Time to abolish the City of London?

The Tory politician calls for the abolition of the corporation that governs London's square mile and

So at long last after endless media speculation we have a decision from Gordon Brown: Crossrail will be built.

Never mind whether this project is still viable or practical having been first proposed fourteen years ago. Never mind that it has no benefit at all for most actual Londoners as opposed to commuters from the Home Counties.

The Government has bullied and cajoled the City Corporation, the business community and the Mayor of London to stump up the £16 billion required to fund this bribe for the election that never was.

The few days running up to the announcement that gave the go ahead to the project was a typical British bodge job. The deputy director of the CBI appeared on the Today Programme to announce they were very happy with the proposals for a supplementary business rate in London only to have three of his largest retail members, Tescos, Sainsburys and John Lewis partnership on the phone within an hour saying how cross they were.

The Lord Mayor of London was prevailed upon to call an extraordinary meeting of the Court of Common Council for the first time in living memory to roll over to the Government’s demands that the City Corporation cough up £300 million of their accumulated wealth , the so called “City cash” to make up the perceived shortfall.

The role of the City Corporation or the Corporation of the City of London as it has just rebranded itself, in this whole matter bears some investigation.

Unlike proper Local Authorities the Corporation has no Leader of the Council and indeed was immune from the provisions of the 2000 Local Government Act and therefore has an unofficial leader in the Chairman of its Policy and Resources Committee currently Mr Michael Snyder.

As the City of London does not have any Party Politics it is replaced by the much more vicious personality politics and Michael Snyder who is currently serving the final year as Chairman has his fare share of critics.

Indeed his nickname among his many enemies on the Court of Common Council is 'Lord Voldermort' and just like his two predecessors (Michael Cassidy who bizarrely thought he could run for Mayor of London in 2000, and Dame Judith Mayhew whose reward for doing the Government’s bidding was a disastrous period as Master of Kings College) is perceived to have become far too powerful and in his desperation to receive a knighthood regularly pops round to Number 10, City Hall and the Treasury to charm Messrs Brown, Livingstone and Darling.

Apparently the City Corporation holds about £1 billion in City Cash the interest for which pays for the many (on the whole excellent) services that the City provides to the rest of London and also for the endless and lavish hospitality dished out to the Great and the Good at Guildhall, Mansion House and sundry Livery Halls, (I suspect that my invitations to such functions will now cease to the benefit of my substantial waist line).

This money built up over Centuries is held in trust by the Corporation on behalf of all the people of London and quite why the current members of the Corporation feel they can surrender it at the behest of this current Government I cannot understand. The exact figures remain a mystery as the matter as with so much City Corporation business was discussed in secret.

Whilst the tradition, pomp and ceremony of the City of London adds much to our Capital's life, the politics of the Corporation would benefit considerably from more openness and democracy. Quite why the City Aldermen should reject candidates for the top jobs of Sheriff and Lord Mayor on the grounds that they are Gay, female or an Evangelical Christian is beyond me.

One senior London Tory suggested to me that abolition of the Corporation in its current Political form was long overdue and a number are now saying that the time has come for all three Political parties to run slates of candidates in City elections to give the voters a proper choice.

Crossrail may well benefit the Corporation in the short term but the long term Political damage may not be worth a few trains from Maidenhead

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.