How to win democracy in the City of London – a proposal for a legal attack

This is a proposal for attacking the City of London Corporation, which is a profoundly anti-democratic institution and the only local authority in the United Kingdom which does not use democracy to elect its governing members. Please read this explanation of the City of London Corporation’s inner workings. Before explaining the proposal, I’m setting out the background, which is concerned with why the current protests in the City do not threaten the City’s power.

Background

As any chess player will tell you, you cannot win without attacking your opponent. Attack is the best form of defence and attack is the best form of attack! This is as true in politics as it is true across the beautifully complicated chess board. Playing defensively leads to defeat. Until recently I was heavily involved in Occupy London. My contribution was to set up and organise the legal team which defended any eviction proceedings brought against Occupy the London Stock Exchange (OccupyLSX). These proceedings could have been brought by any number of opponents and we prepared ourselves to take them all on in court. The principle opponents declared themselves early on: St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London Corporation.

Consequently, OccupyLSX attacked the grounds upon which the Cathedral challenged our right to occupy St Paul’s Churchyard. The Cathedral unexpectedly closed its doors and gave three reasons: fire risks, health & safety and the interference with their normal church activity. Initially, they explained that they had suffered a loss of income as a result of our encampment. The legal team swung into action. I had already instructed John Cooper QC to give me expert advice on how to deal with an early salvo like this. On the day that the Cathedral closed its doors Mr Cooper visited OccupyLSX and advised me on how to deal with the Cathedral’s hostility. Consequently, OccupyLSX went on the offensive. We sought independent advice from the London Fire Brigade, we contacted Health & Safety officials and we made public announcements explaining that we had, from the very start of the Occupation, ensured that at no time was access to the Cathedral blocked. Here’s me updating the general assembly on Friday 21st after that conference:

Shortly afterwards, the Cathedral caved in and reopened its doors. Not long after that they announced that they were withdrawing from legal action to evict OccupyLSX. Clearly, this was a major battle for the protestors. The positive result was achieved by attacking the arguments laid against us. However, it was essentially a defensive manoeuvre. It defeated the attack but didn’t secure a victory for the aims of OccupyLSX.

Later on, the City of London Corporation launched its own eviction case against OccupyLSX in the High Court. Once again OccupyLSX was on the defensive. Having organised a highly capable team of lawyers to defend us (John Cooper QC was joined by Karen Todnor of Kaim Todnor Solicitors; she recruited Michael Paget of Garden Court Chambers – all of them worked for us for free. They were supported in turn by some of the more legally able activists, myself included.). We commenced our defence by proposing that there be hundreds of defendants, since no-one at OccupyLSX had ever been appointed into any position of leadership. This was a challenging prospect for even a very experienced High Court judge. The sheer practicalities of organising such a case fairly would probably have overwhelmed the English legal system. Consequently, the High Court made a very unusual order: there could be a representative defendant against whom the City of London Corporation could not recover its legal costs. I am not aware of a similar order having been made before. (Two other litigants in person joined the case as defendants but they may be liable for costs.) The consequence of this early legal attack was that OccupyLSX could defend the eviction case properly without fear for the financial consequences.

After that, we set about gathering witnesses who would be prepared to give evidence to support the encampment in the proceedings. Of the 86 people who stepped forward, our counsel called those whose evidence was best suited to defeating the legal claims made against OccupyLSX. The hearing took a week to complete. At the start of the case, the judge, Mr Justice Keith Lindblom indicated that he intended to give his judgment at the close of the case and his reasons later. However, with our excellent witness evidence to stand on, John Cooper QC ran rings around the City’s witnesses. “Cooper rocks”, was a common refrain during that week. Consequently, Lindblom realised that he could not give a snap judgment. Cooper hadn’t just defended our encampment, he had successfully attacked the City’s eviction case. Lindblom declared that he would deliver judgment as close to the start of the next High Court term as he could. That means that the earliest date for judgment is 11th January 2012.

Case Analysis

Let’s not be under any illusions here. Any sensible legal analyst must know that the law stands against anarchic protest encampments. By defending the eviction case properly, OccupyLSX bought considerable quantities of time. However, it never settled the issue of when it might decamp. I cannot see any judge allowing such a protest camp to remain indefinitely. Tempting though it is to go through all the witness statements and publicly assess the legal merits of both sides’ case, that is a temptation I have so far resisted. I’m not going to give in now. Let’s wait and see what the judgment is. Only then will analysis of the case be of much use. Only when judgment is promulgated, can OccupyLSX’s lawyers determine whether there are grounds for appeal.

