Labour has designs on the City (7 February 2009)
The 2009 City of London elections will, for the first time, be contested on a party basis. Does Labour stand a chance?
Labour launched its 2009 local government election campaign on 4 February. This was not a ridiculously early start for the county council elections in June – the elections for the common council of the City of London are in March. The date is not the only weird aspect to the City elections. It is a unique local authority, in that its 9,000 or so residents share the right to vote with businesses. Labour expanded the franchise in 2002 so that a certain number of City workers, as well as business owners, have the vote. The City has 25 wards, with old-fashioned names like Cordwainer and Candlewick, electing 100 members of the common council. Most of the resident population is concentrated in three wards, with the other 22 having mostly business voters.
City government is probably best described as a benevolent dictatorship. The City of London Corporation (CLC) is, despite its medieval pageantry and layers of tradition, a modern and efficient local authority which runs high quality local services and deals well with its extraordinary task of catering for about 300,000 workers who flood in and out every weekday as well as its small resident population. It also has several legacy roles such as landlord of social housing well outside its borders, and custodian of Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest, which are also by and large carried out with unobtrusive efficiency.
The CLC is at the centre of a quiet, discreet network of power and influence. It is taken very seriously nationally and internationally when it speaks on behalf of the financial sector – it was a crucial voice for the long-delayed Crossrail project, for instance. Despite the current woes of the financial sector, it still looms large in the calculations of the future of London and the British economy. However, a lot of the elected element of City government is opaque rather than transparent; some members of common council have but the most tenuous connection with the present life of the City, and old boy networks and Buggins’s turn play more of a part in City government than in most provincial backwaters. Despite having more “elected” representatives than anyone else in Britain, the inhabitants of the City face something of a democratic deficit.
The 2009 elections will be the first time that any City elections have been contested on a party basis. Up until now, candidates have stood as independents and very often, particularly in the business wards, there have not been contested elections at all. Labour’s six candidates are therefore making a little bit of history. Six people are obviously not enough to win control, but City of London Labour have produced a manifesto outlining their priorities, which are about enforcing the London living wage on City contractors, more environmentally friendly policies (the most visible outward sign of how much needs to be done being the lights blazing all night in City office towers), and more transparent governance. Having a manifesto is itself something of a new development in the politics of the City. The aim is influence, rather than power.
Do the City Labour candidates stand a chance? One might think that the City population consists entirely of wealthy bankers in their weekday pieds-a-terre, but as well as luxury flats there are some more ordinary flats and even a couple of pleasant local authority estates such as Golden Lane just north of the Barbican. In the 2008 mayoral elections, Ken Livingstone polled a creditable 32% of the City vote, to 48% for Boris Johnson, so there is clearly potential for a Labour vote in the residential wards. The business vote is more of an unknown quantity, and campaigning for votes among the nominated business franchise holders will be a new experience for political campaigners. But this will be one election campaign, at least, in which vituperative rhetoric against the sins of City fat cats is unlikely to play well.