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Litmus test for Labour City of London Elections 2013

Peter Kenyon explores Ed Miliband's scope to pilot 'responsible capitalism' at the ballot box.

One election that you can guarantee doesn't feature in the official Labour Party campaign grid is the Common Council election in the City of London on 21 March next year. Still marked out for abolition by the Labour Left, the Corporation of London is both local authority and mouth-piece for a diminished but not to be written-off sector of the British economy financial services.

Even Labour Party members who live in the City are divided about whether to engage in the now four-yearly elections for the 100 seats for Common Councillors. But there were sufficient in favour to contest the last elections in 2009 with eight Labour Party members all sworn in as Freemen [sic], a vital additional qualification to stand for election in the Square Mile. All were official Labour Party candidates recognised and duly certificated by the then London Labour Party regional director, Ken Clark.

Why Common Council has 100 seats to oversee services for a residential population according to the 2011 census of 7,400 is another story. (The average number of electors/councillor in the 32 London boroughs is about 2,500.)

So the search is on for members of the local branch and Labour Party members who work in the City who might be willing to stand.

Why bother? Labour's commitment is to fight elections where- ever and whenever the opportunity arises. In her remarks closing Labour Party Conference 2012 in Manchester in October, Deputy Leader Harriet Harman said: We've got to have no no-go areas for Labour. That was the primary motive for that small slate of candidates who stood in 2009. In the residential wards in which Labour ran candidates their share of the poll was around 27.5%, higher than Labour's national polling rate at the time.

In 2013 there is a much bigger political opportunity on offer a chance to challenge the mouthpiece of capitalism in one of the world's leading financial centres at the ballot box. The Occupy movement's impact 12 months after the attempted occupation of the London Stock Exchange, which settled in nearby St Paul's Churchyard for nearly six months before the bailiffs moved in is discussed elsewhere in this edition of Chartist. No one can doubt its contribution to advancing the fairness agenda, and intensified the questioning of a 'fat-cat culture. Labour leader Ed Miliband felt sufficiently emboldened before that explosion of street activism to talk about the need for 'responsible capitalism' in his 2011 Conference speech. It's worth recalling his key thrust: He said: "We have allowed values which say take what you can, I'm in it for myself, to create a Britain that is too unequal. The people at the top taking unjustified rewards is not just bad for the economy. It sends out a message throughout society about what values are OK. And inequality reinforces privilege and opportunity for the few." No one can accuse him of not wanting to take on the neo-liberal consensus.

What has become clearer since is how few of his shadow cabinet want to step into this political space. But to his credit Miliband has been taking every opportunity to keep the central idea alive. Though this is unsettling to Marxist commentators it continues to resonate on the centre-left, or at least it might if there was to be a new consensus about what might be involved.

The City of London Labour Party branch 2009 manifesto pledged to secure a London Living Wage for all Corporation workers. It was not a particularly ambitious target, but reflected the fact there were hundreds of people on the Corporation payroll who were not conventional local government workers and who were not earning a London Living Wage, then £7.45 an hour.

Today, Labour should demand that the City not just pays its own a living wage, but acts as a champion to encourage every firm in the Square Mile to ensure a living wage for everyone where directly employed, or on contract. In the same vein, there is that delicate question of those at the top taking unjustified rewards. There was a time when Labour was vulnerable to mere mention of such matters smeared by the right as the politics of envy. That time may have passed. If the opportunity is not to be lost, then the City of London Labour Party 2013 manifesto needs to flesh out a convincing message on remuneration, the financial services' future role in the economy, not to mention City accountability to the electorate for its vast wealth, known as City Cash. The Occupy Movement celebrated its first anniversary on 15 October 2012 with the publication of a 60-page booklet, The Little Book of Ideas. There is much that the Labour Party both locally and nationally could learn from it. Whether that might lead to working together? Who knows?