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Confronting the city

Mat Little profiles Maurice Glasman, dubbed the father of 'Blue Labour' and learns more about Glasman's plans to clean up the City of London

November 22, 2009
10 min read

‘They think I’m a communist’, smiles Maurice Glasman impishly. Gazing through horn-rimmed spectacles, the genial politics lecturer from London Metropolitan University does not make the most fearsome of revolutionaries.

His front door is pink, and his front room a beguiling mess of books, children’s toys and old jazz records. There no bust of Marx, but there is a Tottenham Hotspur pendant hanging from the wall.

The ‘they’ in question are the Corporation of London, the ancient political entity that represents the City of London. Accustomed to anonymity, the Corporation has been unnerved by the persistent desire of Glasman and his associates at campaigning group London Citizens to open up a political dialogue. The aim is some kind of recompense for the banking bail out. But incensed by the group’s anti-usury campaign, which demands a cap on interest rates at 20 per cent, and was launched provocatively at a synagogue in the City, officials stormed out of meetings. ‘Last week they were so beside themselves with fury they threatened to cut off all relations with us,’ Glasman says.

But it’s not just Glasman’s campaigning activities that have cast him as a modern-day Spartacus in City eyes. It’s also his determination to hold the City accountable for the crash. To him, the worst global economic crisis since the ’30s is the culmination the City’s decades-long striving to free finance from all regulation, a model assiduously exported around the globe. ‘The Corporation of London is responsible for the entire economic policy and all its consequences, that we’ve lived through for the last 30 years,’ he says. ‘It’s time for a reckoning.’

Glasman’s City odyssey began in 2000 when he joined the opposition to plans to demolish part of Spitalfields Market, which adjoins the City. He advised campaigners to apply for a planning review just before building was due to start. Usually such delays stop developments in their tracks because companies cannot afford to pay workers to do nothing. But not in this case. ‘The work was halted while there was a review, and I was amazed that all the workers there were paid, everything was fine,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t understand where they money came from for millions of pounds of idle workers. I looked into it and realised it was the City of London that was funding the project.’

The Lord Mayor, Glasman discovered, has at his disposal the City Cash, a fund which generates £200m in interest alone. But no one knows the real size of the City’s assets because it’s never been in debt, and never taken a loan. Even Parliament is not entitled to ask. ‘It was at that point I began to realise I was dealing with something strange and outside my experience,’ he says. ‘Both the political and academic person in me realise this was more interesting that I ever expected.’

For 900 years the City has eluded control by the British State, says Glasman. William the Conqueror overwhelmed the rest of England but ‘came friendly’ to the City. Charles the First attempted to send the army into the City and precipitated the Civil War. The City chartered the Empire-building East India and Hudson’s Bay Companies. It committed treason by supporting George Washington in the American War of Independence and brokered the peace. No government since Charles the Second – barring the symbolic banning of City banquets after the Second World War by Attlee – has made any attempt to interfere with the City’s privileges, he says.

Nowadays, its role is assumed to be largely ceremonial. But quaint medieval trappings mask real, undiluted power, says Glasman. The Lord Mayor may wave to the crowds each November as he processes in a state coach to pledge allegiance to the Crown. But he is also a global lobbyist for the UK financial sector, spending a third of the year overseas. This ‘non-political’ figure is, according to the Corporation of London, treated as a Cabinet level minister abroad, as he expounds the “values of liberalisation” and opens markets for City businesses.

At home, the City possesses the Remembrancer, the oldest lobbyist in the world, dating from the 14th century. He is paid by the Corporation to lobby government and Parliament. He has, in the words of the Corporation,’ day to day contact with officials in government departments responsible for developing government policy’ as well as a role in the drafting of legislation. He has a seat behind the Speaker in the House of Commons and has the power to enter the chamber and brief MPs during debates.

Glasman believes the fruit of this influence has been the relentless promotion of the financial sector at the expense of the rest of the British economy, and the progressive freeing of finance from regulation. The City funded events, hosted meals and underwrote think tanks in order to persuade the Thatcher government to introduce the ‘Big Bang’, which ended national regulation of capital flows. It pushed for privatisation in policy papers and lobbying. It helped ensure that the Financial Services Authority’s constitution did not ‘discourage the launch of new financial products’ and ‘avoided erecting regulatory barriers.’

‘Over a period of 500 years the City has supported deregulation at every turn’, states Glasman. At the time of the crash regulations in the City of London were softer than they were on Wall Street. ‘The consequences of this are massive,’ he says. ‘You had fraudulent products – the cause of the crash – debt being repackaged as an asset and then being used as leverage. The assets they held and credit they generated were on a ratio of 50-1. There was no effective regulation of this, no effective oversight.’

