Time to abolish the UK's last "rotten borough" - the City of London Corporation

One year on from the Occupy protest at St Paul's, we're no closer to reforming the dark heart of predatory capitalism.

On the night Occupy LSX marched into the City tweets came into me asking for help as the police kettled activists on the steps of St Paul's. I went down there and did what little I could to prevent people being roughed up. Over the next few days the tents soon appeared and the occupation became a debating forum on the causes and creators of the economic crisis.

As days turned into weeks and the cathedral hierarchy split over whether to evict the camp, the occupiers soon discovered the existence of an organisation the vast majority of the population barely knows exists. The City of London Corporation was flushed out of the shadows in which it normally lurks to show that it was something more than the organiser of a good pageant in the Lord Mayor’s Show.

Naturally members of Occupy turned their inquisitive attention to this seemingly quaint body that was threatening to send in the bailiffs. Just as the direct action by UK Uncut transformed the issue of tax evasion from a dry debate for accountants into a popular cause, Occupy has helped turn the spotlight on the abuse of power that is the City Corporation.

In Michael Chanan’s and Lee Salter’s new film, “Secret City”, Maurice Glasman explains ironically that St Paul’s was the site of our earliest democracy, where the citizens of London in medieval times would hold hustings. In the sixteenth century the city took over from Amsterdam as the centre of international credit and maritime trade. Its coffee houses became banks and governments became dependent upon them for loans, largely to finance wars.

Government's reliance on the city to finance the national debt gave the city such influence that the Corporation was able to avoid the successive reforms that established democratic local government in the rest of the country.

Instead the City Corporation to this day retains the business vote, which overwhelms the votes of residents in the elections for its Common Council. The vast proportion of elections in the City have not been contested. Instead an old boys’ network amongst the companies sorts out which favoured son is to be bestowed the seat.

This usually prevents anyone slipping through the net who shows any spark of independence, although not always. Around a decade ago, Malcolm Matson was elected with 80 per cent of the vote but was known to favour reform. He was hauled before the City’s Court of Aldermen and was blackballed. Local vicar, the William Taylor, was also successful in being elected but as soon as he started asking questions about the Corporation’s unpublished accounts, his bishop received letters with more than a hint of a threat.

Matson and Taylor could not be tolerated because they were asking questions about the massive resources being spent on the secretive role the City Corporation plays as the lobbyist for finance capital. The Corporation has used its influence to dictate successive government’s policies on the regulation of finance and taxation.

This secured the deregulation of the “Big Bang” era of Thatcher and the hands off approach under Blair and Brown. City speculators were allowed to create the bubble that eventually burst to create the current economic crisis. London became a funnel through which trillions poured into tax havens and the concentration on financial speculation rather than investment in our manufacturing base unbalanced our whole economy. Obscene levels of incomes and conspicuous spending in the City have also created a society grotesquely scarred by inequality and a capital city in which immense wealth is located cheek by jowl with stark levels of poverty.

It was Labour Party policy since its foundation to abolish the City Corporation, until Blair arrived and the policy changed to reform. The City cynically interpreted reform as simply giving more businesses the vote.

The abolition of this last “rotten borough” would show that Ed Miliband is serious about tackling predatory capitalism.

John McDonnell is the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington

"Secret City" previews at the House of Commons on Tuesday 16 October. For details of screenings and to watch a trailer for the film, visit: secretcity-thefilm.com

A statue of a dragon that marks the boundary of the City of London. Photograph: Getty Images


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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