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Vol. 25 No. 10 · 22 May 2003

Thanks to the Fels-Naptha Soap King

Miles Taylor

George Lansbury: At the Heart of Old Labour 
by John Shepherd.
Oxford, 407 pp., £35, September 2002, 0 19 820164 8
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Hollesley Bay Prison in Suffolk is an unlikely spiritual home for English socialism. Britain’s most easterly lock-up, its seaside location, stud-farm and dairy have earned it the nickname ‘Holiday Bay’, and, given such luxury, it seems unsurprising that Jeffrey Archer is now seeing out his stretch there. Almost a hundred years ago, however, Hollesley Bay was one of the labour ‘colonies’ set up by the Poor Law guardians of Poplar in London’s East End, who sought to ease the Poor Law crisis in the capital by relocating unemployed men and their families to the coast. The inspiration behind the scheme was George Lansbury, the subject of John Shepherd’s biography, a book as meticulous as it is generous. It is nonetheless timely: just as the prison service has brown-filled this pleasant site, so, too, New Labour has trampled on the radical socialism of which Lansbury was one of the finest exponents. Despite having a historian for Chancellor and assorted chroniclers of the Party’s history on its back benches, the present Government is strangely nervous about its past. Lansbury – socialist mayor, militant Suffragette, republican, pacifist and sometime theosophist – is the sort of awkward elderly relative most families might prefer to forget; he has been the only Labour Party leader to lack a definitive biography. Shepherd has now provided one, and in it describes wonderfully well the world Old Labour made and New Labour has lost.

First and foremost, this Labour world was rooted in the local community. The pioneers literally knew their place in a way that modern Labour MPs – often parachuted into constituency short-lists – do not. The East End of London, Shepherd points out, gave Lansbury his ‘political identity’. The child of a railway navvy, he grew up in mid-Victorian Whitechapel alongside the metropolitan poor, heaving coal onto barges at Thames Wharf, working on the railways, imbibing radical liberalism on Saturdays and Christian activism on Sundays. He married Bessie Brine in 1880 and four years later they joined the last great wave of English emigration to colonial Queensland, but quickly returned when it became clear that Australia was all promise and no land. Back in Bow, Lansbury’s fledgling political career developed within New Liberalism, rather than Labour. He managed election campaigns for a series of Liberal wannabes – Samuel Montagu, Jane Cobden and J.A. Murray Macdonald – before, like many of his generation, switching over in 1892 to Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. A year later, he was elected to the Poplar Poor Law Board.

Poplar now became the Lansbury family’s fiefdom. He himself was a guardian and councillor for nearly forty years and twice mayor, and his third son, Edgar, and his daughter-in-law, Minnie, also served on the council. It was Poplar that first brought him to national attention. In 1894, before a Royal Commission which included the Prince of Wales, he denounced the regime of porridge and peculation practised by local workhouse officials. A decade later, the Prince was King, but the paupers remained, and in 1906 Lansbury battled with the Liberal Government over making Hollesley Bay and another colony, at Laindon in Essex, permanent settlements for unemployed families. He lost the political argument but won the moral high ground. He did so again in 1921, when, as Mayor of Poplar, he led a rates rebellion, refusing either to reduce the level of relief paid to the unemployed or to set a higher rate. Lansbury and his fellow councillors were summonsed to the High Court, and in a brilliant piece of political theatre, marched there from the East End, to be sentenced to a month in prison. ‘Can’t pay, won’t pay’ invariably does wonders for the reputations of local politicians – seldom for national leaders – and by the 1920s, ‘good old George’ of Poplar had come to personify grassroots Labour in much the same way as David Blunkett of the ‘socialist republic’ of South Yorkshire did in the late 1970s.

Shepherd sees Lansbury’s evolution into a Cockney icon as a parable of the working-class boy made good by a conversion to socialism. But some of the photographs which illustrate the book suggest that Lansbury belonged more to the patrician wing of late Victorian radical Liberalism. Snapshots from the family album depict him as, variously, happy patriarch, benign employer surrounded by fifty or so of his workers, straw-boatered MP and bowler-hatted gentleman. The cloth cap, so important as a badge of working-class solidarity, seems to have made an appearance only at election-time, when Lansbury, like Keir Hardie and countless other first-generation Labour MPs, used it to bridge the gap between the rarefied world of Fin-de-Siècle socialism and the insularity of the labouring poor. When he became Mayor of Poplar in 1919, the first thing Lansbury did was dispense with the ceremonial cocked hat that went with the job. Shepherd is undoubtedly right to say that the East End gave Lansbury his ‘political identity’, but identities are fashioned, not ready-made. The early Labour Party was not some unstoppable juggernaut; rather it emerged from the margins of late Victorian political culture – the Low Church life of lowland Scotland, the London docks, the cosy circuits of radical journalism and agitation. If it was to become the poor people’s party, it required potent myths of local belonging, and the noble story of Lansbury’s East End origins was one such.

