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Why we must politicise the tragedy of Grenfell Tower

For years, we have been told poverty is a moral failing. This means families like the fire victims are ignored – until they have paid in lives.

It was inevitable that austerity, now specifically the propaganda of austerity, would mean death on the streets. Left-wing media and charities have warned that poverty kills for many years, sometimes quietly and sometimes in a bonfire of reckoning.

The most important element of the Grenfell Tower fire is not the heroism of the firefighters or the sudden and – to some – amazing revelation that ordinary people can love. It is not the extraordinary gulf between the media class and those they report on, so obvious on television that it makes the recent failures of journalism – Brexit, Trump, the last two general elections – seem an inevitability, rather than a mistake.

It is this: residents repeatedly warned that the building was unsafe, and were repeatedly, contemptuously ignored. They asked for an inquiry 18 months ago but being poor they did not get one. They were powerless, although they did not know, then, exactly how powerless. They got the inquiry yesterday, having paid in lives.

The drip of poison towards council tenants and collectors of benefits has accelerated through the years. It was a political decision to cast such people as worthless and it was entirely planned. (They are, after all, largely Labour voters).

To implement austerity in a democracy it is essential to invoke prosperity theology: to the good everything, to the bad – who cares?

Council house tenants are scroungers. Fat people and smokers – disproportionately numbered among the poor – should be denied access to the NHS. Foodbanks are for the greedy. Disabled people are workshy; single mothers too. Health and safety legislation can kill you; deregulation means prosperity for all. And so on, and on, in an amazing distortion of the truth.

It was a deliberate strategy to sell the dismantling of the welfare state, and the right-wing media joyfully sang the song.

Poverty, in the words of the government’s media helpmeets, is no longer personal misfortune; it is a stain on the character for which, when taken to its logical end, the benefit claimant or council house dweller can be punished. Such libels cloud at the edges, drift to the centre and are imbued. They are believed, often obliviously; I would say the residents of Grenfell Tower were, at least partially, spun to death.

Now, since the fire, people who previously spoke with loathing claim fellowship, and express pity for people so betrayed by their new friends’ former politics they threw their children out of windows.

It was preposterous, reading Katie Hopkins’ account of her anger at the fate of Grenfell Tower, a 180-degree turn, a spinning head. Put those responsible in prison, she screamed, having forgotten how much she usually hates Muslims, hates benefit claimants, hates the poor. But she does love prisons; who she imagines in them, day to day, is less important.

Many of those now screaming in anger did as much to create the circumstances in which the residents could be ignored as any crooked developer, or lazy compliance officer, or careerist MP.

The media exists to hold government to account. If it does not do that, it is worthless: fluff and malice. Why did the government not implement suggestions made after the Lakanal House fire in 2009, but left them sitting on a desk while they tore each other apart over Europe, and Boris Johnson, while the media reported gossip as news? Why even ask?

Even as the fire raged, courtier-journalists wrote: don’t politicise this tragedy. You only say this when you have something to hide; or, at best, have sublimated your shame.

This is the hinterland which allowed those responsible to ignore the pleas of tenants to make their homes something worth the name. They ignored the residents because they knew they could.

They were right until Wednesday morning when, finally, poverty of voice segued into mass death in the capital city of the fifth largest economy on earth – and, it was noted wildly, with seeming incomprehension, it had nothing to do with terrorism.

The worst horror is domestic. This feels like a reckoning. It should be.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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