Graeme Harrower & City of London Residents Turn Their Fire On The Business Vote System

Before the 2017 council elections an organisation called We Can Win was organizing in City of London residential wards to get local residents out to vote and to agitate against the undemocratic business vote system unique to this local authority. Given the unprecedented election of five Labour councillors to an authority that favours ‘independents’ and pretends to be non-political, We Can Win clearly ran a successful campaign:

In the shadow of London’s City skyscrapers are some of the country’s most deprived housing estates; throwing into stark comparison the need for Britain’s finance-focused economy to do better for ordinary people.

But here in our local area – residents are in the minority. The businesses and big banks housed in the City square mile get more votes in elections than the people who actually live here. And when you look at our elitist local authority – the City of London Corporation – it’s obvious that the residents here need better representation.

With We Can Win, residents of Portsoken and the City of London area have been working on campaigns to improve life in the community. Through listening to and mobilising local people, we saw the highest voter turnout in last year’s local elections, and three* local residents elected as councillors who truly represent their community.

Taking on The City. Local Londoners want the City’s skyscrapers to work better for everyday people by Anon, We Can Win website.

We Can Win credit Jason Pritchard with founding this campaign, which in some ways follows on from the work his fellow Labour Party member William Taylor did in the City’s Portsoken ward. Pritchard was elected as a Labour councillor in Portsoken in the 2017 local elections. While We Can Win’s Taking On The City wasn’t a party based campaign, it did have strong ties to Labour and the fact that it hasn’t been very active since the last local election would be disappointing were it not for the fact that opposition to the business vote continues elsewhere. Pritchard has informed us: “Dan Firth who was Director of We Can Win is now working full time for the Labour Party as Director of the Community Organising Unit which is why We Can Win has not been so active since 2017.” Pritchard also wishes to stress: “I have never campaigned on the business vote issue. The work myself and Munsur Ali did with We Can Win was on environmental issues and housing in 2016. We Can Win’s campaigning around the 2017 elections to encourage voter turnout was separate and was nothing to do with Labour. Their campaign was focused on Cripplegate and Golden Lane Estate.”

The overwhelming majority of those who support democracy and oppose the business vote don’t belong to the Labour Party, so Pritchard’s positions are hardly surprising – although we have come across local Labour Party members who do oppose the business vote. The City councillor who has come to the forefront of opposition to the business vote in recent months is independent Graeme Harrower who represents Bassishaw; and unusually for someone representing a City ward where business votes are dominant Harrower appears to be genuinely independent. An email Harrower wrote to our local authority and subsequently put online concludes by underscoring resident dissatisfaction over the business vote system and the way in which it results in the council putting the interests of the international finance and legal industries above those of local people:

Last Friday, on the eve of the bank holiday weekend, the Corporation distributed the Standards Chair’s letter (seen by members on 21 May) to the residents of the Barbican and Golden Lane by posting it online and on noticeboards.

The residents have already replied, rejecting the attempt in the letter to dismiss the petition on the ground that the 1,100 + residents who signed it were in a state of “confusion”. Here (see link below) is the joint response made by the Chairs of the Barbican Association and Golden Lane Estate Residents’ Association: Response to chair of standards committee. It’s worth reading.

This joint response has been posted on those associations’ websites, and is being further distributed through residents’ online forums….

The essence of the joint response has already been distributed to all City residents through a short article that appeared in yesterday’s edition of City Matters (the piece is quoted in full with our linked blog post). More detailed press coverage is likely to follow.

The Standards Chair yesterday sent a short reply to the joint response, in which she maintained her position that the Standards Committee would wait until its next meeting (on 4 October) to consider an officers’ report. She did not address the points made in the joint response. Rather, she claimed that:

– the “new policy and guidance has been in operation for less than three months and is, therefore, untested” (incorrect: it was tested at the time it was introduced, and produced the absurd result that a councillor couldn’t vote on a matter concerning a tree owned by a local authority);

– “deciding our new policy and guidance had been preceded by extensive consultation” (not with the residents – the Barbican Association’s attempt to engage with the Standards Committee last year was terminated by the Committee just before its special meeting on 15 November 2018, at which residents were not allowed to speak, and consultation in the “workshops” with councillors was restricted to points of process); and – by the next meeting “we will be in a position to include the results from monitoring the first six months of the new policy and guidance” (but why wait six months to find out that the policy is manifestly over restrictive? What about the issue raised in the petition concerning standards proceedings? etc).

and what next?

The scythe of public opinion will ensure that the petition is not lost in the long grass. In fact, the ball has already been put firmly back into the court of the Standards Committee. That committee could convene a special meeting within the next month to address the issues raised in the petition with a view to resolving them.

Alternatively, it could continue with its denials and deflections, in the hope that the storm will blow over. But my forecast is that the storm won’t blow over. The debate is already widening. The joint response makes a telling comparison between resident councillors and members on the planning committee with property industry connections. The quote in the City Matters article refers to the Corporation’s unique business voting system. The question about the democratic legitimacy of the business vote isn’t new. And there is no obvious answer to it: a significant part of the financial City is located outside the Corporation’s boundaries – large banks in Canary Wharf, fund managers in Mayfair – where there is no business vote, yet these businesses flourish. What is new is that the question is now being raised in a context in which a large number of City residents are actively engaged.

Email from Graeme Harrower (common councilman for Bassishaw ward) to the Court of Common Council on 30 May 2019 by Graeme Harrower.

