A previous post The Last Word…Standards Committee Climb Down and Spin illustrates how the City Corporation spins its mistakes into achievements. It’s done it again. Here’s a press release announcing a reform of the selection process for the Lord Mayor: City Corporation reforms Lord Mayor selection process. That reform was triggered by a diversity blunder made in the selection process in 2018, as reported in the national press: City of London Corporation forced to confront winds of change. Some of what the press release says isn’t true - but more of that later. The main point is that even if the selection process has been improved, there remains an elephant in the room: the election process.
First, some background. The Lord Mayor is one of 25 aldermen, each of whom represents one of the City's miniscule wards. Aldermen are elected by tiny numbers of voters, particularly in the 21 wards that have a majority of “business” voters. In fact, often aldermen are “elected” without any vote at all, because there are no other candidates. There has long been a convention in the City that it’s “bad form” to stand against an alderman seeking re-election.
The selection process that has now been reformed is the means by which an alderman is put forward for election as Lord Mayor, an office with a one year term. The “independent panellists” involved in the selection process - who, the press release says, will be a majority by 2021 - haven’t been elected by anyone. The elephant in the room, which the press release carefully ignores, is the means by which the Lord Mayor is then elected. It isn’t done, as you might suppose, by those who vote for the 100 councillors and 25 aldermen of the Court of Common Council, namely City residents plus the (thoroughly undemocratic) business voting system. It isn’t even done by the 125 elected representatives themselves. Instead, it's done by the aldermen asking liverymen, who haven’t been elected by anyone, to “nominate” an alderman selected under the reformed process.
Now for some more background. Liverymen are individuals who belong to the City’s 110 livery companies. These companies are private associations that are regulated by the City Corporation. Some of them began as medieval trade monopolies. The purposes of all of them today are mostly social and charitable. Many have exclusive membership criteria. In a few companies, you become a member usually by being the descendant of a member, who was in turn the descendant of a member, and so on. In most companies, you need to know members to nominate you. Liverymen, or in practice a fraction of them, meet once a year in the Guildhall to vote for an alderman selected under the now reformed process to be Lord Mayor. Except that they don’t vote in any democratically recognisable way. There are no ballot papers, and no need for them, because there's only one selected candidate. When that candidate’s name is called out, the liverymen shout “all!”, meaning that they all assent. Another alderman’s name is mentioned, but it’s understood by all that they’re not supposed to vote for him (and it’s nearly always “him”), so they all shout “next time!”. It’s all rather jolly.
These liverymen don’t need to have a real connection with the City, like living or even working there, and many don’t. So why do they have a role in “electing” a local authority politician to the highest office in the City? The answer is historical. But why is that a good answer? It's equally part of our history that before the national electoral reform of 1832, members of parliament were elected in “rotten” and “pocket” boroughs. These boroughs somewhat resemble the City’s 21 business wards. No-one advocates reversing that reform in national politics. The logical corollary is introducing it in City politics.
This mayoral electoral elephant has stood in the Guildhall for a long time, but it's becoming restive. Outside the walls of the Guildhall, deference and secrecy have been replaced by accountability and openness. But, as the system for the election of the Lord Mayor proves, this has yet to happen within its walls.
This might not matter if the City Corporation wasn’t a public authority. But it is, and has the power to affect people's lives, which it does, often badly - for example Beech Street Tunnel Closure. It has several functions that have nothing to do with being a public authority, and sometimes conflict with that status. It uses some of its great wealth to promote the financial City, which can easily afford to pay for its own promotion. It regulates the livery companies, and runs a large charity. It also provides a free private club for the members of the Court of Common Council, and a free meeting place for Freemasons, who account for more than a quarter of the Court. There is now a growing discussion of the need to disaggregate these disparate functions, and to abolish at least the last two of them.
The City Corporation’s survival strategy is spin. The press release makes the reformed selection process for the Lord Mayor look as shiny as an HR process in any modern progressive institution, while ignoring the elephantine democratic deficit of the election to which that selection leads. Even ignoring the elephant’s swishing trunk, the press release had to make the following departures from the truth to make the reform look shiny:-
It said that the reform was introduced “to enhance the transparency of the process”. “Enhance” means “heighten, intensify”. But you can’t “heighten” or “intensify” nothing, which was the previous level of “transparency”.
It also said that “independent consultants … ran a widespread consultation with … City Corporation Councillors”. A number of City Corporation councillors weren't consulted, and knew nothing about the consultation except what they read in the press.
An unnamed spokesperson for the City Corporation was quoted as saying that “We are determined to ensure there are no barriers to any member of the community standing for the elected office of Lord Mayor".The word “elected” was added before “office of Lord Mayor” presumably to “enhance” the impression of democracy, but as anyone who has read thus far will know, that there is nothing democratic about the Lord Mayor’s election.
The Corporation’s website specifies that a candidate for Lord Mayor should “have a significant track record and be recognised as a leader in their field” (typically in the financial City) and “have an extensive network”.
Here's a translation into truth of the sentence in the press release, with added words emboldened:
"We are determined to ensure there are no barriers except status and connections to any member of the community standing for the undemocratically elected office of Lord Mayor.”
The press release proves the equation that PR + HR = nonsense.
It also proves that adapting a feudal system of local government to the modern world is impossible. It’s time for the Corporation to be disaggregated.
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