The important point is this: although OccupyLSX was proactive in organising its defence and instructed its lawyers to fight most aggressively the legal claims brought against it, it was nevertheless just defending these claims. It brought no legal claim of its own to court.

OccupyLSX has proved to be somewhat ill-suited to making sophisticated decisions as to how to attack the power of the 1%. It has done very well at raising consciousness and highlighting the nature of the beast which promotes the corporate world gone mad. The time has come for either OccupyLSX or other activists to stop being defensive. It may well be that this attack would be more efficiently mounted by activists not operating through the hopelessly inefficient general assembly of OccupyLSX. Nevertheless, the time has come to attack. Without a well focused attack, the 99% will permanently be at the mercy of the 1%. If we can mount a successful legal attack on the City of London Corporation, we can undermine the ability of the City to secretly protect corporate interests around the world.

Potential legal claim against the City of London Corporation

I propose that the City of London Corporation be attacked in another legal case, so that the City is the party defending and our best political activists are the ones fighting for all our rights. There may be several avenues of attack but the one I prefer is a full frontal charge against the constitutional arrangements of the City of London Corporation. As George Monbiot explains (same link as first one on this page), the City is controlled by corporations. Members are elected to its governing body by corporations. Monbiot describes it as a plutocracy:

There are 25 electoral wards in the Square Mile. In four of them, the 9,000 people who live within its boundaries are permitted to vote. In the remaining 21, the votes are controlled by corporations, mostly banks and other financial companies. The bigger the business, the bigger the vote: a company with 10 workers gets two votes, the biggest employers, 79. It’s not the workers who decide how the votes are cast, but the bosses, who “appoint” the voters. Plutocracy, pure and simple.

The Human Rights Act 1998 gives us the right to live in a democracy. Section 6 of the Act declares that it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a right set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, which are contained in Schedule 1 of the Act. The City of London Corporation claims an exemption from the Human Rights Act. This exemption has been approved by Parliament. Section 4 of the Act allows courts to declare that primary legislation is incompatible with the Act.

The Convention contains rights and freedoms. When the Convention was agreed, the Cold War had taken a grip on Europe. The result was that although there was much agreement as to the need to establish human rights, there was not universal agreement as to what those rights should be. Consequently the bits that everyone agreed on were in the main body of the Convention and the bits that only the western European countries agreed about were put into the protocols. These protocols have every bit as much force for the contracting parties as the main body of the Convention. In fact, the UK was the first country to sign the Convention and, of all the original signatories, the last to enact it into law. The protection of the right to private property is in the protocols because the Soviet Union would not agree to it. Consequently, many years after the Greeks seized their Royal Family’s property, they had to pay compensation to them.

Article 3 of the First Protocol grants the right to live in a land where there are:

free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.

The Convention does not specify whether democracy is restricted to a national level. Clearly, the people living inside the jurisdiction of the City of London’s corporation do not enjoy conditions which ensure the free expression of their opinion in their choice of legislature. The Convention does not grant rights to corporations. It gives rights to people. It seeks to ensure that legislatures are comprised of members elected by people, not other bodies. The governing body of the City of London Corporation is called the Common Council. The Common Council gives expression to the will of corporations, not the people living inside its jurisdiction. This is my proposed method of attacking the City of London Corporation: we mount a case which seeks a declaration that the City’s constitutional arrangements breach the human rights of its inhabitants – specifically their right to democratic expression.

Case Preparation

Forgive me, I’m going to use another chess board analogy. Any successful attack needs to be well prepared. We need to know where the attack will go, after it is launched, lest it is lost and cannot be used again. Therefore, we need to establish the grounds upon which we will launch this attack. Let’s look at the existing structure of elections to the City of London Corporation. The elections are divided into geographical wards, 25 in all. Here’s a map of them:

Map Of The City of London Corporation Wards

Click on the map to enlarge it. The names of the wards are:

  1. Aldersgate
  2. Aldgate
  3. Bassishaw
  4. Billingsgate
  5. Bishopsgate
  6. Bread Street
  7. Bridge
  8. Broad Street
  9. Candlewick
  10. Castle Baynard
  11. Cheap
  12. Coleman Street
  13. Cordwainer
  14. Cornhill
  15. Cripplegate
  16. Dowgate
  17. Farringdon Within
  18. Farringdon Without
  19. Langbourn
  20. Lime Street
  21. Portsoken
  22. Queenhithe
  23. Tower
  24. Vintry
  25. Walbrook

Before bringing the case, we need lots of people to agree to live on the City’s streets. We need to organise ourselves so that we are registered to vote across all of these wards. We might benefit from an organising committee, which could have a single remit: to divvy up who will live where. The organising committee must to be restricted to this legal attack on the City of London because otherwise it will lose focus. It could be that a trades union or a political party would be best suited to organising this fight for democracy. The committee will need some resources and should be clear about who is taking on this responsibility – we can’t have a situation where anyone can infiltrate it, which is one of OccupyLSX’s problems.