The issues causing dissatisfaction with the Standards Committee are complex but have been covered on this site, they range from the refusal of those around Edward Lord to seriously address glass ceiling issues keeping women from top jobs, to the gagging of Cripplegate councillor Sue Pearson when she tried to represent the residents who elected her. Disquiet over how the council is able to operate because it is 80% elected on the business votes of non-residents and thus requires no democratic mandate from local people on anything it does, continues to rise. As Graeme Harrower notes, this is not an issue that is going to go away, and in our view not until there is democratic reform of this local authority. Harrower was quoted on his cogent concerns about the ‘democratic legitimacy’ of the business vote system in issue 100 of City Matters (Residents and Crop at Odds in Dispensation Row, by Anon, print edition 12-25 June 2019). However, we were even more pleasantly surprised see Billy Mann in his City Matters column bring up the issue again in the following issue number 101 (Billy’s Patch by Billy Mann, print edition, 26 June to 9 July 2019):

…there is the strange matter of the business vote. This is an old tradition which entitles businesses to cast votes in council elections alongside residents… many locals are suspicious…. Saturday 6 July is national ‘Demand Democracy Day’, with lots of mass-action events planned to promote the cause of fairer voting systems….

Demand Democracy Day is really a campaign for a proportional voting system in the UK, and while we have no issue with PR we do think the need to abolish the business vote in the City of London is even more pressing and should be treated as a separate issue. While no one who truly believes in democracy can defend the business vote system, we would not necessarily question the democratic bona fides of those who support the current first past the post electoral system in the UK. That said, the range of voices speaking out against the business vote system does demonstrate that this is a burning issue with regard to democracy and not a party political matter.

GraemeHarrower
Graeme Harrower.

Notes.

The header photo shows We Can Win on the Barbican Estate in the City of London Cripplegate ward campaigning against the business vote in March 2017.

*We’re unsure who We Can Win are referring to when they talk about three local residents being elected as councillors, possibly their focus is only the Portsoken ward – but local residents were also elected in, for example, Cripplegate, both as independents and for the Labour Party. If We Can Win are talking about the entire City of London rather than just Portsoken, then our view is they’ve underestimated the figure.

Taking on The City. Local Londoners want the City’s skyscrapers to work better for everyday people by Anon: https://web.archive.org/web/20190714100229/https://wecanwin.co.uk/campaign/taking-on-the-city/

Email from Graeme Harrower (common councilman for Bassishaw ward) to the Court of Common Council on 30 May 2019 by Graeme Harrower: http://www.barbicanassociation.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Email-from-Graeme-Harrower-CC-30-May.pdf

Disenfranchisement of Resident Voters by Sue Pearson: http://www.goldenlaneestate.org/m/blogpost?id=2323372:BlogPost:71293

Reply to Letter from the chair of the Standards Committee by Jane Smith (Barbican Association) and Tim Godsmark (Golden Lane Residents Association) and other material: http://www.goldenlaneestate.org/forum/topics/letter-from-chair-of-the-standards-committee

Jason PritchardMansurAliMaryDuncanWilliamPimlottRichard Crossan
Jason Pritchard (far left) with the other Labour councilors who won City of London seats in the 2017 local election – Mansur Ali, Mary Durcan, William Pimlott & Richard Crossan.

BillyMann
Billy Mann.

This post was updated on 14 July 2019 after Portsoken Labour councillor Jason Pritchard contacted us. The quotes we attribute to him come from emails he sent us. We try to be as accurate as possible and welcome corrections and additional information, but will not necessarily alter what’s been written if we see it as a difference of perception or opinion rather than fact. We didn’t come across We Can Win until 2017 and until we have a chance to do further research into the matter won’t comment on the differences Jason Pritchard says existed between the campaign he appears to have set up in 2016 and the following year when we encountered a number of activists working with it. More research should it occur may, of course, result in us having nothing further to say on the matter because it could lead us to agree entirely with Jason Pritchard on this particular point. We fully agree with this councillor that officially, and we would stress officially, it seems that We Can Win’s anti-business vote activities had nothing to do with the Labour Party; and indeed this was the implicit line of our post even before Jason Pritchard contacted us. That said, in our opinion We Can Win’s 2017 campaigning served to boost Labour and from speaking to a number of the group’s activists – including extended conversations with one of them about City politics over a period of months in 2017 – our impression was and remains that they were by and large (and at the very least) Labour Party voters and supporters. We were also given the impression by those we spoke to that the campaign against the business vote and to increase the number of residents participating in local elections was taking place across all residential wards in the City, and Portsoken is one of its residential wards. If there was any We Can Win anti-business vote campaigning in Portsoken – we are not saying that there was since we haven’t researched the matter, we are merely saying that the group’s activists campaigning in Cripplegate and Aldersgate wards in 2017 gave us the impression there was – it is, of course, entirely possible that it took place without Jason Pritchard participating in it. We Can Win on their website have credited this councillor with founding the Taking On The City campaign and in our opinion it was the anti-business vote activism that gave it some teeth and made it worth paying attention to, so it is disappointing he wants to distance himself from its most effective element. Despite this it is best that everyone has a proper understanding of his current positions on the matter – hence changes to this post. There wasn’t much legacy media coverage of We Can Win’s Taking On The City campaign, although the anti-business vote element was picked up in this 2017 BBC report: https://web.archive.org/web/20181214090200/https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39283177

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