The Tories want this to be the “Brexit election” and in one sense it will be. But it must also be the Grenfell election. It is the first general election since the tragedy on the 14 June 2017. Seventy two people were killed in a death trap, which had been waiting for an accident to happen. This was the biggest single loss of life in London since World War Two.
The politics of Grenfell should be front and centre of this campaign. The election is a democratic opportunity to make the Tory government accountable. It should be one of the central issues raised in every election meeting and by everybody canvassing on the door step. A good starting point was Corbyn’s speech in the Commons on 28 June 2017 attacking the policies which contributed to the disaster, including forty percent cuts in local authority budgets and the failure of building inspections.
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, hit back saying that dangerous cladding and lax inspection began under the last Labour government. Of course the allegation of criminal negligence goes beyond the policies of one party or one government to the Crown-state itself as represented in this case by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
May was correct when she told the House of Commons that Grenfell was a “failure of the state – local and national”. Even here a cover up was already going on. She admitted the state had failed to help the victims but only after the fire. She said “that people were left without belongings, without roofs over their heads, without even basic information about what happened, what they should do and where they should go to seek help” (Express 22 June 2017).
The state had failed long before that. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is a bureaucracy protected behind a wall of secrecy. It depends for its funding on HM Treasury. It is not democratically accountable for its actions or its failures. It failed to invest in housing and in fire safety and to regulate landlords and building firms making money out of renovations or ensure that the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea worked to protect its tenants and residents.
The Grenfell disaster is the responsibility of the Tory government and its policies and behind this the failure of the bureaucratic state. In a crisis, the Crown-state reaches for its Standard Operating Procedures. Set up a public inquiry headed by one of Her Majesty’s ex Judges and divert attention away from those responsible at the very top. Then build a non-political monument to all who died.
The government set up the Grenfell Memorial Commission in September 2018. The Secretary of State for Communities, Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP, said: “The government has always been committed to working with the community to create a fitting memorial, with the Prime Minister giving her personal commitment that the bereaved, survivors and community will decide what happens to the future of the Grenfell Tower site”.
At the same time the London Fire Brigade (LFB) has been put in the frame by the Grenfell Inquiry. There has been a drip feed of stories pointing to the LFB and what happened after the fridge freezer on the fourth floor flat burst into flames. Before a single fire-engine has arrived everything that brought disaster was already in place, months or years before.
There were no extra high ladders, sufficient breathing equipment, sprinkler systems, strong fire doors and necessary training were all missing. Covering the walls with flammable cladding made the building into a death trap. Most of these factors are down to insufficient investment in public services and failure of the state to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the people. It was the failure of the state to regulate and inspect the safety of buildings. Without real democracy there is nothing to compel the state to listen or act.
The controversial question focused whether more people could have escaped on the night? Here the finger is pointed at the ‘stay put’ policy. If flats are sealed concrete shells it is safer to stay and be rescued. Going down whilst fire-fighters are coming up could disrupt fire rescue and most deaths come from deadly toxic smoke and fumes.
‘Stay Put’ was a national not a London policy. Similar fire-hazards were awaiting ignition in tower blocs throughout England. Over one hundred and ninety local councils across the country had fitted fire-dangerous cladding to their tower blocks. The problem is in the bureaucratic failure of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government so far avoiding all scrutiny.
‘Stay put’ was the story that Jacob Rees-Mogg blundered into, reminding the country that class is at the heart of it. He displayed the ignorance and crass insensitivity of his class. As Stormzy said “this isn’t about politics it’s about the people who govern us lacking the most basic humanity or empathy”.
This disaster shines a powerful light on contemporary Britain. It shows the consequences of thirty years of failed economic policies. It is a powerful reminder the UK is a deeply class divided society and that life’s chances depend on which class you are born into. It brings out the nature of political power in the UK’s broken ‘democracy’.
Unaccountable political decisions, taken by national and local government in England, were paid for by death, injury and life changing trauma.
6 November 2019