The tragic deaths in the Grenfell Tower disaster last week are of considerable political importance. They have become a lightning rod for mounting concerns about the path the country has taken, certainly since the 2008 financial crisis but, more accurately, since the replacement of national corporatism with neo-liberalism under the Thatcher administration in the 1980s. It has re-introduced the problem of class into national discourse although the victims are less indigenous working class than quite recent migrants, providing yet another complex layer to the story.
No one knows precisely what happened or who is at fault but only a fool would not see the politics here. A rate-cutting right-wing Tory Council, having pushed much of its indigenous working class out of the Borough, was left with the problem of housing large numbers of migrants. It failed to invest in housing stock thanks to centrally directed economic policy and it pushed these new migrants into decaying tower blocks which it hoped to service on the cheap. Ready to be pulled down, unthinkingly rather than maliciously, no 'expensive' investment in health and safety was made.
People from the 'third world' were given third world treatment. There was no deliberation in this, just bodging, an Arthur Daley-esque ducking and diving to square mounting social pressures and the cost-cutting made 'necessary' by the crash. This was refined into a perfect storm by a demoralised white collar local governance system that rules by the managerialist 'tick the box' system introduced by New Labour with its penchant for defensive paper work and not upsetting lobby groups while ignoring residents and citizens. The front line emergency services, of course, were magnificent.
Allthough there may be good reason to be particularly concerned about Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council, the truth is that there are a lot of other Councils of other political persuasions who are muttering "there but for the grace of God ...". After all, Rotherham did not cover itself in glory over its child abuse cases. We have a crisis of governance in which centralised authority encourages a fake pseudo-consultative local democracy. Powerless amateurs try to manage executives who have become defensive and demoralised in the face of centralised control of finance and strict rules.
In this particular case, inconvenient sets of questions need to be asked. The administrative one is how well recorded residential concerns about risks were just brushed aside. This alone opens up a serious debate about the top-down transmission belt nature of British local governance. There is the appalling lack of any useful contingency planning, forcing the central Government itself to intervene iwith full force. And then there is the issue on which the Opposition is concentrating quite rightly - the class management of austerity, the very fact of austerity economics nearly a decade on from the Crash.
Was dangerous cladding put in place without sprinklers because these people did not matter sufficiently? Was there any preference for environmental concerns over personal safety because this is what middle class liberals (as with multiculturalism in Rotherham) saw as the prior policy issue? And was money found for cladding and not sprinklers because these unsightly 1970s tower blocks were affecting the property prices of middle class neighbours? And, above all, who authorised mass immigration without the funds to create the necessary infrastructures for their reception?