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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.