TORY MPs jeering at the green tie Jeremy Corbyn wore in honour of the Grenfell Tower dead illustrate the gulf that separates government and opposition.
After every catastrophe involving significant loss of life, Establishment voices are raised warning against “politicising” tragedy. The same was tried after the fire that killed 72 people in Kensington in June 2017, but it was immediately drowned out, not by the Labour Party, but by the community itself. The charred ruin could not be depoliticised.
Like the 23 victims of the Manchester Arena bombing earlier that summer, those who died at Grenfell would still be alive were it not for decisions made by government — in the former case, to embark on a series of reckless and destabilising wars in the Middle East and, specifically, to sponsor murderous jihadist organisations to overthrow the Libyan government; in the latter case, to deregulate the construction industry to cut costs for corporations.
The traditional role of public inquiries in Britain is as often to obscure the truth as to unearth it. Grenfell victims’ families were highlighting the narrow remit given to this inquiry before the end of the month in which the fire took place.
They noted that its purview was, in Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s own words, limited to “problems surrounding the start of the fire and its rapid development” and that the wider context — the running down of social housing and the institutional indifference to the lives of social housing tenants, so obvious in Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council’s repeated decisions to ignore warnings from Grenfell residents that their homes were not safe; the “bonfire of red tape” in which David Cameron vowed to “kill off the health and safety culture for good;” the corner and cost-cutting corporate culture that saw fire-resistant cladding rejected because it would have cost £5,000 more (a drop in the ocean of an £8.6 million refurbishment) – would remain unexplored.
It is unsurprising that this blinkered approach has resulted in Phase One of the inquiry starting not at the beginning, but at the end – not with the way in which the building “had already been turned, in reality, into a death trap,” in the words of Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack, but with the actions of the fire brigade.
After a catastrophe so deadly, it is right of course to assess the emergency service response and whether it could have been improved. But the now notorious “stay put” policy, for which the fire brigade is being blamed, was government policy and, as shadow home secretary Diane Abbott noted in the Commons, remains government policy to this day, despite promises to review it as long ago as 2014 by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government after the Lakanal House disaster. Furthermore, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition cut fire brigade funding by almost a third, axing thousands of firefighters’ jobs.
If the current Prime Minister thinks he can distance himself from that callous record, Corbyn points out that, as London mayor, Boris Johnson cut “27 fire appliances, 552 firefighters, 324 support staff, two fire rescue units, three training appliances and closed 10 London fire stations.” When Labour’s Andrew Dismore raised the dangerous consequences of these cuts in the Greater London Assembly, Johnson memorably told him to “get stuffed.”
Grenfell was the outcome not of one or two bad decisions but of an entire political culture – one built up over decades by deregulating “free market” governments. Both Johnson and Corbyn wore Grenfell badges today, but their records could not be more different.
Corbyn has not just joined the silent marches of the Grenfell community, important though that is. He has dedicated his political life to fighting a system that puts profit before human lives, a system which Johnson champions. It is clear that only a Labour vote is a vote to learn the lessons of this atrocity.
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