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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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