The electoral system in the City of London - an exercise in Hyper Democracy

The City of London's electoral system is rather different from other towns and cities in the UK and apt to attract excitable articles in the press and media that are almost always based upon ill informed, biased opinion that lacks an objective, factual basis.

The differences in the electoral system in the City are a product of its very long and complex history (spanning over 1,000 years) and its unique status as a city which has approximately 100 commute in workers (circa 513,000, 2018 Corporation of London) for every registered resident voter (circa 5,500, 2016 Corporation of London). This combination of long and complex history and unique status has resulted in three different electorates:
  • The residents
  • The business voters (some of whom are residents, most are commuters)
  • The livery
This article explores each of these electorates and their involvement with the election of the City's government.

The Residents

The residents are perhaps the easiest electorate to understand in the City. Every eligible (EU national) resident of voting age (18 or older) may participate in the election of representatives for their ward. In the City the representative are titled 'Common Councilmen' (imports both genders) and there are one hundred such Common Councilmen in total. Some wards have more Common Councilmen than others, depending on the size of the electorate in the ward. Consequently in some wards it is possible for every voter to vote for as many as ten candidates (not including the ward's Alderman). Elections to the Court of Common Council (the City's government) take place every four years and are by secret ballot as is the case for elections to local and national elections.

Each ward in the City also has an Alderman (again, imports both genders) who is the figurehead for the ward and nominally elected for life. That said, Aldermen retire at seventy by custom and put themselves up for re-election every six years as a matter of courtesy though they are under no obligation to do so; again election is by secret ballot.

The Aldermen are also members of the Court of Common Council but unlike other local governments in the UK where the title of Alderman is conferred by a vote of the Councillors on some long-standing Councillor as a sign of merit, in the City an Alderman is elected in his or her own right and is a voting member of the Court of Common Council. The Aldermen also form their own body called the Court of Aldermen, which has certain rights and duties of its own especially in relation to the founding and governance of Livery Companies. While the Aldermen have a role as a figurehead for the Ward, they are also very much 'sleeves rolled up' members of the various committees of the Court of Common Council and also get actively involved in the City's day-to-day governance.

In total that means the City has one hundred and twenty-five elected local government representatives, or approximately one for every forty-four residents. As a result of this ratio the elected representatives in the City tend to be in close contact with, and very accessible to their electorate. Certainly this has been my consistent experience as a voter.

Common Councilmen are a very varied bunch, some are retired, some are small business owners, some are city professionals who have understanding employers that will allow them to attend the numerous daytime committee meetings that make it difficult to hold down a full-time career and serve the local community. What they all bring is a strong commitment to civic duty, evidenced by the numerous charitable, pro-bono and civic affiliations present among the Common Councilmen. There is a good mix of gender and ethic diversity among the Common Council, but it could always be better (and is improving). These things are measured not by the composition at any given point in time, but by the progress that has been made, and is still being made, over time.

The Court of Common Council works through committees and consensus rather than cabinet government with an executive - this engenders a culture of collaboration rather than the partisan politics of local government in other cities. It also means the Court of Common Council can take a very long-term view and is not swayed by short-term ideological shifts in party dominance.

The Court of Common Council is a remarkably efficient and effective body that has far wider responsibilities than any other local government in the UK (e.g., it is the Police Authority for the City and a Port Health Authority for London). The City of London Corporation regularly appears top of independent indexes of the effectiveness of local authorities in the UK, and this is in large part down to the near personal service the Corporation can provide to residents and businesses in the City.

Of the City's twenty-five wards only two have a sizeable resident population. Most of the City's wards have an almost exclusively business population, indeed the entire residential population of the City doesn't meet the UK government's minimum population threshold (10,000) for classification as an urban area! This is just one of the many anomalies that make the City unique. On the other hand the City has the highest density of workers in the UK, with a commute population of over 1 in 58 (2018, Corporation of London) of the UK's working population.

The City is essentially a village from a resident population perspective, one that just happens to produce a Gross Value Add to the UK economy of about £45bn per annum (2014 figures). The financial services sector alone generates around 12% of the tax revenues for the exchequer. It's a very productive village that also happens to bring in many workers to its businesses who in turn generate taxes equivalent to half the annual running cost of the NHS.

The Business Voter

The business voters form a separate constituency that widens the franchise so that the estimated 513,000 workers (Corporation of London, 2018) in the City have the opportunity to participate in the election of Common Councilmen and Aldermen. These workers and the businesses that employ them are the primary source of tax revenues and the primary consumers of City services - not the residents who are mostly are clustered in two wards. 

