Here’s what we wrote at the Old Place a year (minus one day) ago:
“People were waving scarves, flashing phones, torches, flapping their windows back and forth, crying for help … At first people [on the ground below] were trying to help them, pushing at cordons. I could see the smoke billowing behind them and in some cases I could see the flames, until they disappeared … [by 4am] there was no sign of life. Everyone was in a resigned state of shock. We couldn’t do anything and we were coming to accept the fire brigade couldn’t do anything either … I’ll never forget the sound of those screams: the screams of children and grown men” (would-be rescuer Robin Garton, quoted in The Times).
The faces look out from the newspaper, smiling in happier times. Many of them black or Middle Eastern with names like Khadija Kaye, Jessica Urbano and Ali Yawa Jafari. But also Sheila Smith and Tony Disson. Then you read about people throwing their children out of high windows in the hope that someone would catch them, people jumping (some on fire) to almost certain death (shades of 9/11) and mother of two Rania Ibrham sending a Snapchat video to a friend who described it: “She’s praying and she’s saying ‘Forgive me everyone, goodbye’.”
This all happened in 2017 in one of the wealthiest boroughs in London, under a Tory council and a Tory government. But these people weren’t wealthy: they were amongst the poorest in the city, living cheek by jowl with people of enormous wealth.
It turns out that the local residents’ group, the Grenfell Action Group, had repeatedly warned the council and the so-called Tenant Management Organisation (ie the landlord) that a disaster was coming. In November of last year Edward Daffarn published a post on the Grenfell Action Group blog, entitled Playing with Fire, in which he warned that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Management Organisation (KCTMO) and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”
Local (Labour) councillor Judith Blakeman attempted to raise concerns with council officials and the management body “ad nauseam” since refurbishment of the block began in 2014: “They kept reassuring us that everything was fine” she said.
The refurbishment involved encasing the building with cladding that fire safety experts have long warned compromises the safety of tower blocks whose original “compartmentalised” design had incorporated rigorous fire safety standards (it also meant that advice to residents to “stay put” in the event of a fire was fatally inappropriate). An “external cladding fire” had caused the death of six people in Lakanal House tower block in South London in 2009. At the inquest into that disaster, the coroner had recommended that the government should review fire safety guidance to landlords and, in particular, the danger of the “spread of fire over the external envelope” of buildings (ie the use of external cladding). She also recommended that sprinkler systems be fitted to all high-rise buildings. None of this happened.
So why were the warnings ignored? Why did Gavin Barwell, who was housing minister until he lost his seat last week (and is now Theresa May’s chief of staff) fail to act on the warnings prompted by the Lakanal House fire? Why did his predecessor Brandon Lewis, tell MPs that it was “for the fire industry”, not government, to “encourage” the installation of sprinklers rather than “imposing” it? Why did then-communities secretary Eric Pickles treat the Lakanal House coroner’s recommendations as “advice” to local authorities rather than as instructions? And why didn’t Grenfell Tower even have a building-wide fire alarm?
The answer is as simple as it’s shocking: these residents are poor working class people, many of whom are also ethnic minorities and migrants (in an especially tragic twist, the first body to be identified is that of a Syrian refugee, Mohammad al-Haj Ali). Such negligence and cost-cutting would never be tolerated in the luxury high-rise flats and offices peopled by the rich: these are built to the highest standards, using the safest materials.
This is ruling class contempt for the poor – also exemplified by May’s refusal to meet with local people during her brief and tightly-policed visit to the scene earlier today.
Let no-one tell you this was simply a “tragedy” as though it was some sort of natural disaster. This was criminal negligence by the ruling class and their political party, the Tories. Our response – and the only response that will truly honour the victims – must be to pursue the class struggle with renewed vigour. Starting by kicking out the Tories as soon as possible.