Today voters go to the polls for Britain's weirdest, least democratic election - the City of London corporation.
Unlock Democracy’s offices happen to fall within the boundaries of the City of London, the local authority that governs the square mile, home to the world’s foremost financial trading industry.
But it’s not like your local council, or any other local authority in the UK. It predates them by hundreds of years, and has been left basically untouched in that time.
The City of London Corporation pre-dates the Magna Carta, was granted extra privileges by William the Conqueror, and is virtually unchanged 600 years later.
So, how do the council elections work here in the City? We often complain that elections to Councils in England and Wales use an unfair voting system, but the City’s elections reach new level of absurdity, mixed with a total lack of accountability.
1. You can only be a candidate if you’re sponsored by medieval guilds
In every other council election in the UK, if you want to stand as a councillor you just need to be a UK, Commonwealth or EU citizen, be over 18 and live in the area.
For the London Corporation, to stand for office you need to become a freeman of London. The only obvious way to do this is to a be a member of one of the medieval ‘livery companies’. What are livery companies? They’re ancient traders’ guilds, a bit like trade unions, whose role in modern society is pretty opaque. Unless you’ve ingratiated yourself with the great and the good of the City, knowing how you become a member is anyone’s guess.
Incredibly, the office of the most influential local authority in the UK is not open to everyone who lives or works there.
2. Corporations have more votes than people
You read that right, this is the only election in the UK where companies (and churches) get to vote. As well as the City’s 6,500 residents who mainly live on the Barbican estate, businesses including 500 banks headquartered within the square mile exercise a total of more than 12,000 votes. And that’s not all - the bigger your business, the more votes you get. The biggest banks get 78 more votes than a resident. Little old Unlock Democracy gets just a single vote.
3. It has its own seat in both Houses of Parliament
Incredibly, there is a seat in the House of Commons behind the speaker’s chair reserved for someone called “The Rememberencer”. It’s a centuries old office created by the Corporation, and the holder gets to sit in both houses to make sure Westminster doesn’t interfere with its unhindered status as the financial capital of the world.
The Rememberecer regularly meets with government ministers about a range of issues, and is completely unaccountable to anyone other than their colleagues on the Corporation.
He has a team of five lawyers to scrutinise government bills, and an annual budget of over £5m, far in excess of any MP. Freedom of information documents show the current office holder had contact with George Osborne, Treasury ministers and senior Treasury officials 22 times in the 14 months up to March 2011, augmented by regular letters.
Evidence suggests it has been successful in lobbying George Osborne for cuts in corporation tax and a tax break for insurance companies. It’s also been known to lobby for exemptions to tougher immigration rules for employees of the global banks based within its walls.
4. It’s exempt from Freedom of Information
The City spends vast sums of money on lobbying for the interests of the banks, and holds an enormous cash account built up over centuries. The City Cash fund is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, alongside all of its lobbying and schmoozing activities.