The businesses operating in the City are allocated votes on a scale that strongly favours smaller businesses. Of the City's 23,580 registered business (2018, Corporation of London) some 19,680 have between one and nine employees (i.e., they are very small businesses), 2,875 have 10-49 employees, 760 have 50-249 employees and only 265 have more than 250 employees. This indicates that very large businesses with 1,000 or more employees (which will include all the major clearing banks in the UK) make up less than 1% of the total number of businesses in the City. It is mathematically impossible for the big business in general or banks in particular to dominate the business vote in the City, let's see why:

A business with between one and nine employees gets one business vote (a maximum 9:1 ratio), whereas a business with 3,500 or more employees gets 79 votes (a minimum 45:1 ratio) but there are only a handful of such big business in the City and many of the banks we associate with the City are actually based in Canary Wharf (London Borough of Tower Hamlets). The effect of the business vote allocation scale is that for all but a tiny percentage of the businesses in the City the ratio is one business voter to one business. The City's business vote is therefore dominated by small traders and tiny enterprises (cafe's, corner shops, florists, dry cleaners, eateries, family run businesses) and not by massive global financial services businesses as some sources would have us believe.

Myths and misconceptions about the Business Vote

1) The City's elected officers are in the pocket of big business

A common myth or misconception is that the City is dominated by big businesses, particularly the banks. The reality is rather different. Of the 23.580 registered business in the City, >99% are small and medium enterprises, less than 1% are very large businesses with over 1,000 employees (which includes all the big name banks, insurance companies and some of the bigger law firms). Together all these business produce 3% of the UK's total economic output (2014 figures). Since the advent of Canary Wharf many of the biggest banks have located most of their employees outside the City, and hence they are not eligible to vote in City elections.

The argument that big businesses dominating the business vote, or that business voters are influenced by their bosses is nonsense - the maths simply doesn't add up as the number of business with more than two votes is less than two percent of the total number of businesses in the City, and those businesses with large blocks of votes are a fraction of one percent of the total electorate. My wife works for one such large City firm and they struggle to get employees to join the ward list, so weak is the management's influence, which brings us to a very real issue...

There is however a very real problem with the business vote and that's one of engagement. While the residents have about 20% of the votes and the business voters have about 80%, the latter are far less inclined to turn out and vote. Recent elections have shown that the residents exercise a far greater influence over the result than business voters do. Residents are much easier to identify, and more likely to exercise their franchise than business voters. By way of example in the BREXIT referendum the turnout among the residential voters was 73.58%, whereas a typical ward election for a Common Councilman will achieve circa 20% turnout in wards where business voters dominate (2016 election data, Corporation of London). In a nutshell - business voters aren't particularly interested in voting.

Note: Business voters do not participate in the election of the City's MP, MEPs, the London Assembly Mayor or Referendums whereas City residents do. Neither do business voters participate in the election of the Sheriffs, the Ale Conners, the Bridge Masters, the City auditors, the Verderers or the Lord Mayor.

2) The Corporation of London is funded by big business

Another myth that circulates in certain outraged corners of the press and social media is that the City elections are funded by big business. The rules for campaign expense funding in the City are the same as elsewhere in the UK, with a basic figure of £266 plus 5.2p per voter permitted to each candidate. With the total number of voters in each ward usually being in the high hundreds to low thousands, the funding limits on election campaigns in the City are actually very small and certainly don't cover even the postage cost of a single campaign leaflet to every voter. A consequence of this is the fact that candidates have to get out and do a lot of legwork, meeting the electorate and getting to know their ward on close terms. Unlike other councils in the UK, the City pay no allowances or expenses to Common Council - a situation exacerbated by the fact that all meetings are during the working day. For those Common Councilmen who are employed this means they often forego career advancement to serve the City on a pro bono basis.

As a matter of fact, no candidate for election to Common Council has been investigated for exceeding the limits on electoral funding, and I can find no press article suggesting that any has ever been implicated in such practices, unlike parliamentary candidates.

Since almost all the business voters work in tiny enterprises with just one business vote the opportunity for big business to fund or influence voting is in the scale of a rounding error. If big business does throw money at City elections (and as a business voter with a wife who is also a business voter in a different company I have seen and heard no evidence of such), then they do it to influence less than 1.5% of an electorate that consistently fails to turn out to elections in the City - clearly any mythical influence is both minuscule and ineffective. Again, if it occurs, it has managed to evade the scrutiny of all the other candidates, the press and the electoral commission.

