The fire that consumed the Grenfell tower block of apartments in London on Tuesday and resulted in 30 people known to be dead and about 70 still missing has turned into yet another demonstration of how cutting government regulations and reducing oversight, as popular a slogan for the Conservative party in the UK as it is for the Republicans in the US, is not some abstract thing but carries with it huge risks to the lives of people. As Polly Toynbee writes:
Precise blame comes later in the public inquiry: we are all overnight experts in cladding and sprinklers now. But political blame spreads right through the Conservative party, with no escape on offer. This goes far beyond the precise shockers – the Tory MPs who mockingly rejected housing regulation; the cuts to funding to councils responsible for retro-fitting fire suppressants; the disregard of coroner’s instructions after the 2009 Lakanal House tragedy; and even the plan to opt out of EU safety regulations. Conservative Kensington and Chelsea council allegedly blocking its ears to tenants’ well-founded anxiety is just the immediate scandal. But this event reaches far deeper, to the very sinews of its party’s policy.
That tower is austerity in ruins. Symbolism is everything in politics and nothing better signifies the May-Cameron-Osborne era that stripped bare the state and its social and physical protection of citizens. The horror of poor people burned alive within feet of the country’s grandest mansions, many of them empty, moth-balled investments, perfectly captures the politics of the last seven years. The Cameron, Osborne, Gove Notting Hill set live just up the road.
Already beleaguered prime minister Theresa May has added to her woes by first visiting surrounded by security officers and speaking only with firefighters and not with residents and survivors of the fire. After being harshly criticized for her action, a second visit was hurriedly arranged and there were protests when she came, just as there were protests at the offices of Kensington town hall. May had initially cited security concerns for not meeting with residents but was shown up by Jeremy Corbyn arriving and mingling freely with the people. Even the Queen and her grandson Prince William were less aloof than May.
The people of the area are furious at what they see as the authorities ignoring their earlier concerns about safety. Andrea Leadsom, the Conservative leader of the House of Commons and who challenged May for the party leadership last year when David Carmon resigned, got an earful from a resident when she arrived at the scene.