Doubtless the City will refuse our attempts at voter registration. If they do this, we should be prepared to apply for judicial review of their refusal. You don’t need to live in a house to vote. You can declare your place of residence to be this street corner or that. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we have more people than there are currently corporate votes. At the time of writing, I’m unsure what this figure is – I’ll come back to that.

We need to work out how many corporate votes there are in each ward and then organise ourselves so that we have more people living on those streets. You don’t have to sleep there permanently to live there but you will need to stake a reasonable claim that you regard it as your primary place of residence. Once we’ve organised our numbers of who will live in which wards, it ought to be reasonably straightforward to organise date proven photographic evidence of people declaring that they live on a particular street corner. The City of London Corporation says that people don’t need tents and sleeping bags to effect a protest but that do not object to people using sleeping bags to live in – witness Jimmy who has slept on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral for a decade. Once we’ve got our evidence established, we will almost be ready to launch our legal claim. Having got that far, we should recruit specialist lawyers in human rights law. No point fouling up the case!

It is a frightening simple claim to make: each voter joins together in a class action and asks the High Court to declare that the electoral mechanism used for the City’s Common Council is incompatible with the Human Rights Act. The High Court is obliged to make a declaration. The argument will be almost purely legal and is simultaneously political. The City will be on the defensive. If we win, the City of London Corporation will be abolished in its present form! If we lose, we’ll have a legal declaration as why democracy does not exist in the City. That could well prove to be a valuable political tool, especially when David Cameron or any other thieving Tory bastard claims that the City requires special protection!

Update on 7th January 2012: one of my commentators has said that the City of London Corporation is not exempt from the Human Rights Act. I wrote that because the City’s website previously claimed that it was. I can’t find the reference now. I don’t see that it makes much difference – people can still register to vote in all of its wards and upset the balance of political power inside the City. Once we’ve seized control of the Common Council, we can open up the accounts, reform its electoral system and prevent the lobbying the City does on behalf of the corporations which strangle the planet.

It may also be that we don’t need a steering committee at all to organise this. Forgive my traditional thinking! We just need to know how many people have registered to vote in each ward. Let’s be clear about this though – we can’t have people giving false names to either the City or to those of us who keep the tally going because that would defeat our aim of becoming registered voters in the City. Although the Human Rights Issue may not be applicable, this is still a legal attack on the system. We must be lawful to make it work! As to who we’d vote for, it doesn’t really matter so long as we all vote for the same candidate so as to be able to ovewhelm the system. We might as well all vote for the first candidate who stands on the following ticket: a promise to -

  1. publish all the accounts
  2. remove the power of corporations to cast votes in City elections
  3. ban all lobbying by the City of any type whatsoever

Look at what Occupy London has achieved so far, having been pretty much defensive from the start. We’ve marched, occupied and taught. We can easily muster the energy and commitment to swamp the City wards with homeless voters. If needs be we can abandon our votes where we lived before. Live in a Tory area? Move to the City streets!

20 Responses to How to win democracy in the City of London – a proposal for a legal attack

  1. Interesting idea, I had no idea it was so easy to register to vote..

    Would it also be possible to move 20,000 people into Witney for a week and oust David Cameron?

    • Scrapper Duncan

      You’d have to investigate their local registration scheme. Doubtless the authorities there would resist it but it ought to be possible to do, if you can motivate people to demonstrate that they live on the streets there. Although I have nothing but contempt for Cameron, he is just one of a number of thieving Tory bastards. We should focus our efforts at their citadel: the City of London Corporation!

  2. I’m game.

    One of my ideas was to attract the minimum wage workers in the City of London and show them the ideal of living within walking distance of their work.

    Many do take 2 hours to commute by night bus.

    Your plan of getting a few thousand to live within the square mile would be most ideal.

    • Scrapper Duncan

      The idea isn’t complicated but we would need to have a properly organised effort to make it work. Effectively we need a committee or steering group to oversee the voter registration.

      • 35,000+ fans on facebook.

        How many thousands do we need to change their addresses? Students perhaps?

        • Scrapper Duncan

          We need to know the total number of votes which could be counted in elections to the Common Council of the City of London Corporation. That’s human votes plus corporate votes. We also need to know how many votes there are in each ward. Then we need to get one more vote in each ward. That would mean we’d definitely have a good case.

