By Kehinde Andrews
A lot has been written about how the appalling tragic fire at Grenfell Tower is crisis of neo-liberalism, the lack of regulation and austerity. All of which is true, but to truly understand the implications of the disaster we must not see it as the result of an accident, mistakes or failures. The discomforting truth is that the horrendous loss of life is the perfect demonstration of the logic of the system we have become accustomed to. Countless people are mourning lost friends and family because the political consensus that has emerged since Thatcherism was designed to produce such a catastrophe. Warnings fell on deaf ears because they were pitched at a frequency policy makers could not pick up. Death in a system set up with total disregard for the lives of the disadvantaged, is simply not preventable. Grenfell Tower is a case of state manslaughter, the embodiment of the workings of Tory Britain. The government may not have intended to kill those who died in the fire, but they are wholly responsible for their deaths. The only way to move on from the tragedy is to bring down the government and political system that created it.
If one fact about the disaster stands out above all it is that the council spent millions of pounds effectively turning the block into a tomb. This rubbishes the idea that there is no money available, or event that the fire was the result of neglect. A large sum of money was spent on a refurbishment that all indications show was a major contributor to the disaster. The flammable cladding appears to have spread the fire; they removed a fire escape and; refused to install a sprinkler system. Work was clearly not done on tower for the benefit or safety of the residents, but to appease the wealthy neighbors in Kensington and Chelsea whose views were plagued by the eyesore of the tower.
Kensington being one of the seats that Labour unexpectedly won is also a part of this story, demonstrating the parallel lives people of the borough live (and die). To deal with this conflict the inner London councils have tended to try to remove the poor, rather than engage with their concerns. In this respect, Grenfell is part of a wider pattern of social cleansing in the affluent parts of London, which has seen thousands of families shipped out of the expensive real estate into less affluent areas, sometimes to entirely different cities. If you can’t move out the poor though, the next step is to wrap their ugly dwellings in flammable cladding. To hide them in plain sight.
Prettying up the outside of tower blocks with cladding was actually a New Labour idea, demonstrating how complicit that government was in the Tory political consensus. Do not believe the hype that it is a problem going back to the original design of the tower blocks. There have been fires in tower blocks before, but nothing even remotely of this magnitude. In fact, the cladding fundamentally undermines the original fire safety features. Fire fighters told people to stay put because the buildings were designed to make contain a fire within a particular unit. Authorities have known for some time that cladding causes fire to spread beyond this and rapidly. Again, millions were spent to turn Grenfell Tower into a tomb.
Lack of state accountability
Another area where New Labour were entirely complicit, is the transfer of responsibility for social housing (and the welfare state in general) to private organizations. Kensington and Chelsea Team Management Organization (KCMTO) are a ‘completely separate company’ to the local council and are responsible as landlords and for the refurbishments. When Labour MP David Lammy called the fire a case of corporate manslaughter, he was no doubt demanding that people at the company should be arrested. The attitude of the chancellor Philip Hammond is telling, when he explained that one of the roles of the independent review would be to see whether building regulations were complied with. As much as the management of the building is in the hands of KCMTO, this is still social housing, funded by the taxpayer and ultimately the responsibility of the council and the state. The fact that the government doesn’t know, or cannot find out if building regulations were complied with, without an independent inquiry should be terrifying, but not a surprise. Whether it is the death of Jimmy Mubenga at the hands of G4$, or the health secretary having to be forced into not relinquishing their role in oversight of the NHS, the state has been trying to wash its hands of social responsibility. We cannot let this stand, the state is still ultimately responsible for the social welfare it funds. A key part of reducing the role of the state is the bonfire of regulations, which have left us all less safe. Flammable cladding banned in the land of the free market, America, fueled a deadly fire in social housing in London. We must view Grenfell Tower as state manslaughter.
The Tory programme of cuts clearly had a huge impact on the disaster, reducing the funding available for the refurbishment and a penny pinching approach to fire safety. We also cannot overlook the funding cuts to the fire service and the impact this may have had on their ability to provide guidance and oversight of the Tower. Reagan, the transatlantic soulmate of Thatcher, argued that ‘government is the problem’, an idea central to the Tories laying waste to the social safety net. He almost had it right though it is just that the government is the problem, when it embarks on a programme of austerity that results in death. It is impossible to tally the deaths a direct result of underfunding health and social care, but we can total the 2,380 who died after being declared ‘fit for work’ between 2011 and 2014. Austerity and death are companions, and this was no different in Grenfell Tower.
The ‘Big Society’
Even the response after the fire was trademark Tory Britain, demonstrating the reality of Cameron’s call for a ‘Big Society’ in order to ‘turn government completely on its head’. As we saw a response by the state branded as ‘not good enough’ by the prime minister, we also witnessed thousands of citizens donating, volunteering and offering support and shelter to survivors. In the absence of the state the population was forced to ‘draw on the skills and expertise of people across the country’ as Cameron intended. The Big Society was never about empowering communities, but leaving them to fend for themselves when the state had departed. Theresa May’s wooden and soulless response was the perfect representation of the government’s position.
The Government Must Fall
Once we accept that the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower was the logic of our political and economic system, rather than its failing, we have to seek a more radical response. No resignation of politicians; public inquiry or; even prosecution of KCMTO officials will suffice. Though these should all happen and recommendations have to found to make other tower blocks safe, the disaster at Grenfell Tower was a symptom of the problem rather than the issue itself. At the very least, having seen the brutal consequences of Tory Britain, this tragedy must mark the end of this government. If you have previously bought into the lie about prosperity, aspiration and economic credibility, seeing the reality of Tory policy must shake you from your delusions. Whenever the next election comes it will be beyond hypocritical to mourn for those who lost their lives at Grenfell and vote for the government that were the architects of their deaths. But so ingrained are the blueprints for this tragedy in the system we will need to do more than depose the Tories. We charge state manslaughter and therefore we need to build a vision for society that uproots and overturns the corrosive nature of the entire political and economic system.
Photo by ChiralJon
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