This year, to his surprise, the Corporation started answering Glasman’s letters for the first time. Then in June, they agreed to meet him and London Citizens. He senses apprehension. ‘They have been exposed by the bailout’, he says. ‘They have refused more than ten years of requests from us and suddenly they agree to meet. I think they are concerned that the political parties will move to a more manufacturing, less financially-based economy.’

It is a grudging relationship. Corporation officials have walked out of meetings only to return ten minutes later. None of London Citizens’ demands – a living wage for the City’s other workforce of security guards, cleaners and cooks , the transfer of assets to build affordable housing and the 20 per cent interest cap – is close to being accepted. But Glasman’s ultimate ambition would probably have the Lord Mayor reaching for his pearl-encrusted ceremonial sword.

The Square Mile is a city within a city. London’s other Mayor, Boris Johnson, has no jurisdiction over the capital’s thirty-third borough, which even boasts its own police force. And while Johnson has to answer questions in Parliament each year, the Prime Minister and Chancellor – in their annual Guildhall and Mansion House speeches – both come to the City to justify how they are serving the interests of finance.

The City may have a population smaller than Norwich in the 9th century but the Corporation towers above, in influence and wealth, any other institution of municipal government in the capital.

As Glasman puts it, ‘There is the City of London but London was originally called the London County Council, then the Greater London Council. Now it called the Greater London Authority. And it has no status at all. While the City is a commune, autonomous of government, the GLA is a more akin to an elected quango, subordinate to the state.’

Glasman wants a single London Mayor, based in the Mansion House and an all London Parliament in the Guildhall. In this, he says, he is merely trying to make good the attempt by Charles the First in 1632 to unify London by asking the City to extend civic rights to thousands of refugees from enclosure in Whitechapel, Clerkenwell and Southwark. The City refused. Now Glasman think it’s time to ask again.’ I don’t want to see the Corporation of London abolished, but expanded,’ he says.

One London government would mean the City’s assets – its funds and global property portfolio, thought to encompass substantial parts of London, New York, Hong Kong and Sydney – would pass to the population of the capital. The City has never published an inventory of its assets but they generate £600 million a year in interest; Glasman says the chair of the corporation’s finance once told him the full amount was ‘truly colossal’. Such a transfer of wealth would mean a draining of its influence. ‘The City’s power would be diminished,’ says Glasman, ‘and the financial sector would have to work with the same rules as everyone else, through the British Bankers Association, for example.’

It’s not hard to see why the City would regard this as the kind of nightmare of expropriation thought to have passed safely into history with the Berlin Wall. But Glasman’s reputation as a Marxist in misplaced. He is director of the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University, and has joined forces with London Citizens, an alliance of faith groups, schools and trade union branches, inspired by the US community organising movement that trained the young Barack Obama. And while he does confess an intellectual allegiance to an émigré economist who settled in England, it is isn’t Karl Marx. Glasman’s main debt is to Karl Polanyi, whose work The Great Transformation sought to explain the collapse in the nineteenth century liberal economy into depression and war. Markets turn both people and nature into commodities, with consequences lethal to both, argued Polanyi, and they needed protection in a regulated economy.

In fact Glasman espouses a ‘very conservative socialism’ rooted in family, the work ethic and mutualism. He considers family life and faith institutions as ‘huge moral resources’ in resisting capitalism. ‘You need faith communities, unions, families, local people with long-term relationships with each other, trying to live their lives without being commodified’, he says. ‘But for the Left the minute you mention family and faith, you are automatically considered to be reactionary’.

Yet beneath his conservatism lurk some very radical proposals. The problem with the bail out, he says, is it did not change the banks’ corporate governance and the same irresponsible interests are still dominant. Inspired by the co-determination model of the West German economy after the Second World War and the original ideals of Solidarity in Poland, he believes in a new balance of power in the way companies are run. All institutions, public and private, with more than fifty workers, should be governed by boards made up of equal representatives of owners, workers and the locality in which they are located.

Glasman has grouped these ideas under the rubric of Blue Labour, in contrast to the Red Toryism of ‘progressive Conservative’ Philip Blond. He will present them to a seminar at Number 10 in February, that will be attended backbench thinkers Jon Cruddas and James Purnell, as well as energy secretary Ed Miliband. ‘For the first time leading Labour politicians are listening’, Glasman remarks.

Glasman expects a ‘shabby compromise’ with the powers that be. But he is determined not to let the Corporation of London off the hook. ‘Everything depends on how we narrate the crash …. Do we narrate it as just one of those things, say we depend on financial services for our wealth and get on with it, or do we narrate it as the culmination of a catastrophic period of English history, where we’ve become politically powerless, where work has been degraded, where the pressure is on every individual to sell themselves to make ends meet, to pursue short-term financial ends rather than the common good? And that now has to change.’

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