In short, there's not a scintilla of evidence to support the claim that the City is in the pay of big business. More likely is the scenario that an individual Councilman's employer agrees terms and conditions that allow them to serve on Common Council without foregoing a reduction in salary. Most enlightened employers do the same for employees who serve as magistrates or similar.

Some of the more excitable characters on social media will happily tell us that the City of London is in the pay, or the pocket, or under the control of, or otherwise influenced by 'the Banks'. Putting aside the fact that big business represents less than 1% of the business vote, the offices of many of the big banks are in Canary Wharf, outside the City of London and hence votes are not exercises by any of the workers, or senior executives, who are based there. These excitable characters also skirt around the fact that many of the UK's banks have headquarters in Edinburgh. Nevertheless 'banks' get lumped together as if they are some cartel operating exclusively within the City and exercising vast and hidden power over the 99% of the business voter that don't work for them, never mind the residential voter!

3) Freemasonry is involved in the governance of the City of London

It is certainly true that there are plenty of Masonic Lodges operating in the City of London, just as there are social clubs, sporting clubs, ward clubs, private members clubs and all manner of other private groups who gather together for pursuit of their own social and charitable interests. Freemasonry is just one among many voluntary organisations that operate in the City.

While there are masonic organisations that admit women, they are minuscule compared to the membership of Freemasonry as regulated by the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) which admits only men. Here we run into a problem, 39% of the City's workforce is female, so even in the wild imaginings of the more colourful corners of the web, the female business voter is not involved with Freemasonry. Of the 125 members of Common Council 28 are female (2019, Corporation of London).

While it is no longer a legal requirement for any elected member to declare their membership of Freemasonry, the convention in the City is that elected members do disclose their involvement with Freemasonry and current estimates are about 30% of Common Council are Freemasons.

It seems there are sufficient eyes and ears on Common Council to identify and call out any lobbying or voting influence that exhibits a curiously male-only bias as would be necessary for Freemasonry to have any impact in Common Council. Moreover meeting of Common Council are held in public. You or I can go along and observe in any meeting. Nobody has been able to identify any evidence of influence of Freemasonry in Common Council, rather it's assumed to exist in the absence of evidence.

Why Freemasonry warrants this sort of scrutiny is beyond my understanding. To shine a spotlight on masonic membership and not on membership of the Rotary Club, the Round Table, the Lions Club or any other social group with a charitable has always struck me as odd. While Freemasonry has it's own challenges with gender inclusion it's wrong to cloak it in an aura of mystique and implies the membership has some nefarious influence over Common Council. Freemasonry isn't that exciting or particularly interesting, it's a social club that does great work for charity while participating in some quirky customs, elaborate outfits and a penchant for a good feast.... The Catholic Church has all those characteristics and many more!

4) Common Council and party politics

While the Corporation of London does not recognise political parties or party agents, and most candidates for election to Common Council stand on a independent ticket, there is one political party that is operative in the City of London and has several councillors who declare an interest in that party. This is the only evidence there is of any institutional grouping with an ideological basis and manifesto operating within Common Council, and it's not a party that is traditionally friendly to Freemasonry. That said, even political parties have next to no influence in the City, let's see why:

Whether the majority of voters in a given ward are residents or business voters the composition of the Court of Common Council is almost entirely made up of independent candidates (not aligned with a political party). At the time of writing none of the Aldermen and only four of the Common Councilmen were elected on a party political platform. Consequently party-political campaigns play almost no part in influencing the outcome of elections in the City of London. A quick examination of the profiles of the members of Common Council reveals a great many who fit into the profile of retired or semi-retired professionals who are often school governors; charity trustees; magistrates and generally the sort of person who is a civic minded joiner. 

Election campaigns in the City have a curiously homespun feel to them, with individual candidates going door-to-door, visiting residential blocks, small businesses and social meetings in churches, pubs and at ward clubs. The whole experience is more parish council than parliament as evidenced by the 'meet the ward team' events that are held by the Aldermen and Common Councilmen. These are informal gatherings at which voters can meet their elected representatives over a glass of wine or soft drink and have a direct and convivial chat about any issue that concerns them. This is direct democracy City style!

