This is a government whose time is up
So what do you do when everyone is against you, when you cannot command a majority in parliament and when you are faced with a massive disaster involving neglect of council housing on a massive scale? Try to do a deal with the Neanderthal bigots of the DUP, decide that you will create a two-year session of parliament (unprecedented in modern times), and avoid putting through any domestic policy of any sort. None of it is likely to work, as the so-called political class in this country recognises how serious this crisis is - not just over one government but about how society is organised.
Britain is now at the centre of a full-blown political crisis. Its traditional ruling party is unable to rule. In other times, this would lead to a turn towards Labour on behalf of the ruling class, but the very strong results for Jeremy Corbyn in the election - on a programme which would result in very big changes in wealth and power - mean that they fear this option.
It may be that Friday June 16th will be seen as the day the penny began to drop for the people who rule Britain. The immediate cause was, of course, the scandal of Grenfell Tower. The hoardings of George Osborne's Evening Standard that day said 'London United in Grief'. But before the day was out, it was clear that working class London was grieving, but not united with those held responsible for their misery.
Angry demonstrators turned up at Kensington Town Hall demanding answers. Theresa May went to meet some of the victims, only to be booed and called a coward as she fled, protected by lines of police. Two angry demonstrations, one in Kensington, one in Westminster, expressed the strength of feeling not just over the immediate disaster but over a whole host of grievances: the second class treatment of council house tenants, the destruction of public services, the cheap profiteering of construction companies, the whole disaster of privatisation, the wider attacks on working class people. Even the BBC correspondent on the demo said this is about class, and about race.
By Saturday morning, the queen had made a statement about Grenfell and the terrorist attacks on her official birthday, had held a minutes silence at the trooping of the colour, and the government had said it wanted to build trust with the Grenfell survivors. None of this is likely to assuage the anger so palpable in London at the moment. This has been greatly aggravated by the appalling behaviour of Kensington and Chelsea council, which has been incapable or unwilling to do the most basic things to alleviate the suffering of people at Grenfell.
All this adds to the sense that Theresa May's days are numbered. Her own lack of empathy was obvious to millions during the election, and she has only reinforced this impression over Grenfell. She still has not formally done a deal with the bigots of the DUP, but there is due to be a queens speech on Wednesday. It is hard to imagine what will be in it, apart from Brexit and some anti-terror legislation. This is why she is attempting the desperate throw of trying to keep a parliamentary session going for two years. She wants unchallenged rule despite her lack of mandate but also knows she can get very little legislation through. That is why the Tory (and BBC) obsession with Brexit is so strong. It is really the only issue it can go on - and even then it is divided.
I think May has become a bigger and bigger burden on the Tories, and I would be surprised if she is still there by party conference in October. And if that is the case, another election can't be far behind. An election which Jeremy Corbyn will be favourite to win. It is true that the Tories can add up and know that a Labour government is very likely should an election take place, so they don't want one. But they will find it very difficult to hang on when they don't have a majority and their leader is becoming more of a liability on a daily basis.
However, what we do can make a difference. Pressure on May from outside parliament is essential, given the parliamentary situation is deadlocked. So on the 1st July please join the People's Assembly demo to get May out.
Housing: we're doing even worse than the Victorians
It hardly seems possible that we are less than two weeks on from an election, and that in that time political consciousness is rising on a daily basis.
The most important factor in this has been the terrible fire, which looks to have killed over 100 people, many of them children. As I wrote after it happened, it is one of those rare but important events which, despite their apparently accidental nature, tend to demonstrate what is wrong with the whole society. They also lead to changes – in the law, in attitudes, sometimes in government, and of course in political awareness.
This is what is happening now, and it is far too early to say what the consequences of it all will be. Nor are we casual bystanders over those consequences: we must demand that nothing remotely like this can ever happen again; that those affected by the tragedy will be rehoused in decent accommodation within the same area; that their children will be able to attend the same schools that they did before; that all their support networks will remain in place and that they will be given resources to help them deal with this appalling event. We must also demand criminal investigations and an immediate suspension of the local council, which finds money to subsidise Holland Park Opera and repave posh Exhibition Road but can't operate a basic emergency operation for its poorest tenants.
