Taken at the #MayMustGo protest at Downing Street on Saturday 17th June 2017. Garry Knight/Flickr. Some rights reserved.There’s a simple reason politicians condemn ‘politics’ during tragic events: when shock and emotion are raw, people are most receptive to powerful lessons that resonate. The authorities find this threatening, as the most shocking tragedies can shine a bright unwelcome light into their deepest failings, and society's greatest injustices that they have left unresolved. This, in turn, can be a potent force for social change.
It’s only ‘political’ when it hurts the establishment
During such events, explanations favourable to the authorities – those that strip them of culpability – are deemed entirely legitimate and apolitical. Yet, conveniently, explanations that demonise the authorities are rejected for ‘insensitivity to the victims’ and for “politicizing tragedy”.
This was evident during the recent terror attacks. Focusing responsibility on the Muslim community was deemed totally acceptable. By contrast, to question links between terrorism and government foreign policy, or the failure to adequately resource police and security services, was deemed outrageous political opportunism.
I am no longer willing to play this game. Nor, it seems, are the victims of Grenfell Tower, who have expressed grief and political outrage in tandem. Politically induced horrors demand political responses. We should not censor what we instinctively know to be true, simply to save the blushes of economic and political elites who are culpable. The warnings were so many that they do not deserve a shield created by our own polite self-censorship. There is no greater dishonour to the dead and their families than to not speak the truth – truth that may help avert similar tragedy, and which indicts those complicit.
Property: the UK’s religion
As I write this I recall ‘Homes Under the Hammer’ on BBC1. The opening credits tick by with houses made of money and the title font is like that of a crisp £20 pound note. The hosts enthusiastically gesticulate to the camera, talking about the ‘earning potential’ for would-be landlords, and how the ‘regeneration’ of a local shopping centre is making the area a ‘hot spot’ for property developers.
‘Regeneration’ means nothing more than the advancement of property value: it is not a good in itself for the community. Perhaps ‘Homes under the Hammer’ is an insidiously apt title, as it hammers the social utility of a home, and reduces it to nothing more than a plastic toy in a game of monopoly.
Former Premier League players I idolised as a kid now reinvent themselves as sophisticated property gurus, as though it takes skill to make money from a housing bubble when you already have huge amounts of wealth. I can’t help but lose respect for these people: they have effectively won the lottery to become professional footballers, and now they help inflate house prices to the detriment of the less fortunate – unimpeded by the government, I’ll add.
The British economy gravitates around property. In an age characterised by relative declines in wages and automation, consumer spending has been sustained by borrowing off the value of property. This, in turn, has created a boom for banks and property developers. It has also propelled a Wild-West scramble across the UK to accumulate as much as possible to rent out, to create a life raft for themselves.
Politicians – particularly of the blue persuasion – defend the interests of property with a religious zeal.
In sync with this phenomena, politicians defend the interests of property with a religious zeal. Whether it’s changing the law of Adverse Possession (squatters rights), or selling off valuable state property, they are vociferous in its defence, and almost fetishise it. Considering the vast donations the party receives from banks and property developers, this is hardly surprising.
Like any religion, impediments to the faith are condemned as blasphemy. For property, this means ‘red tape’ and ‘market obstructions’. In practice, this means fighting rent controls, ownership limitations, inheritance tax and –most important for the purpose of this piece – health and safety regulations and minimum quality standards for buildings.
Like any religion, impediments to the faith are condemned as blasphemy. For property, this means ‘red tape’ and ‘market obstructions’.
Like most neoliberal policy making, it ordains the outsourcing of state property management to private companies, that are moved by profit, not primarily by a concern for people, or raising standards. In turn, this dilutes state accountability, creates dysfunction, and softens services for full future privatisation on the grounds of ineffectiveness after managed decline through defunding.
‘The private sector is more efficient’ is regurgitated like a commandment from the Bible, and so public housing is viewed like an illegitimate bastard child that should be rightfully carved up and returned to the private priests of the private property market.
Cladding: the gentry's eyepatch for an ‘eyesore’
High-rise social housing is like a giant middle finger held up to the property class. They are called “eyesores” that provoke gentrified neighbourhoods, as they diminish their asset value by guilt through association. An “eyesore” is dog whistle politics for a desire to rebuild in a new sophisticated style, that attracts the right type of residents, to further boost property value (clue: they aren’t poor people).
