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In the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, anger remains at a council that went awol

A weekend on the edges of a disaster zone.

The Grenfell Tower fire was one of the worst disasters the UK has seen in decades. The media's attention in the days following Wednesday morning's blaze rightly focused on the scale of loss and misery, the frantic and chaotic response from the authorities, and the work of volunteers and residents to cope with the fallout.

But as the cameras began to leave over the weekend after the attack, the community was still seething over what many see as a betrayal by the authorities meant to look after them. 

Saturday

On a sweltering day in North Kensington, along the cordons keeping people away from the tower's burned-out carcass, a traumatised community's anger spills over. Small groups clustered around residents airing their grievances against those they hold responsible for a tragedy that is thought to have killed at least 79, and those they blame for the wholly inadequate response.

This area sits between the boujis stalls of Portobello Road and the grim concrete of the M40 overpass, a hodgepodge of estates, million-pound townhouses and everything in between. With the gleaming Westfield shopping centre to the west and Holland Park and Chelsea to the south, the area around Grenfell reflects the borough's rich and poor.

Lancaster West Estate, on which Grenfell stands, is itself a mix of social housing tenants, private renters and homeowners. Just beyond it, but within the cordon, are quiet streets that wouldn't look out of place in the more homogeneously wealthy parts of London.

Near Notting Hill Methodist Church, locals, camera crews and the occasional tourist hear a man and woman discussing, loudly, white privilege. There is a feeling among some that this community was left to burn and smoulder by a council which identifies more with the white faces of residents in South Kensington than the diverse make-up of people living in places like the Lancaster West Estate. 

The air seethes with rumours. As people debate, a young man wearing black rides past on a bike shouting that there are 160 bodies inside the cordon: "Don't believe the news."

The community's ambivalent attitude towards the media extends to signs on the ground in front of the church’s memorial to victims, where flowers and messages are piled up, saying "No Press in this area". Someone else in a different hand and in a different colour had added a "Thank You".

Others are wary but want to keep their tragedy in the spotlight. Around the corner, a crowd is listening to an older man with a thick Scottish accent calling the fire "a corporate murder". 

"This is a crime scene, a murder scene. Show them they are not above the law," he declares. "We need a million man march."

And then in the shadow of the Westway overpass, a young woman, voice already hoarse, echoing the questions most of this community are asking: "Where is the council? Why am I speaking? The council should be here. Where are they, why won't they give us a real statement? They gave us 100 words, we waited three days for that?"

The local authority, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is not only being blamed for the deadly destruction of Grenfell – which was managed on its behalf by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation – but also for a wholly inadequate response to the attack.

Where the state apparatus should have swung into action, community organisations, churches, mosques and the local rugby club have instead had to provide a front-line response. These community efforts have kept people fed and provided emergency shelter, but the coordination expected from the council never materialised. 

"There was nothing," says William Wake, a resident from near the tower who was one of the group who met with Theresa May in 10 Downing Street three days ago. They asked her for the council to be taken off the main relief effort. "The council was completely awol. There was fury in the community."

The council says it has been working to address the needs of those affected since the early hours of Wednesday morning, that shelter and emergency funding were quickly made available and that council officers are now on the ground. And yet none of the locals believe the the local authority's response was in any way adequate, and most described them as effectively absent.

Sunday

By Sunday some of the anger has dissipated. Workers wearing high-vis jackets from other London Boroughs including Westminster, Ealing and Croydon move in to fill the void left by Kensington council, providing coordinated efforts to sort out necessities such as replacement documentation, and almost as importantly, a visible presence on the streets.

These council workers say there are representatives from Kensington and Chelsea council in the area, but it is impossible to actually find one. When I tell one of the workers I am looking for any officials from the local authority meant to look after this area, he simply says: “Good luck.”

Monday

Simon, another of the residents' representatives who went to Downing Street, who asks not to give his surname, tells me residents want the organisation which managed Grenfell Tower suspended. They also want increased support for all the residents affected – both survivors of the fire and those living nearby who still lack hot water, gas and, in some cases, front doors.

What he doesn't want is for control of the situation to simply be handed back to a council the community has lost trust in.

"We went to the PM, we got results, we got Kensington and Chelsea removed from Westway, we requested immediate money from the government," he says. "Not one Kensington and Chelsea or tenant management organisation representative came and knocked on doors on the Lancaster West Estate."

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.