After Grenfell

When we organised our Election Breakdown event for tomorrow night we had no way of knowing that the issues we intended to discuss – the change in public mood shown by the swing away from the Conservatives in the election – would be infinitely sharpened by the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower (and perhaps also by the attack on Finsbury Park Mosque, news of which is just breaking).

Shock at the fire has been turning to anger, as details emerge of repeated warnings issued by residents groups fire specialists, and the housing trade journal Inside Housing. It appears that these concerns were repeatedly fobbed off: both in the specific case, by Grenfell Tower’s Tenant Management Organisation, and at a higher level, following an inquiry after a smaller but still fatal fire in 2009, by the Government who have not delivered promised changes to fire regulations.

One Grenfell Tower resident is quoted as saying: “They don’t think this community is valuable, so they aren’t doing anything.” Whether this is the case or not, it is a telling comment, and all too many of the residents are expressing similar views.

It is looking very likely that the promised inquiry will show people died due to poor governance, cost-cutting in the improvement works and lack of meaningful regulation –  in one of the wealthiest regions in the country. There could be no starker illustration of the effects of a political economy designed to crank power and wealth to a tiny sliver at the top of society while forcing cuts on those at the base of the socio-economic pyramid.

But the national mood has changed. We saw it at the election; but the fire has left an acrid smell hanging over not just Kensington, but the whole country. The tragedy is becoming symbolic of a wider anger amongst those who feel they are not listened to or treated with respect by a state that does not act in their interests.

There is no doubt that these matters will come up in our discussion tomorrow. For those of us at the Combination, our thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones. Yet as The Combination’s Tanya Jones says elsewhere, real support “requires real solidarity and real change“. If there is anything at all positive in this situation, it is that no one can any longer be unaware of what is at stake in our collective debate.

Let us strive, then, to ensure that this disaster comes as a catastrophe in the ancient Greek sense – a turning point. Polly Toynbee describes Grenfell Tower as ‘austerity in ruins’. It is too soon to tell, but it may just be the moment at which the dominant politico-economic paradigm of our time lost its hegemony.

Join us tomorrow to discuss these and related matters.

Election Breakdown, Crescent Arts Centre, 2-4 University Road Belfast, 7.30pm Tue 20 June

The Combination

19 June 2017