As I write, the news is dominated by the Grenfell Tower disaster. Yesterday it was confirmed that in the recent refurbishment flammable plastic cladding was installed rather than the recommended fire-proof alternative. This gave rise to a saving of £2/square metre. It is far too soon to say whether this was the main reason for what happened. It is unlikely that there was a single cause. Nonetheless, truly shocking videos of the disaster seem to show fire spreading through the cladding up the outside of the building.
Some events immediately take on a symbolic significance. This disaster seems to exemplify the consequences of vilification and marginalisation of working class Londoners since 1979. Residents of North Kensington in social housing are already expressing fears that the tragedy will be used as a pretext to permanently remove them from homes, because they believe (in my opinion, with good cause) that the borough has been subject to ethnic and class cleansing in recent years. Such is the logic of austerity Britain. A traumatised community is further traumatised by realistic fears that the main consequence of the disaster will be displacement and dispersal rather than genuine efforts to ensure their safety and well-being.
“Health and safety gone mad” is a dismissive catchphrase of the right-wing newspapers that marks a purposeful disregard for the welfare of working class people. ‘Health and safety’ does not seem so mad in the shadow of a smouldering tower block. ‘Health and safety’ is the main factor that saw fatalities in industrial accidents reduce from 651 in 1974 (the year of the Health and Safety at Work Act) to 92 in 2015. This cannot be solely attributed to the closure of dangerous industries such as mining, as the rate has dropped by 50% in the last 20 years. ‘Health and safety’, in the broadest sense, is one of the main targets of deregulation. As has been widely noted, last year Conservative MPs voted down Labour amendments to the Housing and Planning Bill to ensure that properties for private rental were safe and fit for human habitation. Some of those voting against the proposals were landlords with conflicts of interest.
We have been here before. In 1966, the Aberfan disaster caused the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. A huge colliery spoil tip had been built on top of natural springs, and eventually it slid into a school. There had been multiple warnings that the spoil tip was unstable. The school’s headmistress had presented a petition about it to the local council a year earlier. She died in the disaster. The tip was the responsibility of the National Coal Board. They were not entirely co-operative with the subsequent inquiry, and their chairman, Lord Robens, made a number of misleading statements. The inquiry identified many failings on the part of the National Coal Board, but no one was held responsible. Corporate manslaughter did not exist in British law at the time.
We have been here before. I work in Wrexham Maelor Hospital. Three miles away lies the village of Gresford. The settlement is now a domiciliary suburb of Wrexham, but until 1973 there was a coal mine. In 1934, there was an explosion in one of the seams, causing the death of 266 miners. Only 11 bodies were ever recovered. The remains of 255 men lie underground where they fell. The mine was privately owned. The anguish associated with the loss of life on such a massive scale was exacerbated a week later by 1000 surviving Gresford miners being laid off. The affected seam had been put out of production permanently. A traumatised community was further traumatised. As with Aberfan, the owners appeared to obstruct a full investigation of the factors that led to the disaster. The inquiry took three years to report, and it was somewhat inconclusive. Nonetheless, a range of failings in management and safety procedures were identified.
I have to confess to being a member of the urban liberal elite that is so loathed by the right. I am an academic with a well-paid job who is proud to be a socialist. My life has been shaped by the health and educational reforms of the post-War Labour government. I am angry that the opportunities and support that were available to my generation have been swept away by a mean-spirited commodification of everything. Aberfan, Gresford and Grenfell Tower illustrate the need for socialism. It is about valuing ordinary people, and putting their welfare at the centre of social and economic policy. This comes at a significant price to the better off, including people in my income band. That price is well worth paying. I will be very happy to pay more tax in order to live in a more just, egalitarian and decent Britain. The result of the General Election means that, for the first time in my adult life, this is a realistic possibility. Grenfell Tower tells us exactly how degraded life in the UK has become after forty years of neo-liberalism, followed by seven years of austerity. It tells us why things have to change.
There is a well-known brass band tune called Gresford (or the Miners’ Hymn). This is a particularly moving performance.