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. 

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.