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
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle