'Benefits of a plentiful harvest', 1813. Lord Mayor Scholey sitting enthroned and pointing to a pair of scales where a loaf is much lighter than the prescribed weight. On his right is a starving family; on his left are Corporation notables. Picture Credit: Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The City’s disenfranchised voters

As the City of London goes to the polls, why are thousands being denied the right to vote?

The Square Mile is getting ready to elect 100 councillors tomorrow, Thursday 24 March. This is the topsy turvy world of the City Corporation where the Bank of China is registered to vote but the Bank of England isn’t and where a sanctioned Russian finance house gets to send a dozen workers to the polls but one of my parishioners, who has worked in the City for years as a cleaner, has been denied a vote by the Town Clerk on the grounds (amongst others) that if she were granted one it might impact the outcome of the election in her ward.

Welcome to the Corporation of London.

The City of London is part of our Ancient Constitution

You could say that its unique franchise reflects the anomalous nature of the City itself and is a pragmatic arrangement rooted in its history. Or you could say it is a voting system that subordinates the practice of democracy to the interests of international capital and has managed to escape closer public scrutiny only because of the cover provided by the Corporation’s role as a powerful lobbyist for the Financial Services. Maybe both are true.

With its origins at the Saxon folkmoot at Paul’s Cross, the City Corporation is one of the oldest democratic assemblies in the world. At the base of the early 20th Century memorial that commemorates the corner of the cathedral’s churchyard where St Paul’s Cross once stood is a plaque which invites us still “to recall and to renew the ancient memories.”  Voting is one way we do this.

It may not currently amount to a very robust mandate for the scale of the institution at the disposal of its elected officials but at least it’s a reminder of the covenant that exists between the City and its putative constituency.

The City of London is part of our Ancient Constitution alongside the Church and the Crown. And even if you’re left unmoved by the claims that it bears in its institutional body the common law rights and privileges of the Freeborn Englishman you may still acknowledge its importance to the exchequer’s balance of payment accounts.

That’s why what goes on here is all our business. And it’s why it matters that my parishioner’s application to become a “worker voter” was refused by the Town Clerk, first administratively and then on appeal. I’ll tell you a bit more about this in a moment but first let me explain how the City’s franchise actually works.

Like everywhere else in the UK residents get to vote. In the City, however, there aren’t too many of them and this year only 6200 registered across the Square Mile. That amounts to about half an average sized ward in the London Borough of Hackney or the number of fans attending a rainy midweek fixture at Leyton Orient. It’s not a meaningful electorate for a body politic with multi-billion assets and a medieval Guildhall in which the Lord Mayor routinely hosts heads of state at banquets and sundry receptions.

In the 1990s the City came up with a formula that adapted the existing business vote (abolished everywhere else in the UK in 1969). This new proposal allowed companies and other institutions to appoint voters depending on the size of their workforce. Political theorist Maurice Glasman says that the nearest analogous franchise may be found in the arrangements put in place in the Antebellum South where plantation owners were granted voting entitlements dependent on the number of slaves they owned. Certainly the worker vote in the City is considered to be a privilege and not a right. It is up to the bosses of the firm whether or not any voting appointments are to be made.

This means that individuals such as my parishioner, Comfort, may request a vote (as she did) but the qualifying body for which she works may simply ignore her (as it did). This year about 12,800 workers are registered to vote, which is less than half the total number of possible voting appointments if every qualifying body took up its entitlement. Between the residents and the workers the electorate is still only about 19000.

Aside from those who have simply not responded to the electoral officer’s importuning emails this year over 260 qualifying bodies expressly told the City that they had no intention of enfranchising their workers and could the electoral office please stop bothering them.  One of these companies is the American bank Goldman Sachs.

I was on a call with the director responsible for fielding such enquiries at the bank. He actually seemed pretty mystified by the whole thing and said that Goldman Sachs had taken the decision that they wanted to remain apolitical. Consequently they would not be permitting their workers to vote. It did not seem to occur to him that withholding the vote from the workers was itself a political act.

These voting arrangements were put in place by the City of London (ward elections) Act 2002, almost exactly twenty years ago. There is one other key provision in this Act — Section 4 — which stipulates that the voting appointments which a company makes “should reflect, so far as is reasonably practicable, the composition of the workforce”.  I petitioned this particular clause when the Bill passed through the Committee stage in the House of Lords, arguing that this requirement, as it stood, was essentially unenforceable and consequently meaningless.

