Historic figurehead who could now be eclipsed

The inauguration of London's new mayor could mark the beginning of the end for Britain's most bizarre electoral system.

The City of London, which chooses its own Lord Mayor each year through an archaic process involving a host of liverymen and aldermen, has decided it is time to review its practices. The leader of the Corporation of London, Judith Mayhew, said the City had been consulted by the Government on its plans for democracy in the capital. It had also accepted that its own procedures must change, she added.

The Lord Mayor is chosen on a show of hands by members of City livery companies, many of whose membership practices verge on the masonic. The Lord Mayor must have served both as one of the City's 25 aldermen and as one of two sheriffs.

The aldermen are chosen by an electorate mostly made up of partners in City firms, but even here there is a catch. Only those firms which used to be liable for business rates have a vote. Sheriffs serve for a year but aldermen do not have to seek re-election until they are 70.

The tasks of the Lord Mayor, whose post has existed for the best part of 700 years, also differ radically from the role his new counterpart is expected to play. Apart from presiding over an annual parade and the Mansion House dinner, at which the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes a keynote speech, he is also required to attend a number of ceremonies whose purpose is lost in the mists of time.

In one, he is guarded by pikemen and musketeers while a small boy is held by his feet over the Thames, beating the water with a birch to mark out the boundary. In another, he visits Billingsgate Market to collect the single fish which makes up its annual rent.

Some government sources say the Lord Mayor's role may now just wither and die. "If the actual elected mayor becomes an all-important figure, people will turn to her or to him," one MP said. But Ms Mayhew countered: "Because the City itself is such an important international site for the country, representing it is a valid role in itself. We are working very closely with the Government on this issue and we have undertaken to reform the franchise."