The same authority that hosted the banking crisis is taking away Billingsgate fish porters' livelihoods, write Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman in the Guardian
This week the City of London Corporation is likely to withdraw all trading licences from the porters of Billingsgate fish market. The role of the porter has been recognised by the corporation since 1632: it was to uphold the ethics of the fish market, work honestly and "act in fellowship" with other porters. Take away the porters' licences, and they become cheap casual labour – and if employed at all it will be by individual merchants rather as porters, licensed by corporation as a whole. The corporation, as the inheritor of property titles going back 1,000 years, fears that the market – and specifically the porters – stand in the way of its expansion plans around Canary Wharf.
Without the porters, the bankers, property developers and financiers will be the sole inheritors of the ancient privileges, customs, rights and assets that go back to the establishment of the City of London almost a millennium ago. It is the final act in a story where the power of money has been asserted over the status of the people. It is a disgrace that shines a light on our failure to control finance capital even after the crisis of autumn 2008, yet nobody says a word about it.
The City of London Corporation, the political authority in the Square Mile, is an ancient institution. Yet so too are the Billingsgate porters, with a status going back four centuries; as much part of the City of London as the lord mayor, the aldermen, the livery companies and the common council. The porters have always moved with the times, yet now will be robbed of their jobs and status. It is an act of dispossession and humiliation. How can this happen in the heart of our capital in 2011?
The corporation rules through tradition – its status is recognised from "time immemorial", reflecting its place in the ancient constitution of London. Their customs have the force of law in the City and no government can overrule its bylaws contained in a charter of 1342. They are using these bylaws to rob the porters of their status and therefore their livelihood. Why is this tolerated?
The fundamental issue relates to how the burdens are distributed after the economic crash. The City of London Corporation, which is dominated by one interest alone, continues to assert its sovereign will in an arbitrary way. It is labour, the workforce, who must pay the price for the unconstrained folly of finance capital. The crash was caused because there was no constraint on the prerogatives of the money managers who boasted and then lied about their assets and engaged in fantastical acts of leverage, generating the threat of systemic collapse. It is astonishing that they feel strong enough to exercise their unaccountable sovereignty once more without concern for political resistance. We have learned nothing from 2008.
They do this because they can. The franchise of the City of London is unique. Companies are given votes based on the size of their workforce. A company with five workers has one vote, 10 workers two, and so on. While the franchise is calculated on the size of the workforce, the workforce itself has no civic personality or representation. The only historic parallel is the voting system which applied in the US at the time of the American revolution, based on the number of chattel and slaves.
The workforce has no representation in the corporation, the sovereign body that will decide the porters' fate. There is no balance of interests, just the will of capital maintained exclusively for itself.
The civic authority that is deciding the fate of the porters does not represent the common good but the interests of money alone. In a modern democracy it cannot be right that there is no diversity or balance of interest in the decision-making body of a political authority. Parliament itself has no authority or sovereignty in this part of our capital. The City remains the last vestige of the closed shop, here totally dominated by the power of money alone.
The workforce of the City of London Corporation is being dissolved while those who represent the interests of money keep all their ancient customs, rituals, rights and assets. They remain hostile to the idea of a corporation in which there is a balance between different parts and of the ancient constitution which demands honour and the common good from its institutions.
A great injustice is being done to the porters of Billingsgate fish market, whose case has not even been heard by the City of London Corporation. This act is a modern allegory: it tells a deeper story of uncontrolled capital and a total lack of political accountability.