To appease these powerful residents, local authorities have dated social housing ‘made-up’ like a third-class Titanic passenger joining the first-class passengers for dinner in a tuxedo
This has emboldened a selfish psychology of nimbyism, whereby residents wants to terminate any evidence of deprivation from their gorgeous view in gentrified Disneyland. To appease these powerful residents, local authorities have dated social housing ‘made-up’ like a third-class Titanic passenger joining the first-class passengers for dinner in a tuxedo. It works as convincingly as a malfunctioning invisibility cloak.
Documents detailing the regeneration of Grenfell Tower describe the cladding's purpose as:
“ensuring that the character and appearance of the area are preserved and living conditions of those living near the development suitably protected”
This is the same cladding which during the fire “went up like a matchstick”, enveloping the building. Unlike their gentrified neighbours, the cladding didn’t “suitably protect” the residents themselves, as they burned alive, suffocated, or jumped to their deaths.
A visibly furious young resident suggested authorities had committed arson to destroy a white elephant and get rid of poor locals. This is a baseless conspiracy theory, but let’s briefly consider how alienated and disrespected someone must feel to come to such outlandish conclusions. Is it really surprising to hear such suspicion, in an era where councils and governments have conspired to socially cleanse the poor from London?
The cathedral of the religion of property: the House of Commons
The tragedy resonates for many of us that campaigned successfully in Brighton Kemptown to oust Tory MP, Simon Kirby. A significant thrust of the Momentum campaign was based on his vote against ensuring rented property was, “fit for human habitation”. It was then revealed that 72 of these Tory MPs who voted down the law were themselves landlords, one of whom was the current Fire Minister, Nick Hurd. This exposes two initial explanations for Grenfell:
Firstly, there is a clear reluctance by property owners to ensure high standards, as it means incurring financial loss.
Secondly, the government, which should compel them to do so, is itself co-opted by landlords, so cannot serve this function as a fair arbiter. Our elected chamber is in legion with the property religion writ large.
A telling example of the priorities of Parliament is the authorization of the £7.6 million pound restoration of Wentworth Woodhouse, belonging to Jacob Rees-Mogg MP’s mother in law, or the “essential” £370 million pound refurbishment of Buckinham Palace. By contrast, laws for ensuring rental properties are “fit for human habitation” are voted down by Rees-Mogg et al.
In the Grenfell Tower fire, this disregard for human habitation extended to Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, and the outsourced private Tenant Management Organisation (TMO). Both were frequently warned by concerned residents about Fire Safety dangers. Yet residents felt their warnings “fell on deaf ears”, with another cruel twist being that the government's cuts to Legal Aid meant tenants couldn’t afford to take legal action.
One chilling excerpt from their community blog (that was threatened with defamation) read:
“only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord...and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders”.
Perhaps this ideological instinct to oppose the regulation of property explains the actions of the former Minister of Housing, Gavin Barwell. Barwell is Theresa May’s new Chief of Staff, who sat on a report for FOUR YEARS that warned that, without intervention, high-rises like Grenfell risked fire deaths.
This is incredible. These recommendations were in response to the Lakanal House fire of 2009, where six people were killed in a rapidly spreading high-rise fire caused, among other things, by:
“panels on the exterior of the block (that) had not provided the required fire resistance."
Furthermore, according to Ronnie King, a former Chief Fire Officer, and a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue, they had “strongly recommended” to update fire suppression systems and sprinklers. Barwell was consistently reminded of this need, by ex-firefighter and Labour MP, Jim Fitzpatrick. Yet Barwell’s promise to conduct a review of Part B of the Building Regulations on Fire safety never materialised, despite assurances.
So why didn’t he act? Dare I suggest that Barwell and his party are so embedded in the Property Religion, that they have an instinctive aversion to regulate. For example, Barwell is a member of the Whitgift Foundation, a 'charitable trust' which made a £1 billion investment in the Hammersfield development in Croydon, in his own constituency, and simultaneously benefitted Tory Party donors in Westfield.
The religion of property ... has created toxic financial and political disincentives to impose essential safety regulations, and in this case has proven fatal.
The religion of property must be challenged. It is a religion that has taken hold of the soul of our nation, our government, and our local authorities, and demeans those without it as expendable, problems to be disguised in cladding. It has created toxic financial and political disincentives to impose essential safety regulations, and in this case has proven fatal.
The religion of property, like any religion, seems to have the capacity to justify death, and to honour the victims we must strive to kill it. This greedy, deregulating religion, fused with the ideological crusade of austerity and allowing rampant inequality, was the kindling from which this tragedy ignited. As Martin Belam has said, Grenfell Tower may represent a “step change” moment for Britain.
