I have made passing references to the Grenfell Tower disaster – the tower block fire in a social housing estate in London’s North Kensington district on the evening of 14 June, in which at least 80 people are thought to have been killed. It has been a highly significant event in British politics, but its implications are as yet unclear. To me it marks a failure of British democratic institutions. Alas it is in the nature of those institutions to divert attention to other issues raised by the episode, and a few that aren’t.
The tragedy got wall-to-wall coverage very quickly. It was conveniently located in central London, and it produced some spectacular television footage. BBC TV news set up their anchor with a smouldering building in the background. Although the published death toll in those early days was modest, the coverage was proportionate to the scale of the event. There is a curiously about this. Nobody in the mainstream media wanted to speculate on the number of deaths, but there was an unspoken understanding that it must be high. The estimate doing the rounds amongst those who knew a bit about the block was apparently in the region of 100. Those who felt that the authorities were trying to minimise the scale of the disaster apparently estimated the figure was 200 (the block housed over 300). But there are standard protocols about reporting casualties, so the BBC and others were probably being responsible in not reporting such estimates – though they would have helped public understanding if they had.
The main story in the days following the tragedy was the failure of the official response. There was a din of complaints from those close to the scene that was eagerly reported. I don’t know how justified these complaints were – and how much they were affected by the anger that such a disaster could be allowed to happen in 2017. But both local and national politicians showed a failure to grasp the political implications. Theresa May failed to talk to victims in her first visit, which nearly cost her job. It is easy to understand why she was advised not to – she was going to be on the receiving end of abuse, and there would have been public order issues that would have diverted resources from the relief effort. But savvy leaders understand that you have to allow people to vent when things go badly wrong. Other politicians, such as the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, had a much easier job, but did it well enough. The media, meanwhile, seemed uninterested in deciphering the cacophony.
The government’s overall response is damage limitation. Firstly that means a properly resourced relief effort – it took them longer than perhaps it should to wake up to the need for it, but they did get there. They also set up a public enquiry and commissioned safety tests on other blocks of flats. And they promptly moved the goal posts on the standards to which cladding, clearly a factor in the fire, should be tested – causing widespread (if not universal) failure of materials that had previously been considered safe. But there is something missing from all of this. It is being treated as a technical failure, to which technical solutions should be sought. There is no attempt at real dialogue with social housing tenants. The victims feel short-changed.
But one of the big issues arising from the disaster is that concerns over fire safety raised by residents were ignored. The management of the block was delegated by the council to a Tenants’ Management Organisation (TMO). This is a classic piece of government decentralisation of a type that is characteristic of government in the last thirty years or so. Decision-making is pushed down to a body with technical powers but no democratic mandate of it own, and no revenue-raising powers. The TMO had to negotiate its budget with the council, so the critical decisions ended up by being the council’s anyway. Governments claim that they are pushing decision-making closer to the users of services, but in practice this has very little meaning – the important powers are retained in the centre, and no meaningful consultation with users or local communities occurs.
The Labour opposition are picking up on this democratic deficit – or rather, they are trying to exploit it. Labour politicians have been trying to relay, and in some cases even stoke up, local anger. A lot of this is legitimate democratic politics. But it has been taken to absurd levels. A low point was reached last week when objections were raised by some victim groups to the judge appointed to head the enquiry. Now I have no idea whether this was a sensible appointment, but the objections raised initially by victims’ groups were hard to take seriously at face value. They wanted somebody who had experienced the deprivations of social housing and tower-block living, and who would share their anger. In other words they did not want an impartial inquiry, and the wider benefits that would flow from it. Two Labour spokespeople who were interviewed on the radio, including the newly-elected local MP, simply endorsed this view at face value. One, a front bench spokesperson (I forget who – alas that is rather the state of Labour’s front bench), then went on to deliver a tirade about private sector profiteering. Now of the many failings exposed by the disaster, profiteering is not among them. The failings mainly arose from public sector stinginess – the normal Labour bugbear of “austerity” would have been closer to the mark, though still not quite on point. This bespeaks politicians who are not really interested in the lessons arising from the crisis, but simply want to exploit it for short-term gain.
But surely there is a major political failure that neither the government nor the opposition want to do much about. The victims for now have their moment in the spotlight, and an unaccustomed moment of actual political power. But they know it is transitory. The failures of public administration that led to the tragedy grew out of the powerlessness of local communities, and of social housing tenants in particular. That is characteristic of the British way of politics. The local council, Kensington and Chelsea, is politically uncompetitive, with a large Conservative majority. Political power is concentrated in a clique of the ruling party. Most council wards, where councillors are elected, are safe for one party or another, so little dialogue takes place between the electors and their councillors. Any such dialogue arises from a sense of duty from councillors (who are only paid meagre allowances, except for the most senior), not political necessity. And councils themselves are highly constrained by central government in their powers – especially over funding, which has been severely cut since the financial crisis of 2009.
Politicians of all parties talk about more devolution of power from the centre, but mostly they don’t mean it. They want to devolve blame and not real power. That TMO is the model. So they will insist that the problems are down to inadequate rules, incompetence of some intermediate level of administration, or poor funding decisions at the centre, or some combination. Giving voice to the voiceless does not seem to be on the agenda.