Grenfell Tower is Now a Symbol of Our Unequal Society. It Must Become A Metaphor For a Revolution

There now stands a grim tombstone that will dominate the skyline of the capital for many months and, for both Londoners and non-Londoners alike, will become a symbol in the years ahead.

Like the Aberfan slag heap, the radioactive hulk of Chernobyl, the smoking wreckage of the Twin Towers, or post-Katrina New Orleans, Grenfell Tower will become the pictorial representation of a failure of those in charge of us.

As in these others, the fire at Grenfell Tower killed many - far, far too many - but also affected others profoundly and negatively. The thoughts off all of us at Disclaimer are with those who were killed, injured, bereaved or traumatised by Wednesday's fire.

But the debate has moved very swiftly - perhaps faster than with other disasters - away from the grief of individuals and to what contributed towards the fire and the heavy death toll: in other words, the awful skeleton of Grenfell is already becoming a symbol; maybe not of one single appalling error but of the many different facets of economics, politics and mechanics that may have led to one spark in one of 124 flats turning a whole building into a blazing deathtrap.

Local residents are saying that they raised concerns about the recent building renovation, concerns that were ignored. Others claim that the recladding of the building - the suspected reason why the fire spread so quickly - was to make it less of an eyesore for those in wealthier homes nearby.

The disaster may become a symbol of the wider inequality that is driving a harsh divide between communities across the country.

it has become political and rightly so

Thousands of people will move into the host of new private skyscrapers rising up along the banks of The Thames but none will have reason to be worried by a lack of investment leading to disaster. In contrast, the tens of thousands who live in council-owned flats across our major cities will be terrified that their home may not have had the needed investment to prevent a similar tragedy.

What makes the loss of life even more heart-rending is that this catastrophe has a foreword: in 2009, the Lakanal House fire in south London killed six people.  The review into fire safety regulations, prompted by the Lakanal House court case, was not being pursued with any great urgency, with the Department for Communities and Local Government only willing to say it would proceed “in due course”.

The anger is palpable. According one local resident, the rap singer Akala, those who died lost their lives because they were poor.

Yes, it has become political and rightly so.  Local authority budgets have been cut, fire brigade budgets have been cut, and social housing budgets have been cut. Theresa May's new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, who was housing minister for 12 months before the last election, is facing questions of why he did not take the building regulations review forward. These must be central issues at the heart of the promised public inquiry.

The politics of this will and should go to the very top. The Prime Minister has been criticised for visiting the scene at Grenfell and speaking to members of the emergency services but not to residents, in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn who met both. Unless she changes courses rapidly,  Grenfell may become May's Katrina: the Bush administration's weak and indifferent response to human tragedy exposed a failure of personal leadership and a perceived contempt for the poor on the part of the US president.

People are right to be angry over why it took a devastating fire to turn political attention towards these issues. Already David Lammy MP has called for corporate manslaughter charges to be brought against those found responsible. He is right to do so.  The government must be held accountable and, should its public inquiry find it negligent, then they should be damned. There must be no whitewash. There must be no loss of anger. There must be an inquiry that gives those previously unheard a voice.

they are not politicising a tragedy. It was already political

There is a larger point as well. The response demonstrates a double standard in our politics. Following the terrorist attack on London Bridge, the Prime Minister promised new legislation. And yet, so far, the government has not made equal promises here. The sad inference is that not all deaths are equal.

People have long talked about our divided society. They have warned about the strains on emergency services and the lack of investment in housing. Austerity may bring further cuts and Brexit a further shredding of regulations whose implications will only become apparent years later. People often avoid risks until the consequences crystalise but we must demand more from our politicians.

Why has it taken such loss of life for this anger to be heard by our political class and on our television screens? Apathy to inequality and poverty has permitted an “othering” of the most vulnerable. The neglect that has created a disenfranchised class must end with this loss of life.

So they are not politicising a tragedy. It was already political. It is just that more people are listening now. 

Sadly, the politics did not come soon enough for the residents of Grenfell who had given stark warnings over many years that it would take a catastrophic event to expose the ineptitude and incompetence of their landlord: "Only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur."

They were right. The incident happened and people are now demanding answers. But too late for the dead.

Grenfell Tower has become a symbol for our divided society, scarred by poverty. That is not sufficient. Instead, it must evolve into a metaphor for a revolutionary reform of social housing and attitudes to inequality.

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About the author

Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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