By Seth Ferris
Fires happen. The recent fire at Grenfell Tower in London is a tragedy, and a preventable tragedy, but the sort of thing which doesn’t affect politics unless the government of the day messes up VERY badly. After all, they didn’t start the fire, did they?
But this tragedy is being seen, in the UK and internationally, as a factor which may be the straw that finally brings down the Prime Minister. Her handling of it was insensitive to say the least: she visited the scene and spoke to fire crews but not the displaced and bereaved. But it was more the correlation of her policies with the factors which created the fire which has angered the public, and is sending shockwaves through her party, its fundamental ideology and a great deal of the socio-political orthodoxy most people have swallowed for two generations, simply because they haven’t been persuaded by anything else.
It was not only Conservative policy to cut local government funding, to encourage the privatisation and contracting-out of local government services and to ignore laws and regulations, such as health and safety legislation, if they could get away with it. The post-Thatcher Labour governments, and many Labour councils, did the same: cut costs everywhere to buy off the taxpayers, hoping the services didn’t suffer so much that those taxpayers started asking where the smaller amounts they paid were actually going.
But this is where the Law of Natural Constituency kicks in. Labour governments did this because they were trying to steal Conservative clothing to be more popular after years in opposition. Everyone understood that these policies weren’t natural for the Labour Party, but this in itself demonstrated that the logic behind them was so unarguable that even parties which didn’t agree with them had to accept these necessary evils.
It was natural for the Conservatives to push these policies even further when they regained power. No one was surprised that austerity became the defining feature of even a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, or that the leading opponents of it were well-off trendies who seemed to have stepped out of a pre-Thatcher era time capsule. The country knew better now, and governments were just doing what everyone knew was good, even if the voters saw few, if any, benefits and didn’t like the policies or the ministers responsible.
All that changed when Theresa proved herself an incompetent nobody at the election she was supposed to win by a landslide. If she isn’t competent, the party who created her aren’t competent. If they aren’t competent, their ideas are not to be trusted.
Most people don’t like or see public spending cuts, or the contracting out of local services to private companies they can’t have a dialogue with. There is an undeniable link between these policies and the loss of life at Grenfell Tower. If this is where such policies lead, and the people who promote them are no longer trusted, where does that leave a country which still isn’t convinced by the contrary arguments?
The Grenfell Tower tragedy may well end up costing both Theresa May and her party their political lives. If that happens, even their staunchest supporters will probably heave a sigh if relief, as it means they can start again and find a new appeal. But it leaves the United Kingdom in a very difficult position indeed, as its people are not going to admit that they have spent so many years being conned that it is now up to them, not their government, to do something about it.
More than our job’s worth
Everyone knew there was going to be fire at Grenfell Tower, or somewhere like it, eventually. The private management company which ran it on behalf of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council had already had a deficiency notice served on another of its properties by the London Fire Brigade. In the old days it would be up to the council to ensure that this “deficiency” was corrected by serving an enforcement notice on the landlord, even if the landlord was itself. Tenants know that, and rightly expect that if such a notice is served, or the same fire risks are identified, the council will do something about them.
No action was taken over that deficiency notice, or the multiple complaints from Grenfell Tower tenants, who warned the council, in writing, that if the management company didn’t change its behaviour people would die in one of is properties. The council told the tenants to address their complaints to the management company. Technically this is correct, because they are the ones managing the property. But if nothing is done, what then?
If a management company fails to properly fulfil its contract it can have that contract revoked for poor performance. Fine, try actually doing it. It costs more in legal fees to get rid of a contractor than it would to put right what they have done wrong. Even if this happens, a new contractor will come in who may be no better, and the cycle will start all over again, public money being wasted in the process.
According to Tory ideology this is still better than a council looking after its own properties, because it is less expensive and the contractor has a greater obligation to deliver. There is some merit in this argument. Across the UK taxpayers came to see their local councils as monoliths, which sucked up their cash without delivering much in return. If they didn’t fulfil their responsibilities there was no one else to complain to, whereas theoretically a council can hold a private contractor to account.
But in practice there is even less accountability with private contractors, because no one elects them. In theory a council can always be influenced by its elected members, who have constituents to answer to and want to be seen to be helping them. This is also easier to do now than it was before council services were contracted out: a later innovation was to introduce full-time paid councillors, who could look at issues themselves without having to rely on the greater knowledge of council officers, who might mislead them or be following agendas of their own.
Private companies may have to answer to the faceless council through some reporting mechanism, but not to individual members of it, still less to their tenants, who can’t vote out the bigwigs even if residents are included in the management company, as they were at Grenfell Tower. An enormous amount of trust is needed on all sides to make such a relationship work. When a contractor fouls up and the council which offered the contract does nothing about it, that trust disappears.
Kensington and Chelsea tenants say that they were told by the council that it could not serve enforcement notices due to the terms of the contract with the management company. If that is so, that contract is illegal, and should not have been written, offered or signed. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea should have known that you can’t contract out of a statutory responsibility. Doubtless it has a competent legal department, but that is there to justify the actions the council wants to take by finding loopholes in laws, and if it issued an opinion on this contract it would have convinced itself the council had some right to do what it was doing, however small the grounds for arguing this were.
If the contract offered to the management company really does say this, both the council and the management company are guilty of corporate manslaughter. If it doesn’t say that, but complaints have not been acted upon because the council says it does, that is also corporate manslaughter. At the time of writing no one has been arrested and the government has promised, through the Queen’s Speech, that it will hold a public inquiry but not an inquest, which has greater legal power to act. All the signs are that all the guilty parties are trying to cover up what happened because they see what the consequences of full disclosure would be.
