City's ancient institution votes itself into the democratic era

John Willcock
Thursday 11 September 1997 23:02

The Corporation of London, one of the City's most ancient and criticised institutions, yesterday gave the go-ahead for the most radical overhaul of the way in which its members have been elected since 1851.

The draft reforms, designed to meet the Government's desire for a more democratic Square Mile, were agreed by an informal meeting of the "Court of Common Council" and will increase the franchise in the City from just under 20,000 individuals to more than 50,000.

Labour had told the Corporation that unless it reformed itself the Government would merge it with a neighbouring London borough.

It has been under pressure to change since allegations were made about its internal organisation including suggestions that the Court of Aldermen operated outside the Government's Code of Local Government, and that Freemasonry played a powerful role within the Guildhall.

Three years ago Neil Young, a former consultant to the merchant bank Lazards, claimed he was forced to resign after his progress to becoming Lord Mayor was blocked by a minority of other aldermen. He said at the time: "I believe most aldermen are Freemasons - and I am not."

He also claimed that the Lord Mayor of the City of London regularly becomes Master of the lodge during his year of office.

His allegations followed those of the millionaire businessman Malcolm Matson, who went to the High Court to try overturn the rules that allowed the 26-member Court of Aldermen to blackball his membership after the constituents of a City ward had voted him in with a 56 per cent majority.

But now the Corporation has realised it must adapt and is starting a month-long consultation about the proposals with people who work in the City starting on Monday. It is also proposing radical changes to the way aldermen are elected. Each lord mayor has to serve around 12 years as an alderman before he can qualify.

The informal meeting of 150 Corporation members, including 25 aldermen, recognised that the system of electing the City's local council was undemocratic and anachronistic.

Under the present system around 5,000 residents of the Square Mile have a vote, along with around 14,000 non-residents, mostly partners in accountancy and law firms, as well as several small businessmen and shopowners. This leaves most stockbrokers and investment bankers without a voice.

The proposed new "business vote" will preserve the residents' vote but will extend the franchise to all companies and corporate bodies in the City, and will be linked to the business rates they pay. The Corporation proposes that companies will be able to designate several "named individuals" who will then cast their votes in the elections. The individuals will have to qualify for the vote by satisfying the existing criteria for entry on to the electoral roll.

"These reforms will create a serious franchise with a solid base in the City," one source at yesterday's meeting said.

If accepted, the proposals will be linked to the reform of London's local government in November, and will be incorporated in a White Paper before being passed into law by 1999.

The rule that Aldermen can serve until they reach the age of 70 will be scrapped. They will instead have to face re-election every four to eight years.

Also, a veto from each ward, which can block them from becoming Lord Mayor, is to be scrapped.

Around 23,000 liverymen are eligible to vote for the lord mayor, although in practice about 1,500 usually turn up to the election. The next election, termed "Common Hall", is due on 29 September, and will select the lord mayor for 1997-98, who will succeed the present incumbent, Sir Roger Cork.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments