them at three halfpence a pound from a table outside his door.”

The mainstream suffrage organisations, including the WSPU, suspended campaigning for votes for women in order to support the war. The trade union leadership suspended industrial action during the war.

But in the Lansburys’ East End, both these struggles continued. ELFS – renamed the Workers’ Suffrage Federation in March 1916 – continued to campaign for votes for women (and for working-class men). In 1918, workers on the buses, trams and London Underground took strike action for equal pay for women workers, despite their union’s General Secretary telling them not to.

The labour movement – while divided on the war – united in demanding labour and women’s representation on the committees such as those that administered war relief. Minnie became a Labour-appointed member of the local War Pensions Committee, and later committee chair.

Poplar Labour councillor Charlie Sumner said that “there was no better friend who fought an unscrupulous Government, on behalf of ex-service men and widows, than Minnie Lansbury”.

Sylvia Pankhurst described how Minnie brought the determination – rare among the holders of such office – to fight to get the greatest possible advantages for the workers concerned: “She made no pretence of impartiality between the Government and the applicant, and fought, as a lawyer does,to get the best possible terms for her client.”

And her husband Edgar paid his own tribute to Minnie: “Although she strove hard to alleviate suffering, she always looked forward to the day when preventible misery and economic injustice would be no more.”

In 1917, both George and Minnie Lansbury were enthusiastic in their support for the new workers’ state in Russia. Minnie and Edgar joined the Communist Party when it was formed in 1920. George never did, stating that he believed that revolution was the right road for Russia but the wrong one for Britain.

In 1918, Minnie Lansbury and Sylvia Pankhurst parted ways politically. The Representation of the People Act was on its way and in the forthcoming General Election, men over 21 and women over 30 would have the vote. Sylvia argued that socialists should not give Parliament credibility by taking part.

Minnie also fought for revolution, but believed that working-class political representation within existing structures could be part of that fight.

The WSF took Sylvia’s view; Minnie stopped being its Assistant Secretary, and became active in the Labour Party and the Communist Party. It seems ironic that after decades of huge efforts and sacrifice had finally won the fight for votes for women, Sylvia advocated not using them. Labour lost the hastily-called 1918 General Election, and Tory/Liberal coalition government was formed.

But in 1919,Labour did well in local elections across London.


Minnie on her way to prison, 1921

The Poplar rebellion

George and Edgar Lansbury were among the Labour councillors and Poor Law guardians elected in Poplar, and Minnie Lansbury was appointed Alderman – a council member with a status between the Mayor and the elected Councillors.

Poplar Labour led in increasing political representation of women as well as workers.Four Labour women were elected to the Council – Jennie MacKay, Jane March, Nellie Cressall and Julia Scurr – and two of the four Labour aldermen appointed were also women: Minnie and Susan Lawrence.

Although it was not yet gender-balanced, Poplar Council looked much more like the people it served than previously. Rather than being dominated by businessmen, it now included railway workers, dockers, school teachers and other working people.

The newly-elected Poplar Labour Council and Guardians immediately set about improving conditions for the working-class population that elected them.

It introduced both a minimum wage of £4 per week, and equal pay for men and women, which together raised women council workers’wages by an average 70%.

Minnie Lansbury was particularly involved in the Public Health and Housing, and Maternity and Child Welfare Committees, which: expanded maternity and child welfare services; appointed housing inspectors; built new housing; and provided a TB dispensary.

George Lansbury summed up why Poplar’s new Council took such radical action: “Labour Councillors must be different from those we have displaced, or why displace them?” Perhaps we could print George’s quote on a postcard and send it to every Labour councillor in the country now!

After a brief post-war boom,there was an economic crisis which brought mass unemployment in Poplar. Local councils were responsible for unemployed benefits, and had to raise all their funds through local taxation,with no redistribution between rich and poor boroughs.

Poplar’s labour movement debated and decided its council’s strategy for tackling this dire situation. Labour women played a key role.

One reason they were able to do this is that socialists and feminists had built a strong local base over decades of political activity.The councillors and many of their supporters had been suffragettes, community campaigners, trade unionists.

They had organised demonstrations,strikes,welfare provision.They had spoken on street corners, given out leaflets, knocked on doors, held small education classes. This work paid off when the time came for a major confrontation in 1921.

The council had a choice.It could cut services, raise the rates, or refuse both and defy the law. Like the suffragettes before them, Poplar’s Labour councillors chose to break the law in order to fight for justice.They voted to refuse to collect and pass on the element of the rates – the ‘precepts’ – that were supposed to go to crossLondon bodies such as the London County Council and the Water Board.

The court instructed them to collect and pay the precepts, but still they refused. They were found in contempt and over the first five days of September 1921, thirty councillors were imprisoned – five women in Holloway prison, 25 men in Brixton.

The councillors continued to refuse to levy the precepts, helped to organise the campaign from behind bars, and forced the authorities to allow them to meet as a Council in prison. Supporters demonstrated in the evenings outside the two prisons. Eventually, two other councils voted to take the same action as Poplar had.

Six weeks after their arrest the councillors were all released, without backing down. The government backed down and rushed through the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act 1921, which provided for pooling of local government funding, benefiting Poplar Council by £250,000 per years and other poor boroughs too.

The material benefit to the women (and men) of Poplar was immense,the political victory huge. Over Christmas 1921, Minnie Lansbury developed flu,which turned into pneumonia. Under normal circumstances, a healthy 32-year-old woman’s body would have fought this off: but Minnie was weakened by her six-week spell in prison. On 2 January 1922, she died.

Thousands upon thousands of people turned out for her funeral. Among many tributes, George Lansbury said:

“Minnie, in her 32 years, crammed double that number of years’work compared with what many of us are able to accomplish. Her glory lies in the fact that with all her gifts and talents one thought dominated her whole being night and day: How shall we help the poor,the weak,the fallen, weary and heavy-laden, to help themselves?”

Minnie Lansbury, loved by the working-class women and men of east London, whatever their gender, ethnicity,religion or lack of it; a daughter of Jewish immigrants; a socialist, feminist, suffragette,schoolteacher,trade unionist, antiwar campaigner; revolutionary opponent of capitalism and advocate for its victims; Labour Alderman and rebel councillor deserves her place among our role models.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? Email theclarionmag@gmail.com

***

The Clarion co-sponsored a public meeting on 15 February to launch Janine Booth’s pamphlet. Janine discussed the life of Minnie Lansbury and drew out political lessons for our struggles today. The meeting was also addressed by Selina Gellert, Minnie Lansbury’s great niece.

The event was hosted by the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archive, and also sponsored by the George Lansbury Memorial Trust,the East End Women’s Museum,Tower Hamlets Labour Party, Hackney South and Shoreditch Labour Party, and the Jewish Socialists’ Group.

All the supporting organisations, including The Clarion, said a few words; and we ran a stall from which we sold quite a lot of copies and several subscriptions. Many thanks to Janine for getting us involved.

Leave a Reply