  3. Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the ECHR is solely concernced with legislatures (bodies that make laws) i.e. the UK Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh & Northern Irish assemblies. The Common Council of the City of London is not a legislature, so the article does not apply.

    George Monbiot’s article is not a explanation of anything, but a work of fiction. Your assertion that the City Corporation claims an exemption from the Human Rights Act is a similar fiction.

    • Scrapper Duncan

      1. The Convention does not define legislatures. The Common Council passes legislation which is applicable inside the Square Mile.
      2. Monbiot’s article gives a reasonably accurate description of the profoundly undemocratic nature of the City of London Corporation.
      3. The City of London Corporation’s website used to claim an exemption from the Act. I note that this has now been removed. Fine – that will make the case easier to win.

      • The convention does not define legislature because it is an ordinary English word used in its ordinary meaning. The Court of Common Council does not legislate for the square mile or anywhere else.

        Monbiot’s article was refuted by Stuart Fraser
        http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/03/city-of-london-elections-not-above-law
        and somewhat less politely by Tim Worstall
        http://timworstall.com/2011/11/01/george-on-the-city/

        “The City of London Corporation’s website used to claim an exemption from the Act. I note that this has now been removed.” A completely unsubstantiated claim on your part.

        • Scrapper Duncan

          It is hard to substantiate my claim that something has been removed from the City’s website. Perhaps I should have saved the page when I first read it? Thanks for your links. I do not think it matters – already people are swinging into gear, with a plan to swamp the City with our people who will live on the streets. We can easily outnumber the corporate votes and we will abolish the City as we currently know it.

  4. Wow – I actually said it out loud as I read this.

    Get London’s homeless to help reclaim democracy! Occupy to give them all the support they need, such as livestream teams in shifts to capture any police bully boy tactics.

    Getting those who are homeless to claim these rights I think is going to have a lot more powerful effect than people who the court can claim have some other home.

  5. I have expanded a bit on my suggestions in the above comment in my own blog: http://freeworld-freesoftware.blogspot.com/2012/01/taking-legal-battle-to-city-of-london.html

    It needs funding, it needs organising but it is one of those viral ideas that now it has been voiced will just not go away.

    • Scrapper Duncan

      I’ll flesh out the practicalities a but myself over the next few days. I’m happy to devote my blog to it for the time being.

  6. highly interesting and forwarding towards a democracy.
    please keep me informed.

  7. Arshad Ali Bradford

    Great idea. It would put people power to the test. I’m all for it. Keep us all posted.

  8. I’m glad to see you thinking along these lines, Duncan, but I’m a bit dubious about what you’re proposing here; I think its chances of success are fairly small, and I don’t really see that it would lead to any significant reform even if it did succeed.

    The problem I see is that the case goes straight into an area which is almost wholly political – and contentiously political at that. The question of who has the right to come and live in a particular area isn’t usually a factor at the local level, but it is very much a live issue at the national level, and it seems to me the same essential principles operate. No society can afford to open itself up to absolutely everybody, and that has to apply to small communities as well.

    Nigel’s comment (“Would it also be possible to move 20,000 people into Witney for a week and oust David Cameron?”) is enough to illustrate the dangers. If I were a judge I would reject any interpretation of the law which would in principle make that possible, unless there were compelling reasons to accept it. So unless there’s legislation which explicitly allows the kind of homeless registration which you’re suggesting, I don’t think the courts would go for it. If it were me I’d demand very strong evidence that anyone joining in the action genuinely did reside there, and if I thought they were making a false claim as part of an orchestrated attempt to deceive the court I wouldn’t hesitate to treat it as contempt. But then, I’m not a judge and I don’t have your experience of the courts, so maybe it has a chance.

    Whether it would be worthwhile or not is another matter; personally I’ve never regarded London Stock Exchange nor the City of London Corporation as very good targets, except from the point of view of drawing attention to inequality and injustice. Occupy LSX did a good job at that for a while, but I’d be very surprised if it got back into the news (in a positive way at least). But even if it’s as bad as Monbiot paints it, it seems to me the City of London Corporation is just an anomaly – nothing rests on it. I can see that they’re a tempting target, but I don’t see how it would have any impact at all on the underlying causes of social injustice. Would any useful precedents be set if your case succeeded?

    Sorry I can’t be more positive about it … but I look forward to seeing how your thoughts develop.

  9. Pingback: Basic plan for democratic seizure of City of London Corporation: mass voter registration | Scrapper Duncan

  10. Brilliant idea!!! The time is right.

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