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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Residents rally against proposed changes to City of London voting system

One resident said any changes should involve current voters being asked for their views ‘in an open and transparent manner’

Residents in the only London borough where businesses get to vote in local elections have warned against any reforms that would give them less of a say. The City of London Corporation is the only local authority in the UK which has business as well as resident votes when it comes to electing representatives.

This is due to its unique demographic, with a limited number of people living in the area. At a Policy and Resources Committee meeting last week, members agreed to instruct officers to look at options which would potentially reform the City’s electorate, with concerns raised about some businesses, such as start-ups and scale-ups, not currently eligible to vote.

Tim Godsmark, Chair of the Golden Lane Estate Residents’ Association. Image: Ben Lynch

Following the meeting, Tim Godsmark, Chair of the Golden Lane Estate Residents’ Association, said while he is not opposed to the principle of having more businesses voting, he would be against any changes that involved reducing the residential vote.

Mark Szlesinger, a resident in the Barbican Estate, added that any changes should involve current voters being asked for their views ‘in an open and transparent manner’. A spokesperson for the City of London Corporation said any changes ‘would be subject to extensive consultation with key stakeholders, including City residents, businesses and workers’.

The City of London has a different demographic to anywhere else in the UK. The 2021 Census found that there were just 8,600 residents living in the Square Mile, while in 2022 the Corporation says there were 615,000 workers coming into the City.

While not all of these are registered to take part in elections, the numbers still skew heavily towards businesses. For example, in 2023/24, there were 13,748 employee voters, and just 6,475 resident voters.

Currently, sole traders, partnerships and workers from ‘qualifying bodies’ are able to register and vote in City elections, as well as residents. According to a Corporation document: “Organisations with a workforce of nine or less can appoint one voter; those with up to 50 can appoint one voter for every five; those with more than 50 can appoint 10 voters and one additional voter for every 50 members of the workforce over the initial 50.”

Deputy Chairman Keith David Forbes Bottomley. Image: Cit of London Democracy

During the meeting last week, Deputy Chairman Keith Bottomley said he has a particular interest in start-up businesses in the City which do not currently have votes, and called for a better understanding as to how many people such organisations employ. “I don’t know that we all have a real gauge on how many start-ups and businesses that are occupying premises under licence are disenfranchised,” he told members.

“Now that for me is a very significant question. There is a growing number of those small businesses and start-ups and scale-up businesses, who can’t register electors and can’t participate in the voting and the election of members.”

Deputy Bottomley’s request was backed by Catherine McGuinness and Jason Groves, the latter of whom added it is important ‘enfranchisement is extended to those small businesses’. Amending the electorate requires passing a Bill in Parliament. Extending the vote to all City workers was considered prior to the City of London (Ward Elections) Act 2002, though this was not pursued, for reasons including the impact on the residential vote.

As detailed in the Corporation report put before the committee: “It was very apparent that it was not acceptable politically at a Parliamentary level because it ran against the principle of the franchise in England which is based on residence and the effect of the worker vote would, if introduced, completely swamp the residential voice.”

The report also states explicitly that, when the 2002 Bill was progressed through Parliament, it ‘attracted strong criticism from some political quarters with MPs using the Bill’s proceedings in the House as an opportunity to question the role of the City Corporation. The risk of future reforms attracting similar criticism should not be ignored’.

Mr Godsmark, who has lived in the City for more than 20 years, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “While in principle I do not necessarily have a problem having more businesses voting, as the voter numbers for many business councillors is tiny, I would be opposed to any proposals that increased the number of business members or reduced residential ones.”

Adam Hogg, also a resident in the City, meanwhile said he believes it looks as if ‘it is more about enhancing the business vote’, and ‘clearly not to residents’ advantage’. Mr Szlesinger described the current system as ‘profoundly undemocratic from a residents’ perspective. We are swamped by the business vote. Any change to the franchise should acknowledge this fact and aim to redress this imbalance.”

He added the City should ask the current electorate their views and commission a poll specifically for workers, featuring questions including whether the election for the Square Mile’s political leaders should be left to residents.

“Of course, the franchise is ripe for root and branch review,” he said. “However, this should not solely be a question for the City to determine in committee.”

A spokesperson for the City of London Corporation said: “A number of factors impacting on the City’s franchise were discussed by the Policy and Resources Committee at its meeting on 18 March. Any options for change would be subject to extensive consultation with key stakeholders, including City residents, businesses and workers.”

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