A visit in the aftermath
Grenfell after the fire. Credit: Joshua Funnell.
The Grenfell tragedy has crystallised how an unchallenging media fertilises the soil in which the seeds of tragedy can grow. This explains the resentful anger aimed at some establishment journalists at Grenfell by the public. The media are eternally obsessed with the elite's soap opera politics. At the same time, they have failed to vigorously and consistently investigate and highlight the deprivation and suffering of the poor and elite indifference to it.
The Grenfell tragedy has crystallised how an unchallenging media fertilises the soil in which the seeds of tragedy can grow.
Only now do they discover the truth when tragedy strikes and it becomes the new fashionable conventional wisdom. They ask aghast, “how can this happen in the 5th richest country in the world?” apparently not grasping that GDP expansion is not synonymous with sustainable growth for all and suggestive of an implicit media belief in trickle down economic fantasies. It has echoes of the “nobody predicted this!” when Corbyn slapped them round the face with a wet fish on election night. The answer to both these examples is the same: if you had cared to pay attention and listen to different opinions beyond the cosy Westminster Consensus, the truth was discoverable to foresee both these events.
The sharpest insights are sometimes born out of the greatest emotion and rage. Ishmahil Blagrove, who has become a voice of the Grenfell crime, said it best in his now viral media critique:
“Fuck the mainstream, you don’t deserve to be there … We should be campaigning, not to government, but to the BBC, who act as mouthpieces for this corrupt government ... For two years you’ve demonized and hounded Jeremy Corbyn, you said he was unelectable, and you created that narrative… The mainstream media, you are mother fuckers.”
He then made a decision of great principle and announced his refusal to produce a documentary about the tragedy for Channel 4. He highlighted how they had routinely ignored his independent production company in the past, saying that they would not “exploit our contacts” now it was expedient for them.
Grenfell shows that without the bright uncomfortable spotlight of media scrutiny, the rot and decay caused by austerity and anti-regulation fanaticism has gone unchecked, hidden in the darkness. As a Grenfell resident commented to me, it amounts to “glorified gambling, except people's lives are at stake”. Perhaps if media had allocated half as many resources to exposing this, as they did to shaming poor, small time welfare cheats and anti-social villains, then they could have helped avoid this carnage.
Visiting Grenfell Tower
I didn’t want to be regarded as a ‘grief tourist’, but I wanted to experience Grenfell free from abstraction, media dissemination and political narratives.
As I exited Shepherd's Bush Station, locals were immediately gathering signatures for an inquest, NOT an inquiry. As you depart the manicured Westfield Shopping Centre, you cross over the imposing A3220, which acts like a highway buffer zone. As you cross, you enter a different world, characterised by sprawling tower blocks, fused intermittently with affluent closed areas, random boutique houses, and scattered chunks of low rise social housing. It’s a sociologist's patchwork quilt.
To get a real sense of the sporadic class divisions here, please watch the BBC’s “The Secret History Of Our Streets – Portland Road”, a really fine piece of work. In a revealing exchange, Henry Mayhew states (with my emphasis):
“There is nothing at the end of that line I have any involvement in…London is a series of villages and my village ends at that line…THEIR village is that way”.
Mayhew is a stereotypical wealthy inhabitant of the borough, a blue-blooded banking heir whose ancestors originally “teamed up with the Rothschilds” to establish what would become Barclays banks. He candidly states that his inherited fortune “paid for everything I am, and everything I do”. Asked why he bought a house in the area, he said “property is thee British investment” and he couldn’t “let sentiment stand in the way of a good deal”.
Unsurprisingly, inhabitants of the borough have an acute sense of class-consciousness and segregation. It is the most unaffordable borough in London for rentals, combined with the highest rate of out-of-borough homeless placements at 69%. The house price boom here is largely attributed to financial sector bonuses, ironically fuelled in no small part by public bailout money. Not to mention the foreign buyers, who are immediately parachuted into luxury to use Kensington’s properties as “tax havens” without any government restrictions. These buyers knowingly smirk when interviewed as they stick to the charming fiction, “we came here because we love the British culture”.
This extreme wealth disparity is rubbed in the faces of poorer residents. This is the context in which this fire occurred: a final straw, after generations of final straws, by New Labour and Conservative governments alike.
The Towering Inferno news images were shocking enough, but the true ferocity of the fire is beyond belief. A once imposing structure looks brittle and vulnerable. Light shines through where it shouldn’t, as though the core of the building itself has vaporised. Window frames have mutated and buckled like nightmarish twisted fangs, sucked violently inwards towards bedrooms and living rooms. The tower looms eerily like a reaper, silently gazing over the community. With every casual glance upwards, locals see the lost silhouettes of friends and family in the charred darkened windows. As Paul Lewis suggested, it stands as a monument to the worst of human selfishness and indifference, a class war grave.
