The election for alderman in Cripplegate Ward has been postponed....
David Graves, the alderman for Cripplegate Ward (which covers Golden Lane Estate and part of the Barbican) reached the end of his six year term of office on 17 June 2020.
The archaic conventions that govern this archaic public office require that upon the expiry of the term of office of an alderman, he or she submits a “letter of surrender“ to the Lord Mayor. The letter is then placed on the “summons” (= agenda) for the next meeting of the Court of Alderman, so all the aldermen "can consider whether to receive it”.
When asked, Alderman Graves explained that his “letter of surrender” did not appear on the “summons” for the meeting of the Court of Aldermen on 10 July because he had not submitted it. That was because:
“given the current CV-19 concerns and limitations, I decided that to trigger a 42 ... day electoral process now would be inappropriate and unsuitable for the good conduct of a fair election.”
But his submitting a “letter of surrender“ would not have triggered the 42 day electoral process. The letter would first need to be “received” by the Court of Aldermen. The Covid crisis is one of the few situations imaginable in which the Court could justifiably defer the start of the electoral process - but for no longer than necessary. Should not the time at which the electoral process starts be a matter for the Court of Aldermen to decide, rather than the alderman whose term of office has expired and who seeks re-election?
.... but postponed until when?
When asked about the timing of the election, Alderman Graves observed that the Policy and Resources Committee had agreed to recommend to the Court of Common Council that elections for the City’s 100 councillors, due to be held in March 2021, be postponed to March 2022.
The members of the Policy and Resources Committee agreed to make that recommendation because they were concerned that the turnout of the City Corporation’s (unique and undemocratic) business vote in March 2021 would embarrass the Corporation by being even lower than usual. They were concerned that City businesses might be even less inclined to register to vote this autumn than usual, due to the Covid aftermath. (The majority of City businesses are so uninterested in the Corporation that 60% of them didn’t bother to register last year, before Covid was an issue.)
The election for alderman in Cripplegate, if held before February 2021, will be held on the basis of the “ward list” (= City electoral register) that was compiled last autumn, pre-Covid, so the rationale for postponing the councillor elections due in March 2021 does not apply to it.
Regarding a date for that election, there seems to be no good reason why the electoral process cannot begin this September. Many voters use a postal ballot anyway. Those who do not could register for one. The City Corporation could spend some of the unused £70,000 it set aside for a campaign to encourage more business registration this year on facilitating postal registration. For voters willing to attend a polling station, and if conditions allow for one to be open at the relevant time, social distancing would be much easier to achieve than in a shop or pub.
Alderman Graves responded by saying:
“offering voters a choice between registering for a postal vote and disenfranchisement is to my mind undemocratic and wrong”.
So is it democratic and right to offer voters no choice as to who represents them as alderman until such time as the incumbent, whose term of office expired a month ago, unilaterally decides when to seek re-election?
The secrecy of the aldermen
Two other elections for aldermen fall due within the next six months. The term of office of Alderman David Wootton (Langbourn Ward) expired on 19 July and that of Alderman Patricia Scotland (Bishopsgate Ward) expires on 8 December.
We know that the aldermen were due to consider the three forthcoming elections at the meeting of their General Purposes Committee (to which they all belong) on 10 July. But we don’t know what they decided. That’s because they won’t tell us, and their meetings and papers are secret - even from City councillors. The one insignificant exception is that formal Court of Aldermen meetings are held in public, but they typically last for only a few minutes and deal with routine matters like approving applications for Freedom of the City.
This extraordinary secrecy is a problem. Some organisations that are closely associated with the City Corporation, such as livery companies and certain masonic lodges, meet out of public view, but do not exercise public functions. Aldermen do, and the “Principles of Public Life“ - which include “openness” and “accountability” - apply to them as much as to any other holder of public office.
The best solution to this problem is simply to abolish the archaic and superfluous office of alderman. But that is likely to require government intervention. While the office of alderman still exists, the basic democratic imperative should at least be met of holding elections as soon as practicable after they fall due, and by appropriate means.
Hopefully whoever is elected as the next alderman for Cripplegate will represent voters to the Corporation, not the other way round, and will campaign for real change to the Corporation.
The process for that election should be begin as soon as practicable, i.e. this September.