The Livery

The Livery make up the third electorate, and they are the senior members of the City's Livery Companies (trade, craft and professional guilds). The Livery doesn't participate in elections to Common Council (unless a Liveryman is also a resident or business voter), rather they participate in the election of the Sheriffs and the Lord Mayor. The City of London is unique in being able to elect its Sheriffs, elsewhere in the UK they are appointed by the Sovereign, and it has two Sheriffs who serve for a single year. It is a condition for election to the office of Lord Mayor that an Alderman must first have served as Sheriff. The office of Sheriff is unpaid and involves considerable expense for the incumbent. 

The Lord Mayor is elected from among the City's twenty-five Alderman for a single one-year term. The candidates are first approved by the Livery at a meeting called 'Common Hall' held in Guildhall. The approved candidates then go forward for election by their fellow Aldermen. As with the office of Sheriff, the Lord Mayor is unpaid and the occupant is expected to contribute substantially toward the cost of their office from their own means.

So the City is a very odd village indeed, one with far more business than residents, some wards with next to no residents, and a total residential population that is comparable with a large village, yet a commuter population of workers that is comparable with the residential population of Bristol. It has two types of elected representative (Common Councilmen and Aldermen) and an annually elected Lord Mayor - none of whom receive any salary, pension, bonuses or expenses from the tax payer.

Hyper Democracy

As a business voter and Liveryman, my own experience of the City's electoral system is one I describe as 'hyper democracy', how do I justify that statement?
  1. As a business voter I get to vote for up to eight candidates in Common Council elections as well as the Alderman for my ward (nine elected representatives in total for my ward).
  2. I know and have met all the Common Councilmen and the Aldermen for my ward - unlike the town where I live in which the councillors are largely unseen and unknown to me.
  3. Most of the candidates for election to Common Council have made the effort to meet me in person, always in their own time and all have taken the care to invite my views.
  4. I have sat in on meetings of the Court of Common Council and have always found the Common Councilmen for my ward to be approachable and accessible.
  5. I exercise my business vote freely, without influence from the business that has nominated me as one of its voters or from political parties or campaign groups.
  6. I have not been subject to any influence to vote for any particular candidate by any individual or group. While I have been invited to join Freemasonry on many occasions (I am not a Freemason) at no point have I been party to any discussion would link Freemasonry to voting or political lobbying in the City, neither have I heard of any such activities taking place.
  7. As a Liveryman I also get to vote for two Sheriffs and Alderman to become Lord Mayor every year and participate in the civic life my ward through the Ward Club where I meet other resident and business voters.
  8. All the Common Councilmen in my ward are independents, who have demonstrated a consistent commitment to the interest of the ward's residents and businesses. They stand without political affiliation and are able to exercise their judgement without the influence of party policy.
  9. I get to vote for members of the Livery Committee which is the institutional link between the Livery Companies and the City of London Corporation, representing the interests of the Livery to the Court of Common Council (the committee's composition is a hybrid of Aldermen, Common Councilmen, Clerks to Livery Companies and Liverymen).
  10. Despite having little interest in politics I have never been so well informed, engaged and connected with local government as I am in the City of London.
  11. To top it all off I also get to vote for several Bridge Masters and Ale Conners, as many auditors as there are vacancies for at each meeting of Common Hall. That said I cannot get excited about voting for auditors.

Want to learn more about the Livery Companies?

The City of London Freeman's Guide is the definitive concise guide to the City of London and its ancient and modern Livery Companies, their customs, traditions, officers, events and landmarks. Available in full colour hardback and eBook formats and now in its fourth or Masterpiece edition. The guide is available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) Payhip (in ePub format) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached). Also available from all major City of London tourist outlets and bookstores.

The City of London Freeman's Guide is available in all major City retail outlets and online

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  1. Not every workplace nominates voters (the process is voluntary). The last City-wide elections were in 2013, 'business & other' voters made up 70% of the names on the Ward Lists. There appears to be a lot of 'deadwood' on the ward lists, with suspicions of receptionists at solicitors and accountancy firms merely listing the senior partners without ascertaining whether such people wish to vote.

    The Ward Lists are only used for elections to the Court of Common Council. The electoral register for the City is compiled on the same basis as everywhere else.

  2. My wife is a secretary in one of the City law firms, when first she was offered the business vote she had no idea what it was about and certainly received no guidance from her employer. Being married to me she now knows 'rather too much' about the City's sui generis system of government.


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