The rotten borough of the City of London needs to be dragged into the 21st century

The City of London, the rotten borough at the heart of our capital, is not going to reform on its own - we need to make it reform, writes Jenny Jones AM.

By Jenny Jones AM, leader of the Green Party on the London Assembly

As the year 2000 approached, London was worrying about the Y2K bug, looking forward to the fireworks on the Thames, and listening to Westlife’s “I Have a Dream” (that year’s No 1 Christmas single). It was also preparing to once again have a citywide government, the Greater London Authority, after 14 years of being the only major global capital without overall political representatives.

Well, almost citywide. As in previous versions of city government, there was a curious small but very powerful hole in the centre of the metropolis – the City of London.

The Green Party was working to elect representatives on the London Assembly, and it was very aware of this oddity.

Our manifesto said of the City:

“If it fails to democratise itself and share its wealth with the rest of London, it should be abolished as a separate local government unit.”

A dozen years on, a lot has changed in London, and the world. We’ve seen three sets of London elections and next year are heading for our fourth, two different mayors, and we’re now preparing to be Olympic hosts.

Nationally, we’ve seen 13 years of a Labour government, during which inequality in Britain actually increased, under the influence of the attitude of being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. Now we’re back with a Tory-led government, while more than 50% of the Conservative party’s donations have come from the finance industry.

And it is planning many changes to build on the Labour government’s City welfare policy, from cutting corporation tax from 28 per cent to 23 per cent by 2014 for companies of profits more than £1.5m to reducing the tax rate to 5.75 per cent on the treasury functions of large corporations in tax havens, while opposing a Europe-wide “Robin Hood” financial transaction tax.

All of this after we’ve seen a global economic crash that saw the UK government forced to pledge 101% of GDP to support the banking sector* – more than a year’s national income of corporate welfare.

It would seem that welfare provision for the financial sector has no bounds, and as the OccupyLSX protesters have been highlighting, that privileged place of the Corporation of the City of London, free from many of the controls and democratic norms that apply to the rest of London, and the UK, has a lot to do with that state of affairs.

For the City of London is an oligarchic haven at the heart of the city of London. The Square Mile’s “government” is elected, certainly, but the City’s residents have 9,000 votes (one each), and the mostly financial corporations that have their offices there have 32,0000 (a number raised under Tony Blair).

We can’t know about a lot what the City of London does, for most of its activities are explicitly excluded from Freedom of Information legislation.

And we don’t know, for that reason, exactly how much wealth the City holds in its own right. We do know that there’s a fund called the City Cash, built up over eight centuries, and believed to hold large areas of land in the West End, New York, Sydney and Hong Kong. Conservative estimates put its income at more than £100 million a year.

But we don’t know how it uses that wealth; those Freedom of Information rules again.

What we do know is that beyond that financial muscle the City is also well placed under Britain’s constitution to lobby to maintain its undemocratic position. The prime minister has to meet it within 10 days, if asked. (The Queen only has a week.)

And at the heart of the House of Commons, seated just behind the speaker and roaming the corridors of power as Bills are drawn up and regulations developed, is a special representative of the City of London – the City Remembrancer. The charities who represent the poorest and most vulnerable in our community don’t have anything like this access. The unions, the local councils, the environmental groups don’t have this access.

And the manufacturing industries of Britain, which have suffered so much from government policies over the past dozen years, don’t have this access. Only the financial industries do.

So taking stock after that even dozen years, it is clear that the City of London has done nothing to reform itself, to open its books, to reform its elections or to work for the good of the city of London of which it should be a part. This rotten borough is not going to reform on its own. We need to make it reform.

This is not just, or even mainly, an issue for London. We are never going to rebalance the national economy, or rebalance the payment of welfare away from corporate fat cats to the people who really need the money, until this is sorted out.

See also:

How we sold off the right to protest to the one per centAlex Hern, November 3rd 2011

On the Financial Transaction Tax, why is Osborne on the side of the one per cent?Shamik Das, November 2nd 2011

The movement to evict Occupy London gains paceAlex Hern, October 31st 2011

The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protestAlex Hern, October 30th 2011

Osborne increasingly isolated on Financial Transactions TaxOwen Tudor, September 19th 2011

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