Engaging with democracy pivotal to holding people to account


In this column I usually tend to focus on issues specifically relevant to the eastern fringes of the City of London, where I live. Not so this week.

This time I am casting my gaze a little further afield by making a City-wide appeal for electors to take part in a bit of seasonal participatory democracy.

The month of March is when all 25 of the City’s wards hold their annual wardmotes.

For readers who are wondering what on earth I am talking about, the wardmote is the City of London’s equivalent to the local town hall meeting, where constituents of each ward get to meet and question their elected representatives.

You won’t hear people from outside the City talk much about wardmotes anymore as they are a somewhat archaic throwback to Saxon times and, as far as I can determine, no longer exist anywhere else in the UK.

Ever keen to be seen as unique and a place apart, the City’s wardmotes have a little bit more tradition and panache thrown in than your average town hall meeting.

Attending officials are bedecked in ceremonial gowns and accompanied by a ward beadle to solemnly call the meeting to order (if you’re wondering what a beadle is, think of Mr Bumble from Oliver Twist).

Back in the day, medieval citizens who were Freemen of the City of London were obliged to attend their local wardmote on pain of a very hefty fine.

Today, attendance is non-mandatory and is open not just to Freemen, but to everyone on the ward list (those registered to vote in elections held in the City).

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Guildhall is home to the City of London’s elected officials. Photo by Emperorzurg123 (CC)

Local democracy, as it is applied in the City of London, has certainly raised a few eyebrows among some, and accusations have been made that there is a serious democratic deficit at the Guildhall.

Underpinning such concerns is the fact that, alongside the people who actually live in the City, businesses and other organisations based in the Square Mile also get to nominate employees to be voters in local elections.

The number of voters from a particular organisation is determined by the size of their employer’s presence within a particular ward.
The corporate headquarters of an international bank is therefore allocated more votes than the sushi restaurant located across the street from it.

But to be overtly critical of this fact is arguably a little bit disingenuous, because at the heart of the matter is the fact that while 400,000 people working for thousands of organisations commute into the City each weekday, the residential population is correspondingly minuscule.

There are just 9,000 souls like myself who call the City home. Considering this, it could be argued that the democratic deficit would, in fact, be the other way around if it were only us 9,000 residents who were calling the shots about who got elected to Guildhall while the interests of the businesses and their workforce went unrepresented.

The City of London is, at the end of the day, a global hub of the financial services industry. Like it or lump it, to pretend that its primary function is anything else would be rather misguided.

Anyway, whatever your perspective on this is, this is how democracy works within the Square Mile.

The point I wanted to make is that the annual wardmotes are an excellent opportunity for all the City’s electorate to hold their local politicians to account and to take them to task on any issues that people living and working here are concerned about.

A wardmote is held in each of the City’s 25 wards, and in attendance will be elected alderman and the elected common councillors.
Anecdotally, attendance at some of these wardmotes is often rather poor, which is a great shame because our political representatives are people who should matter to us.

They are the people who can make things happen in the Square Mile, and it is right and proper that they are held to account by their electorate.

If you have a bugbear about something in the ward where you live or work and you are on the ward list, then I’d implore you that there is no better time to take up your issue directly with the politicians who are well placed to address it.

The wardmote in my own ward of Portsoken is being held on 20 March at 6pm at Sir John Cass’s Primary School, just as this edition of City Matters hits the streets. Aldgate, Dowgate and Lime Street wards have already had their wardmotes.

However, for details of the wardmotes occurring in the other 21 wards, which are being held at various locations across the Square Mile between 20 and 27 March, please see the City Corporation website.

Ian McPherson is a City of London Guide who lives on the Middlesex Street Estate with his partner and young daughter.

Images by Emperorzurg123 (Creative Commons).