The second facet of Labour that Shepherd describes well is Lansbury’s Christian socialism. The young Labour Party probably did more in the first two decades of the 20th century to save the British working man from secular society than the combined churches of the United Kingdom had managed during the whole of the 19th century. In word and in deed Lansbury evoked a political faith of Pauline simplicity, condemning Mammon and upholding a political economy of just rewards for those who worked – and nothing for those who shirked. Where there were no jobs, the state should provide public works: stoneyards, road-building, foreshore clearance, the draining of wasteland. Lansbury practised what he preached, erring on the side of Tolstoyan asceticism. In the days when it made sense to do so, he travelled everywhere by public transport, lived in Bow in spartan simplicity, and gave away what extra income he had to support the Labour movement. At times, his hair-shirt morality landed him in trouble. In 1931, he ran into a storm of controversy when statements he made seemed to support the principle of means-testing those applying for unemployment relief. But as he himself had been persuaded back from the brink of Stanton Coit’s agnosticism in the early 1890s, so Lansbury kept Labour’s flock within the Christian fold at critical times, such as during the Russian Revolution. In places, Shepherd spreads the saintliness too thickly, but there can be little doubt that men like Lansbury made the religion of socialism respectable to such an extent that in later years it sounded authentic even when uttered by figures on the patrician Left such as Stafford Cripps and Tony Benn. Hazy on the finer points of Marx, and always unfamiliar with Keynes, Lansbury made the critique of capitalism intelligible: it was the gospel truth.

Third, Shepherd reminds us what a rich radical heritage Lansbury’s Party bequeathed to modern Labour. The Party took up the promotion of causes – good, bad and lost – where Gladstone’s Liberals left off in the 1880s, and no one was more closely identified with extra-Parliamentary agitation than Lansbury, especially in the decade or so after 1913, when he was editor of the Daily Herald. In 1912, he went to prison in support of the Suffragettes. He lent money to the Bolsheviks (one of the few debts Lenin and Co honoured). He was a staunch supporter of the India Home Rule Movement. True to his municipal background, he promoted public access to London parks, using his time as First Commissioner of Works in the second Labour Government to push through the building of the Serpentine Lido. For a Labour politician, Lansbury was unusual for his lack of dogma, and he opened up the columns of the Herald to a remarkable range of literary talent. Launched on the same day as news of the Titanic’s fate reached Britain, the paper gave space to Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, the young Rebecca West (briefly) and Osbert Sitwell, in addition to G.D.H. Cole and the gifted cartoonist Will Dyson. Later, as leader of the Labour Party in the 1930s, Lansbury presided over a renaissance of intellectual socialism, as Fabians, Socialist Leaguers, ILP-ers, and a long tail of the avant-garde competed to come up with the best ideas and give the best weekend parties. Shepherd does not press the point, but it is hard to imagine either Ramsay MacDonald or Attlee being quite so tolerant of so many bright minds and late nights had they been at the helm after 1931.

Above all, Lansbury carried the great tradition of pacifism out of late Victorian Liberalism and into the Labour Party. He contested Bow for the SDF as an anti-Boer War candidate in the ‘khaki election’ of 1900, but was drowned out in a wave of jingoism. Too old to become a cause célèbre himself, he supported the claims of conscientious objectors during the First World War. And when the arms race was renewed in the 1930s, he embarked on a highly public crusade to deter the dictators. He called on the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope to summon a convocation of religious leaders in the Holy Land, and later made visits to Hitler and Mussolini. Unfortunately, his pacifism converted no one. Indeed, so incensed was Ernest Bevin of the TUC that he mobilised the Party Conference of 1935 against Lansbury, famously denouncing him for ‘hawking [his] conscience’ all around. Lansbury resigned the leadership the following year, although he remained a shuttle pacifist. Several months after his death in 1940, a bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe destroyed the Lansburys’ home in Bow.

Lansbury’s Old Labour credentials stood him in good stead during his lifetime – in the 1931 general election he was the only former Cabinet minister who held onto his seat – and they serve as a reminder of the days when real men were socialists, and Labour kept losing elections. At the end of this enthusiastic and wholesome biography, Shepherd observes that Lansbury would have been out of place in the modern Party, with its courting of big business and its abandonment of Clause IV. I wonder. Two episodes in Lansbury’s life deserve to be looked at in a little more detail.

In the 1900s business did not come much bigger than the Fels-Naptha Soap Company of Philadelphia. Joseph Fels pioneered the use of benzene in soap, and created a cheap product which not only cleaned hands and clothes, but was powerful enough to remove grime and scale from sinks. Having softened up the American market, Fels turned his attention to England. Inspired by the ideas of the American socialist Henry George, who advocated land nationalisation and the ‘single tax’, Fels became an important ally of Lansbury and in 1904 put up the bulk of the money for the Poplar labour colonies. Fels also bankrolled the Daily Herald and was the source of Lansbury’s loan to the Bolsheviks. His former nanny, Marion Coates Hansen, became Lansbury’s election agent in 1906, and prodded him to take up the Suffragette cause. When Lansbury was released from prison in 1912 – he had been sentenced for breach of the peace – it was to Fels’s sumptuous house in Regent’s Park that he was taken to recover from a hunger strike. The following year, he travelled at Fels’s expense on the Kaiser Wilhelm II – ‘a floating palace’, according to Lansbury – to America, where he embarked on the lecture and luncheon circuit, raising money for the Herald. This generous soap king occupies less of a place in Shepherd’s account than he does in Lansbury’s own autobiographical writings, in which the connection with Fels is described as ‘unique among all other friendships’. Without Fels’s financial support and contacts Lansbury would probably not have made the leap from parish-pump obscurity to national notoriety. And without Fels, Lansbury would have struggled to realise his public works programmes. No wonder he adopted Fels’s motto – ‘what I gain I lose, what I lose I gain’ – as his own.

A second episode suggests that Lansbury was not above a little New Labour-like spin. As David Howell has shown in his recent study of the Party in the 1920s, he played a crucial role – John Prescott to Tony Blair’s Ramsay MacDonald – in helping to deliver the more gradualist programme of the post-General Strike era.* Lansbury chaired the 1928 Party Conference, and used his position and his radical reputation to ease the passage of the Labour and the Nation manifesto. Direct strike action was frowned on and convivial relations with the Communist Party and the ILP ruled out. Just as the Party went through a makeover in these years, so, too, did Lansbury. His autobiography appeared in 1928, his biography (written by his son Edgar) in 1934, and another collection of autobiographical reminiscences in 1935. The wilder parts of the legend were toned down – his republicanism, for example – and his progress from Poplar to Privy Council recast as the forward march of respectable Labour. Even this exercise required some air-brushing. Edgar’s book nearly brought the Official Secrets Act crashing down on Lansbury, when it became clear that he had passed to his son confidential Cabinet papers from the crisis meetings of the summer of 1931 – papers which apparently confirmed that Lansbury had never wavered in his opposition to means-testing the unemployed.

As Shepherd shows, Lansbury often seemed to need the Labour Party more than it needed him. He was thrown out in 1912, drowned out in 1935, frowned on by London Labour bosses such as John Burns before the First World War and Herbert Morrison after, and never enjoyed the respect or confidence of Ramsay MacDonald. Yet the Party probably needed Lansbury more than it knew. He helped hitch the usually apolitical London poor to the Party, drew in the radical wing of late Victorian Liberalism, and blended together Christianity and socialism for a generation who had stopped believing in the former but were not wholly convinced by the latter. Above all, Lansbury gave the Labour Party a story about itself: where it came from, who it belonged to and the righteousness of its cause. Old Labour may have something to teach New Labour after all.

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Vol. 25 No. 12 · 19 June 2003

Miles Taylor refers to Henry George as a ‘socialist’ who advocated land nationalisation and a ‘single tax’ (LRB, 22 May). In fact, George was an anti-socialist; his advocacy of a single tax on land (replacing all other taxes) was his non-socialist panacea to ‘make land common property’ and resolve the social question. This is powerfully and eloquently delineated in Progress and Poverty (1879). Marx recognised George as a rival and wrote an erudite and witty critique of his ideas in a letter to Friedrich Sorge of 20 June 1881.

Nicholas Jacobs
London NW5

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