Up the City of London

Brian Coleman returns to the City of London

The last time I wrote a column referring to the Corporation of the City of London, Ken Livingstone described me as behaving like a "demented Trot" in calling for its abolition - which, incidentally I was not.

Meanwhile a hard copy of my blog was pinned up on the notice board of the Members room at the Guildhall. I suspect the first time many Alderman and Common Councillors had read anything in the New Statesman.

Although one Common Councilman was very rude to me (and you know who you are Mr Deputy), I was amazed at the number of sensible and well informed members of the Corporation who sidled up to me and remarked that I had raised some interesting points.

Well, the other night the Great and the Good of London Government duly donned their dinner jackets and enjoyed the Lord Mayor’s hospitality at the Annual Government of London Dinner.

To the general astonishment of most, Ken Livingstone wore the regulation Black Tie (is there an election on?) and the number of guests who I spotted in a lounge suit could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The lord mayor actually made a good speech, mainly because he expressed the sentiments that we politicians were thinking, that London and its issues as a capital city are not understood by this government.

And, once again, it has been stuffed on the Local Government Finance settlement.

Ken Livingstone’s response was, sadly, rather long and rambling and, unlike Ken’s normal after dinner style, devoid of jokes, which was probably why one Common Councilman on the top table was sound asleep and at least one London Borough Mayor was nodding off.

Most guests amused themselves by reading the printed copy of the detailed table plan. During his speech Ken could not resist his current obsession of attacking the London Evening Standard which he described as the London Evening Johnson to a murmur of disapproval.

The best speech of the evening was undoubtedly by Councillor Merrick Cockell. He's the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (and with a name like that he was born to be leader of a Royal Borough!) and Chairman of London Councils.

Letting Merrick speak was a nod from the City that we have London mayoral and assembly elections this year and they had better have a bit of political balance.

After paying tribute to the Corporation and the chairman of its policy and resources committee, the still unknighted Michael Snyder, Merrick - on behalf of all the London Boroughs pleaded for much closer cooperation with the mayor of London - post the elections in May. Probably the one overwhelming theme of Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty has been the constant state of war between him and the London Boroughs whatever their political colour.

The following morning I was again in the City of London attending the City New Year Service at St Michael Cornhill presided over by the redoubtable rector, the Reverend Dr Peter Mullen, who preached a sermon before a selection of liverymen and City worthies that restored one's faith in the Church of England.

Condemning most things liberal and the wishy washeyness of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Mullen suggested that global warming was a pagan myth and the answer to all life’s problems was a firm and robust Christian faith.

In times gone by the rector would have made a wonderful archdeacon but, in these politically correct days, has as much chance of advancement in the Anglican communion as I do of getting positive coverage in the Guardian. The service ended with a robust singing of three verses of the National Anthem including the great line "Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks".

The City of London remains a defender of those traditions and beliefs that made our country great and over the centuries has confounded and frustrated generations of politicians: long may it be so!

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
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide