Monday 11 March 2013

Further Raised The Stakes

Ben Quinn writes:

It’s an unlikely political alliance: members of Labour and Ukip, veterans of the Occupy movement, clerics and non-party political newcomers — all signed up to an agenda backed by, among others, the Tory MP David Davis. Yet after last month’s Eastleigh byelection pointed the way towards a possible breaking of the mould in British politics, the slate of candidates assembled under the umbrella of the City Reform Group are seeking to do just that for the local authority that governs the country’s powerful financial heart - the Square Mile.

Ahead of elections this month to the City of London Corporation, the group is pressing for radical reform and greater accountability from an institution where many ancient traditions continue to hold sway, along with unprecedented scrutiny of a £1.3bn "private" account which the public body has cloaked in secrecy and used for lobbying on behalf of the financial sector. With tensions already running high in the poll amid allegations of intimidation of candidates and the sending of anonymous emails, the City Reform Group’s arrival has further raised the stakes.

For Shanaz Khan, a restaurateur whose first taste of politics is as a CRG candidate, the election is an opportunity to shake up a body which she says resembles an “old school boys’ network”. “It’s that one square mile where the local councillors have a budget of more than £1bn. That level of power in quite a small number of people is quite unique so it’s really important to change the ethos and culture and open up dialogue with the community beyond the financial services,” she added.

Khan and her colleagues accuse the Corporation of “failing to live up to its leadership role” at a time when the City, which is home to hundreds of banks and is described as the world’s premier financial centre, has been rocked by crisis. The theme of improving transparency is meanwhile what attracted another CRG’s candidates, Peter Lucas, a Ukip member, who said: “I have always been a believer in transparency but in a lot of ways the City of London Corporation is so archaic, being run as if it was still in the 18th century. There are secret funds which are not subject to full public scrutiny while it just seems to focus on shamelessly promoting the financial services sector.”

Other CRG candidates include William Campbell Taylor, an east London vicar who has been a long-standing opponent of the way the City is run, the Oscar-nominated dramatist and novelist Jonathan Myerson, and Robin Ellison, a former chairman of the National Association of Pension Funds who stood as an independent in the last general election on a ticket of reforming the pensions system. Ten Labour candidates are also standing in support of the CRG’s aims, which have been endorsed by Davis, the former chair of the Future of Banking Commission, and others, including Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors.

Elections to the corporation differ markedly from those elsewhere. Businesses as well as individual residents of the City can vote and bodies including banks and others based in the City can nominate voters based on the size of their workforce. Party politics has also largely been absent from the Corporation, where the current councillors sit as independents, despite many being members of political parties. They include Mark Clarke, a Conservative party member who was elected in a byelection last year and who mounts a robust defence of how the City is governed and accused the CRG of being a “front” for the Occupy movement.

“Bizarrely, they seem to believe that the Corporation of the City of London should have some role in regulating banks, but the idea that a local council should play a role in that way is absurd. You wouldn’t go to Sheffield and say that the council was involved in regulating the steel industry,” said Clarke. “It’s also the job of the Corporation of the City of London to lobby on behalf of the financial services industry in the same way as, for example, the council in Sheffield would lobby on behalf of its primary industries.”

Clarke also defends Corporation funds such as the City Cash fund, which he says has been prudently managed for hundreds of years, to a point where there the authority is able to use the interest accumulated to fund charities and good causes. Ahead of next week’s elections, however, temperatures have been increasing, according to one veteran councillor, who used a meeting of the Corporation’s council last week to raise concerns about alleged intimidation of some candidates.

“We are not talking about horses’ heads being left on pillows but there has been, shall we say, some less than gentlemanly behaviour,” said Martin Dudley, an Anglican priest who added that the intimidation had taken the form of individuals being “warned off” standing in certain wards. “There have been a few telephone calls made and at least one anonymous email sent. When the ISP was checked it turned out that the source of the email was the House of Parliament, which might tell you something about the sender.”

While we must preserve and celebrate the pageantry and charity of the City of London, we must end its status as a tax haven and as a state within the State, Europe’s last great Medieval republican oligarchy, right where the United Kingdom ought to be.

The liberties of the City were granted to a city properly so called, with a full social range of inhabitants and workers. The Crown should explicitly guarantee the hereditary economic and cultural rights of, for example, the Billingsgate fish porters, in the same way as it guaranteed or guarantees those of Aboriginal peoples elsewhere in the Empire and the Commonwealth. Those include the existence and the distinctive character of the City of London Police, regularly and increasingly subjected to encroachments by the Met.

The British national interest is never to be confused with the interest of a separate state, Wall Street’s tax haven, which the Queen may not enter without special permission and where the writ of Parliament does not run, thereby denying its British inhabitants parliamentary as well as municipal democracy, since the legal rights and protections enacted by the House in which they have an elected Member do not extend to them.

Since 1999, I have been a Parish Councillor where there are about nine thousand people in an area which, excluding outlying hamlets and farms, is about one mile square. I am pleased to say that we have lots of businesses. But there is absolutely no suggestion that those businesses should have votes, still less that those votes should be greater than the votes of real people.

Unless the Miliband Government is going to exact particularly sweet revenge by making the Square Mile a Ward of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, then the City of London needs a City Council, a London Borough as the City of Westminster already is, with each ward electing three Councillors as elsewhere in London, and with each year's Chairman serving as Lord Mayor. An ideal opportunity to use the system that we all urgently need for municipal elections above Parish or Town level, whereby each of us would vote for one candidate and the requisite number, never fewer than two, would be declared elected at the end.

All the pageantry and all the charity could and should remain. Such an inheritance is very common in local government. Have you ever been to Durham? The City could remain its own ceremonial county, since the link between those and municipal arrangements was cut all the way back when an unprotesting Margaret Thatcher was in the Cabinet.

And the existing wealth of the Corporation, a fine old word for this sort of thing, would also be retained, in addition to normal sources of funding. Do they pay business rates in the City? They do not seem to pay very much else. But they would. For there would be no more state within the State; at present, the Queen is forbidden to set foot in the Square Mile without special permission. Still less would there be any inability to tell which state was which.

1 comment:

  1. Why aren't you an MP? Why aren't you in the Shadow Cabinet? Why?