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Editorial: The Grenfell fire – accountability begins at home

SINCE Russia attacked Ukraine, Europe has been full of demands to hold the rich and powerful to account for deaths inflicted on ordinary people.

France seized a superyacht from Russian oil baron Igor Sechin to widespread acclaim. Germany has frozen the yacht belonging to iron-ore and telecoms tycoon Alisher Usmanov after he was hit with EU sanctions because of Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

At Westminster, legislation to target Russian “dirty money” stashed in the City of London is fast-tracked through the Commons.

“The era of oligarch impunity” must be ended, Sir Keir Starmer warns Boris Johnson, though there is no acknowledgement that his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn — slandered as a Putin sympathiser by the current Labour front bench — was calling attention to the Tories’ financial links to the Russian elite years ago.

Survivors of 2017’s devastating Grenfell fire and relatives of the 72 people who perished in the blaze will be wondering when the era of impunity for those responsible for this act of corporate manslaughter is going to come to an end.

Long-term government fire safety adviser Ken Knight goes up before the long-running Grenfell inquiry today and, as the Fire Brigades Union points out, he has questions to answer.

Knight is perhaps not a tycoon, but his role as a director of a private fire testing firm (2004-2021) overlapped with his service as commissioner of the London Fire Brigade (2003-7) and chief fire & rescue adviser to the government (2007-13).

Small fry? Maybe, but this resumé illustrates the routine overlap between corporate interest and government policy that has gutted Britain’s construction and fire safety guidelines.

As FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said when the union launched its pamphlet on deregulation and Grenfell, “deregulation has been the dominant political ideology of most politicians in central government for decades. But it has also been fostered by the direct lobbying of private business interests.”

Those interests remain untouchable. In 2020 companies won their bid to receive immunity from prosecution over anything they told the inquiry into the fire after brazen threats to withhold evidence if this was not granted.

The shocking inquiry has heard plenty of evidence that ought to lead to prosecution — such as firms deliberately manipulating safety tests to get products that were not safe approved for sale.

Comparing the need to hold the corporate crooks responsible for Grenfell to account to the new era of (alleged) accountability for Russian oligarchs will be dismissed as perverse.

Even holding our government to account for decisions it took that saw over 170,000 people die from Covid in this country — a rate of over 2,000 per million, as compared with 11 deaths per million in New Zealand or four in China — is not appropriate in light of the Russian threat, Labour says. 

It is “very important we demonstrate unity” and therefore “now is not the time” to call for the Prime Minister to quit, Starmer holds.

Calls for national unity incorporate demands that working-class people take the pain of rising prices, a sacrifice we make for the defeat of the enemy abroad.

Actually the fact that London is awash with Russian money, like the fact that Moscow and London are the two European cities with the greatest number of billionaires, points to something we have in common with the Russians: being ruled by a kleptocratic elite with no interest in our safety or wellbeing.

When Corbyn called for a reckoning with Russian oligarchs, it was part of a bid to clean up the City of London and reduce the influence of the super-rich in politics.

When Starmer does, it accompanies a call to park our quarrel with our own ruling class.

We cannot agree to that. The era of impunity must end for every tycoon and corporate executive whose profits rest on broken lives, not just the Russian ones.

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