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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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