Labour, Poplarism, and a Socialist Future

The night before the unveiling of the statue of Leicester’s most famous suffragette, Alice Hawkins, a play was shown at the Guild Hall to celebrate the life of another important feminist campaigner, Sylvia Pankhurst.

Sylvia, unlike her mother, was a true socialist fighter. And in contrast to Alice Hawkins, Sylvia was strongly opposed to the stone-throwing and arsonist tendencies favoured by the more middle-class elements of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Instead Sylvia led militant working-class mass movements in East London, that fought for suffrage in ways that differentiated themselves to acts of individual terrorism by empowering thousands of women and men to unite and fight together within the labour movement.

Sylvia was a truly principled socialist and she strongly opposed World War One, while her mother and Hawkins threw their support behind this needless bloodbath. In a noteworthy historical moment, Sylvia’s mother would later go on to win a selection process to stand as a Tory parliamentary candidate.

Contrast this problematic legacy with the inspiring deeds of the women who united the working-class in East London, got elected to political office as representatives of the Labour movement, and in 1921 famously led the Poplar Council and in doing so popularised the slogan “better to break the law than to break the poor”.

Rather than give in to Tory cuts, these Poplar councillors led a mass movement in determined opposition to the government who were quite willing to place the needs of the super-rich before the needs of ordinary people. Principled socialists as these Poplar politicians were prepared to break unjust laws and serve time in prison rather than pass on Tory cuts to their constituents.

The Labour movement today can learn many lessons from such principled dedication to the public good.

Hawkins Kendall Pankhurst
Alice Hawkins, Liz Kendall, Sylvia Pankhurst

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