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Why Lansbury quit Parliament over votes for women—then lost by-election to regain his seat

PUBLISHED: 17:10 13 February 2012 | UPDATED: 12:13 15 February 2012

Cllr Marc Francis

Cllr Marc Francis

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Marc Francis, a member of the Labour majority Opposition on Tower Hamlets Council, looks back 100 years and the remarkable story of George Lansbury who quit Parliament to force a by-election on a point of principle—and how his stand has relevance a century later in today’s economic crisis:

This year marks the 100th anniversary of George Lansbury’s controversial decision to resign his seat as MP for Bow & Poplar and fight it again on the issue of women’s suffrage. Lansbury lost the subsequent by-election.

But within a decade, women had won the right to vote. As so often, Lansbury’s bold action was a stimulus for radical change.

The other direct action Lansbury’s name will forever be synonymous with is the 1921 Poplar Rates Strike—the campaign to equalise the council rates across London.

At that time, Poplar Borough Council was paying towards some common services in wealthy boroughs through the levy charged by the London County Council—while the costs of Poor Relief in the East End were not pooled across London.

Lansbury and his fellow Labour councillors decided to stop collecting the precepts for the LCC, which led to a bitter court battle and the imprisonment of 30 Poplar councillors.

It raised public awareness and pressure which forced the coalition government of the day to back down. A new Bill went through the Commons which became Law, sharing some of the cost of outdoor relief expenses through a common fund levied on all 28 Metropolitan boroughs.

Poplar’s struggle helped establish the principle that Government funding for local councils should be based on need.

To a greater or lesser degree, that principle survived under governments of all political complexions—until this one.

Looking through the Cameron Coalition government’s budget papers, I see that from April next year, Chancellor George Osborne is forcing Tower Hamlets to pay 10 per cent of the costs of Council Tax Benefit in the East End.

Families in Tower Hamlets get Council Tax Benefit totalling £30 million, that means £3 million snatched from the council—or more accurately, the pockets of East Enders.

We can try to absorb that extra cut within the council’s budget.

Or we can force those who are disabled or out of work to pay their £100 or so annual shortfall themselves.

When Osborne is taking almost £100m away from Tower Hamlets’ budget over the course of this Parliament, it may seem odd to complain about losing another £3m.

But for me, this is the most unfair cut of all. It has little impact in the ‘shire’ counties, but a very serious impact in less well-off places, disproving the claim that we are “all in this together” as Cameron would have it.

George Lansbury didn’t get everything right.

But his rates rebellion more than 90 years ago was undeniably right.

He wouldn’t be surprised to see a Tory-led government today lift the burden from the richest by forcing the poorest to carry a heavier load.

But he would also demand that progressive-minded councillors do more than just swallow the cuts and complain among themselves.

He would insist on a campaign of direct action.

Unlike Lloyd George’s coalition, the only thing this coalition government is interested in today is the ballot box.

Fortunately, there is no need for a by-election like the one Lansbury caused in 1912. Voters can tell Cameron and Osborne what they think of the tax on the East End in the 2012 London Mayoral election.

Cllr Marc Francis (Lab)

Tower Hamlets Council member

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