During my visit I found myself surrounded by missing person posters. As I read the heart-wrenching pleas for information, a group of very young local musicians played sombre reflective music with stringed instruments. Locals looked on reflectively as candles flickered on the pavement. One young boy stood next to me and said, “I can’t let myself look at these, I’ll just cry again”. He then suddenly skipped off with his friends to play, like someone had un-paused a DVD. The posters had obviously been pictures of his friends. It was a reminder that obsessions with death tolls during such tragedies, sometimes obfuscate the vast underlying emotional destruction that expands well beyond the dead themselves and lingers in the minds of those that witnessed so much.
Seeing and hearing this, I remembered a loathsome man laughing with his friends on the train that morning. He said gloating to his gaggle of lackeys, “Don’t worry, they won’t be able to identify any of 'em anyway – they’re all illegal immigrants!”. Anyone who has read Owen Jones' book 'Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class', will be familiar with this phenomenon. Communities have been dismissed as nothing more than anti-social problems to be managed by police, like the undeserving poor of the Victorian era, a live action theatre production of the TV show Shameless. After years of this tabloid conditioning that has helped legitimise poverty of a failed economic order by presenting it as deserved, it is unsurprising such ugliness froths to the surface from some during such tragedies.
To some, it seems, these aren’t people deserving of unconditional compassion. They talk of them like abstract characters in a drama to be suspicious of. There has been a tangible adoption of a cold detached logic used against the victims at times. People dismissing their demands for estimated death tolls, as though they were the unreasonable demands of a militant union – talking down to traumatised people like ill-informed children. People are just looking for certainty in chaos. All in a context of engineered state anarchy, where the impotent and indifferent authorities have finally been exposed. This is juxtaposed to poor communities, spontaneously organising themselves and taking ownership of a shocking situation. When I was there, people were distributing home-cooked food, advertising free counselling and art therapy sessions – anything they could do. Meanwhile, Kensington Borough Council, which once boasted of its operating surplus of 274 million pounds, offered people a tenner!
No responsibility, no surrender
An unlikely source in Russian TV said of Grenfell:
"Those who lost their homes are trying to survive... Politicians are trying to save their careers."
The government’s refusal to take any responsibility should not come as a surprise: they have been hell-bent on outsourcing all responsibility to the private sector since day one. George Monbiot compared the Tory approach to the Disraeli Doctrine, "Never apologise, never explain".
However, after the damning revelations in BBC’s Panorama and the incredible wealth of warnings given to government Ministers by the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, this diversion tactic will rightly meet its end. In one particularly damning piece of correspondence, the Parliamentary group warned:
“…should a major fire tragedy, with loss of life, occur between now and 2017 in, for example…a purpose built block of flats, where the matters which had been raised… were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others' attention."
These revelations will make the performance of Phillip Hammond on Peston and Marr all the more laughable by the magnitude of deceit. After he came out of General Election witness protection, Hammond tried to downplay the government’s culpability. Although he started his point by stressing “I’m no expert” (at which point a more humble individual would have stopped talking) he went on to doubt the effectiveness of sprinklers to achieve full fire safety. This was convenient, as under former Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, they had been advised post Lakanal fire to “encourage” housing providers to retro-install sprinklers. The use of the term “encourage” was naïve by the Coroner, but the warning was clear. Even if what Hammond said was true (although it contradicts the testimony of experts), it is a mind-numbingly stupid argument. It is the equivalent of doubting the necessity of armoured personnel carriers, or the wearing of seatbelts, because they may not be 100% effective.
Not taking responsibility has reached its logical conclusion, with Rachel Johnson taking things a step further, and suggesting that Theresa May was a victim of the fire herself in the aftermath. This is the sister of Boris Johnson, a man who claimed health and safety was for “stupid people” and as Mayor of London slashed the fire service budget, then told them to “get stuffed” when they suggested it was unsafe.
Perhaps in a bygone age, without free flowing information on social media, this tactic could work – but times have changed. It is unsurprising then, that Boris has called for greater control of the internet to “not allow the media to spread mischief”.
Predictably, the government have found a reliable band of right wing commentariat apologists and party hacks to come forth as their defenders. They sense their favoured government is in a precariously fragile situation. They know all too well it could be dealt a knockout blow, if the true scale of the horrors and the government's culpability, is revealed. So they defend the indefensible. When torn between either having honesty and integrity or desperately clinging to power, Tories will choose the latter every time.
