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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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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear