Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
16 June 2017

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.

By Tanya Gold

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?

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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.

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

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.