Predictably, as we always hear from the right after a tragedy in which the facts suggest the government is liable, they have quickly mobilised to smear the truth tellers as ‘politicizing tragedy’. With Grenfell, they have accused the left of stirring discontent in victims, like agent provocateurs. In so doing they simply insult the intelligence of victims and diminish their political agency. No doubt these people have independently formulated very strong political beliefs all on their own, after being on the receiving end of the harshest excesses of neoliberal capitalism. For generations, they have lived in a situation of permanent austerity characterised by state neglect. As Russell Brand aptly remarked, ‘austerity is not frugality, it is brutality”. Yet they persist dogmatically in their charges of Labour ‘politicking’ and have deployed some outrageous lies and half truths. They are frantically trying to create a false equivalency of cross-party accountability.
Property before people
Cartoon by Joshua Funnell.During Grenfell, the ideological psychosis of apologists has driven them to damn modest appeals to temporarily requisition empty houses to help desperate people. It is spun as a socialist coup. They deem it an assault on the inalienable right of foreign property tycoons, to land bank and exploit tax havens with impunity. At times they sound like paranoid fanatics, truly convinced they are living under McCarthyism’s red menace. Politicians like Nadine Dorries portray a democracy under siege by Momentum militias.
The full basket of deplorables, from Toby Young, to Guido Fawkes and Paul Joseph Watson, talk seriously about ‘communism’ and cite its appalling death tolls, as though temporarily using empty houses is a precursor to a genocidal renaissance under Jeremy and John McStalin.
What they are really trying to do is to make an assertive display of leadership, as their government have shown none. It is a fair, compassionate and practical solution to house desperate people in the locality. It will avoid causing them further turmoil by uprooting them elsewhere. It is a policy that has proven popular with the public too, even 40% of Tory voters themselves, to the horror of Toby Young on Twitter.
We live in a highly unequal game of monopoly, where an absolute right to property can amount to an absolute right of domination over all others.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives announced they will encourage estate agents to persuade vacant property owners to rent them at full market rates, guaranteed by the state. The right wing commentariat then suddenly fall conspicuously silent. They have no issue with big state subsidies and intervention when it pumps public money into the swollen bank accounts of the powerful, without any return. The hypocrisy of these faux libertarians during Grenfell is staggering.
Behold, the patriotic British new right in all their glory during Grenfell, the usually anti-immigration warriors, claiming to defend the working classes from poverty. However, when there is an actual crisis for deprived people and a solution is available that challenges foreign property speculators, who are helping to inflame a housing crisis for indigenous Brits at the best of times, they condemn it as tyranny. It reveals that their real allegiance is simply to wealth and power, not people. This is the truly cynical ‘populism’ in politics, from the right, not the left.
It also reveals the childish absolutism of their politics. They fail to appreciate the nuance of political rights – whether it be property or freedom of expression. Such rights can never be absolute in a complex social order, and especially in times of extremis that necessitate flexibility and exceptional measures. More broadly, we do not live in an idealised state of nature in which all have equal access to a property. On the contrary, we live in a highly unequal game of monopoly, where an absolute right to property can amount to an absolute right of domination over all others. It is this very madness that leads to the poverty and inequality that frames the Grenfell tragedy.
On my way back, my train pulls into Clapham Junction. As I look out the window I see a property advert leaching on to the platform sign. The property religion truly penetrates every aspect of our lives.
There is a poetic irony in Grenfell: a self-immolating small neoliberal state that willingly cannibalised and dismembered itself by giving away its own authority to the private sector. This meant the state diminished central oversight and vigorous safety regulations, like pieces removed from a Jenga stack over time, until the inevitable sudden collapse. The government then cries how this is ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unexpected’ to obfuscate the fact that it was entirely predictable, perhaps inevitable, recognised as far back as 30 years ago in an Adam Curtis documentary or in a chilling episode of House of Cards from 1993.
The state engineered a power vacuum in which the tragedy of Grenfell could occur. An institutionally diffuse chaos of outsourcing, deregulation, greed, cost cutting, indifference and no accountability. All this to advance the religion of property and unfettered market dominance.
Yet, ironically, from this tragedy, we come full circle. We will likely hopefully see a rebirth of an assertive state that can take back control. In a sense, the neoliberal state experiment pushed itself to such an extreme that it has ultimately ended in a deadly backlash that will reinstate the role of the government.
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