In October 2002 the committee heard my case. This is how the chairman of the committee, Lord Jauncey, put it in the Report:

The committee went on to require a number of undertakings from the City of London before it sent the legislation back to the Commons for its third and final reading.  It wanted to make sure that the process of making voting appointments should be “open and clear”.  Indeed in his report Lord Jauncey stipulated (at paragraph 14) that the guidelines given to companies should explicitly include a reference to this.

When I looked again at the registration forms given to companies I noticed that all this talk of openness and clarity had been quietly dropped. I asked the City’s lawyer about this. He said that the phrase was somewhere on the website but that it didn’t need to be on the physical registration form to meet the undertaking to Parliament.  Oh really?

The City may not be known for its transparency but at least you can go in to Guildhall and inspect all the ward lists at any point in the year.

The officers are extremely helpful and they will sit you down at a desk and ask you to fill in a form and they will even provide you with copies to take away. You half expect to be offered a flat white with oat milk as you are handed the print outs.

By its very nature capital exists in a watery realm

When I went into the electoral office recently, a prospective candidate with his nose in a ward list was already there, checking to see who had signed up for the vote. There are 25 wards in total, many of them little changed since Saxon days, which means that many are small, often with only a few hundred voters. If you are going to stand for election you want to know that your friends and colleagues have bothered to register. They could make the difference between victory and defeat. He was huffing and puffing his irritation that a number who had promised to fill in the forms had failed to do so.

But was not this a case of Fred and Harry sitting in the corner deciding who gets the vote?  I asked the electoral officer whether a qualifying body’s submission was required to detail how its voting appointments actually reflect the composition of its workforce.

She said that the list of voting appointments is signed off by the qualifying body but without any explanatory statement. The City accepts it in good faith. It is never checked, or at least not routinely. As it turns out this requirement is not even stated on the registration form.

So the terms of Clause 4 to “ensure that the voting appointments reflect the composition of the workforce” were essentially unenforceable and consequently meaningless?

Hmm, she said.

We simply don’t hold the information to confirm one way or another, and so we don’t, she said.

You would have thought that the City could ask for a simple statement about how the voters reflect the composition of the workforce. It seems that they don’t even bother to ask the question?

At this point the candidate offered us the benefit of his lived experience and said that as far as he knew, at his insurance company in Gracechurch Street, no one had never taken any notice whatsoever of any such composition or diversity requirement.

But it’s the law, I said.

Not that I know of, he said, as though that was fine then.

I went back to my ward list.  I wondered whether I was becoming a bit of franchise anorak. I continued to scan the voters registered along Cornhill. And there, nestling between a cluster of wealth managers and venture capitalists was what I was looking for: VTB Capital PLC. This Russian bank, recently sanctioned by the Government and delisted by the London Stock Exchange was here on the Walbrook ward list, all trussed up and ready to vote in this week’s ward election. I felt a little thrill of indignation.

The candidate and I left the electoral office together and we went down in the lift. It turns out that he was a serving councillor in a unitary authority in Buckinghamshire. He said he was keen to throw his hand into the ring in the City.

“In fact, I should have done it years ago” he said, a little wistfully, as though the possibility of serving as a councillor in the City of London was akin to taking early retirement, a lifestyle choice that he fully anticipated would greatly increase his personal satisfaction.

As I wandered off to find my bike I wondered what it was about this City Everyman that I didn’t like.  Was it his sense of overwhelming entitlement, his firm belief that the system was simply there to find a way round? And find a way round surely he would.

By its very nature capital exists in a watery realm. It will evade banks and trenches and find its way easily through the flood plains into the open seas. It has a particular fondness for a number of Caribbean destinations such as the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands. It’s true that financial liquidity may bring fertility and abundance to the nations, but first you need to dig irrigation channels to direct and manage the flow. This is where the practice of democracy comes in. It’s why voting matters. It’s why my parishioner’s story matters.

My parishioner Comfort is not a company director and nor does she have a punchy portfolio of equities. She’s not directly affected by the buoyancy or otherwise of the property market. But like many of us she’s worried about paying her heating bill, covering the weekly shop as well as saving something to spend on her grandchildren or visiting her family in Ghana.  

She may rely on public services but not on state benefits. For the last thirty years she’s worked through the night cleaning City offices for their daytime occupants and she is part of an army of low paid workers that keeps the economy going, many of whom live in my corner of the London Borough of Hackney and none of whom can “work from home”.

Where, on the ward lists, are the kitchen porters, the security guards and the warehousemen? The post room workers and the facility operatives? The receptionists and telephonists, the drivers, the shop workers and sales staff? Where are the cleaners?  Where are the people who actually have to turn up somewhere to do their job? Or does finance capitalism in the City of London only serve the interests of the Zoom room?

Reposted with kind permission from Hackney Preacher 

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