In many countries the political and the financial centres are located in different cities: Washington and New York, Berlin and Frankfurt, Canberra and Sydney. In the UK, they are not only in the same town, but in the same constituency. Like a fried egg with two yolks, the Cities of London and Westminster return a single Member of Parliament who is tasked with balancing the needs of these two very different centres of power. This is the seat now targeted by Chuka Umunna, newly decked out in his latest political livery.
But this constituency is not just an intersection of the great tectonic plates of democracy and capitalism — it is also, and much more prosaically, a place where ordinary people live. Around Paddington and Pimlico, for example, there are areas of significant social need. But more than any other constituency, those who represent this place end up overlooking the everyday lives of the people who live there, and end up narrowly concentrating on the needs of the financial institutions. It is actually quite odd for an MP to be far more concerned about the needs of those who pour off the train at Cannon Street at 7am — who have their own MP somewhere else — than those who wake up and live in the constituency they actually represent. Even odder, for an MP to think of their role as the representative of institutions rather than people.
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Ever since the 1950 election, when this constituency came into being, the MP has always been a Tory. The incumbent, Mark Field, himself a former City lawyer, takes a keen interest in the financial City, and is currently Chair of the of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Venture Capital and Private Equity. While complaining about MP’s pay in 2001 — “If you are earning several hundred thousand a year in the City, are you going to give it up for £47,000 a year in the Commons?” — he has also condemned homeless charities in his constituency as being “a magnet for undesirables”. Suspended from his job as a junior minister for grabbing a Greenpeace protester at the Mansion House dinner, Field’s safe seat may look a little less safe than one might expect.
Perfect, then, for that political chancer par excellence, Chuka Umunna, now abandoning the constituents of Streatham, a seat that he won as a Labour MP. Like Field, he is an ardent Remainer — the constituency having voted overwhelmingly to Remain (72%) — and like Field, very much keen to act as a cheerleader for the 1% of the 1% who work there. As he told City AM recently:
“The different service sectors that work in the City are very much the solution to the challenges that the real economy faces. The principle challenge we have is making globalisation work for more middle class families in Britain. If the City can do that, then however people feel about the background of people who work in it, they are more likely to be amenable.”
Once again, the prospective MP for 65,000 voters living in the centre of one of the world’s greatest cities is sounding as though his job was to be the spokesperson for global capital.
Part of the problem is with the City itself. It thinks of itself as different. Indeed, the independent power of the City is so well established it goes back to Magna Carta. The City has its own police force. Its own peculiar local municipality. And even the Queen has to announce her intention to enter the City ahead of a visit there. And while the Lord Mayor of London — the City Mayor, as it were — has by tradition to offer to surrender his pearl encrusted sword to the sovereign every time she or he visits, this little ceremony demonstrates as much the independence of the City as its incorporation into the wider state. The City of London has the feel of a state within a state — a bit like the Vatican. Except, (arguably) unlike the Vatican, its ultimate sovereign is mammon not God.
There is no doubt the City is a weird and wonderful place. When lived there I once happened to meet someone in the pub who worked for the City’s Education Board. There are so few children living in the City that, when I told her my address, she was able to reel off the names of my children. But despite this very personalised service, the City of London, as a political entity, clearly exists to protect the needs of the financial sector as opposed to its residents. And this has long been the case.
City life is also dominated by the Livery Companies. Originally medieval guilds, the membership of which signalled to potential customers the trustworthiness of the trader concerned, these groups have evolved into charitable organisations/fancy dining clubs with considerable political clout. Before the 1832 Reform Act, the Livery Companies held the exclusive right to elect the City’s four MPs. And while this was done away with, the companies still hold great sway in the political fortification of the financial sector.
Not that many of the members of these companies have anything much to do with the areas of trade that their livery once represented. “Are you are fishmonger yourself?” I once rather cheekily inquired of the woman next to me at a dinner, dressed head to toe in Prada. She looked at me as though I had crawled from under a stone. “Of course not.” Later, she left to get the train back home to Haywards Heath.
Will Chuka fit in with all this? I suspect it will be right up his street. His politics is a very liberal mash-up of right-wing thinking about economics with a topdressing of social progressivism. Like Field, he is keen on “outside interests” — earning more than £65,000 last year for some advisory work to an organisation called the Progressive Centre UK. Like Field, he too first worked as a City lawyer. And not unlike Field, he has described the West End as being full of people he disparaged as “trash”. And, of course, like Field — and most of the big City institutions — he is a massive fan of the European Union.
There is an ancient tradition in the church of what is called “beating the bounds” — historically, congregations going around their parish boundaries with sticks, marking out and symbolically defending their territory. And they still do this in the City. And the schoolchildren that take part in this ceremony come from St Dunston’s College, Catford — an independent school set up by the City church, St Dunston-in-the-East, and yes you guessed it, Chuka Umunna’s old school. If he becomes the MP, I expect him to keep doing the same. For all his shifting loyalties elsewhere, Umunna is very much a company man. And his company is the City.
So, will he become MP for the City? I doubt it. The one thing the Livery Companies existed to promote was trust. Trust is the very lifeblood of trade. “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of …” is written on all our banknotes. And trust is a commodity the City is desperately short of right now. Chukka Umunna has been a member of three political parties already this year. “You can’t trust a word the Lib Dems say,” he once tweeted. Well Chuka, you said it.