Our problems are your fault
If is difficult for people outside the UK to understand Tory ideology. In most countries politicians are either out-and-out crooks or people who have a genuine interest in social welfare. The British Conservatives cannot be said to be utter crooks, or they would have taken a lot more from the public purse and contract system than they actually have. But this fire has brought home to people that their party doesn’t have a social welfare dimension either, though it is always assumed parties must have.
Tory ideology can be expressed as follows: get the economy right and there is no need for social welfare. The party is still wedded to Mrs. Thatcher’s idea that if someone is unemployed, poor or dependent this is due to some defect in themselves. If Britain is booming and most people are alright, those who are not are somehow bad, and don’t deserve the support of others.
During Mrs. Thatcher’s time this was said openly, over and over again. Most people didn’t agree with this statement when it was applied to real people rather than remaining rhetoric. But when public authorities started depriving people of support they were still entitled to, as no law had changed, no one who could have done stopped it happening. Then “punishment” laws followed, and everyone just assumed they were necessary because they had already seen these actions being taken.
No one will say now that the residents of North Kensington, where Grenfell Tower is located, are all bad people. But we are all told that immigrant = terrorist on the same basis. The idea hasn’t gone away, and has greatly contributed to the wilful neglect which has resulted in the Grenfell Tower fire.
Kensington and Chelsea is the richest borough in London, despite the fact it also includes North Kensington, which is one of the poorest parts of the whole UK. The rich residents may have nothing against poor people personally, but their local council is not going to spend large proportions of their local taxes on improving North Ken. That would be a subsidy to poor people, who wouldn’t be poor if they deserved that subsidy. You don’t have to actually say this when the way you run things, and the justifications you give for other actions, have the same effect.
The scale of the Grenfell Tower fire is persuading people that picking on the poor for ideological reasons is not an acceptable way to achieve the general good. The cladding on the building, which it is alleged was installed because the rich residents didn’t like that ugly block damaging their view, is banned in some countries but was cheaper than the less flammable alternative, which would not have destroyed the block when ignited. Installing that cladding meant the rich spent less on the poor. Now people are beginning to question whether that thinking has any place in the way local and national governments conduct their business.
Scapegoating begins at home
People have rightly praised the fire service for its attempts to put out the fire with the inadequate equipment Conservative spending cuts have left it with. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also won praise for meeting the victims, unlike Theresa May, and demanding that empty multimillion pound properties nearby be requisitioned to rehouse them.
The Queen also visited the scene and met the victims. Theresa May refused to meet local residents on her first trip due to “security concerns”. The Queen is an even bigger terrorist target, and is 91 years old, but still found the time to show May how to do it.
Successive Prime Ministers have said that the Queen makes them work really hard to justify their actions during their weekly meeting, so Theresa will not be looking forward to the next one. But the Queen is obliged to do this because the British people no longer have any other champion. They have come to realise that accepting the received wisdom for so long has not only left them without anything else they can believe in, it has left them with no government, no power and no resources with which to protect themselves from the threats they face.
Theresa was forced to delay the Queen’s Speech, which is almost unheard of, because she hasn’t patched up a deal with the DUP to stay in power. As a consequence, the Queen’s Speech was unusually brief when it came, and full of Theresa’s meaningless platitudes rather than an outline of the government’s legislative programme. But even if the Queen’s Speech is voted down no one can put together a majority to replace the Conservatives. Even without the notoriously unrepresentative First Past the Post voting system, this would still have been the outcome the people voted themselves into.
The British never realised that they were supporting the elimination of social welfare. They never realised that they had embraced this idea so enthusiastically that even now they see where it leads they can’t believe in any alternative. Their main opposition parties had to abandon those alternatives to get votes, and can’t make enough sense of their own traditions to offer anything enough people will listen to. By seeing through Tory ideology the British public will eventually see that they did all this to themselves, and won’t like it.
On the first day of the Brexit talks David Davis, having gone in making bullish pronouncements, immediately caved in to EU demands. There was little else he could do, because the country he represents has no answer to anything now. Davis and his party will rightly be blamed for the failures of their thinking, but the electors didn’t have to swallow them for so long that they can’t get themselves out of this mess.
It is the UK, not its government, which has suddenly plunged into a crisis so severe that the loud voices who blamed Johnny Foreigner for everything are now fading into insignificance. Now the Brits know how Germans felt after the Nazis. But through the national incompetence merely represented by Theresa May, they have turned their backs on the very cooperation and diversity of thinking which dragged Germany out of that hole, and have left themselves nothing to put in its place.
Theresa’s offer is mere PR, no one takes any notice
And now, as a convenient distraction, Theresa May’s latest “offer” to allow EU national to stay in the UK if they’ve been there for for years is raising some issues. These people (and all Europeans coming to the UK before Brexit is completed) came to the UK under existing EU agreements. To make their continued stay subject to time conditions could be regarded as unlawful. I is a moot issue, as such migrants have an inalienable right to stay. It is interesting how she is playing subterfuge by linking this “offer” to be conditional on the EU allowing British migrants to stay in EU countries. This demonstrated a total lack of understanding of whose problem it is. Aside from the fact that these migrants ALSO have an automatic right to stay in EU countries, it is Britain that wants to control migration, not the EU. This “offer” is ludicrous and has no business being on the negotiating table.