For those who don’t know, council tenants in the two Tory inner London boroughs Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster _ are treated like dirt. They are housed in sub standard and unsafe accommodation, they are often forced not just out of their borough but out of London altogether, away from everything they know and from their families and friends. They are treated as at best an embarrassment where other citizens carry handbags worth three or four times as much as the average weekly wage. The problem of housing in London isn't confined to these two however. The Labour boroughs are not much better. They too are constantly regenerating, which means knocking down council estates, building new luxury flats with a small amount of ‘social’ or ‘affordable’ housing (often with separate entrances to keep the unwashed away from the rich). Their failure to build new council housing then leads them to rehouse homeless people outside the borough – as far away as Birmingham, Margate or Hastings. Southwark is perhaps the worst, with Tower Hamlets and Newham following behind.
This is social cleansing – getting rid of the working class and poor and turning inner London into a playground for the rich and for tourists – and it is widely understood and hated by those affected directly but also by many who see children’s friends forced to move further out, or who see workers in key industries having to commute further and further because of unaffordable housing. My old school friend, Jeff Segal, described this to me as a physical assault on London. If that is true, how much more of a physical assault, and a murderous one, is the rottenness which has led us to the Grenfell disaster.
That rottenness has at its heart Conservative policies adopted in the 1980s and unfortunately adhered to much too closely by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when in office. Thatcher privatised council housing in every way that she knew how. People were bribed into buying their own, subsidised to get private mortgages, had their estates sold off, and there was an effective embargo on building new council houses. People who could afford to move out and buy their houses did so, and council estates were branded increasingly as ‘problems’.
We see the consequences now across London, with skyrocketing rents, terrible private housing, record overcrowding both in private and social sectors, children deprived of anywhere to play or do their homework. Council housing has become a source of profit for private contractors. There has to be a change here. An emergency council house building programme, rent controls, the ending of subsidies to buy to let landlords, no more policies to inflate house prices, and urgent work to find homes for the increasing numbers sleeping on the streets. That means taxing the rich and requisitioning empty homes. This was done during the war and it should be done again.
At present we live in a society where none of this is even considered by government. In London, allowing the market to decide means that for the first time since the 1880s there is no attempt to intervene in the market to provide good housing for the poor. Where are the Peabodys, Guinness and Samuel Lewis Trusts that erected housing of good quality even before council housing? I thought the other day that there is something Dickensian about the city with its great inequality and poverty, its people suffering and its obscene displays of wealth. Are we really going back to the 19th century?
What happens when you demonise the working class
I'm reading a very good book which reminiscences on working class people in west London and where they worked from the 30s to the 80s. It is often forgotten that west London was a huge industrial area. One person in the book says that all the labels on food came from Middlesex - HP sauce, McVities biscuits, Heinz beans, Lyons tea, Walls bacon. They all had big factories, as did a load of engineering works including Fairey Aviation, Hoover, Firestone, the EMI factory where one of my uncles was a toolmaker and which was known as the Gramophone. This was an area which stretched from Edgware Road out to Hayes. Its deindustrialisation was immense in the 70s and 80s, on a scale with much of what happened in the north of England, but partly hidden by the growth of services in London.
This working class was well paid, well organised, had social clubs attached to many of the factories and was housed in good quality council housing or private owner occupied. The private landlords became a dying breed - unfortunately now revived. It tells us something about how the working class have been demonised, that council house tenants are stigmatised and neglected and deemed to be shiftless and living on benefits. There are now whole television programmes devoted to this idea, which is overwhelmingly false.
We see the consequences in the disdain with which Kensington and Chelsea treats its tenants, who a generation or two ago would have worked in these factories. But awareness of class is coming back, and along with it a recognition that the working class has had more and more of the wealth it produces stolen back in the form of high rents and wage cuts. The election highlighted this clearly, and I think this class consciousness will be reflected in more industrial and political struggle.
An attack on us all
I woke this morning to news of the right wing terror attack on Finsbury Park mosque. I know people from the mosque and was in the area for a Stop the War fundraiser only an hour or two earlier. My condolences and solidarity to all. The level of Islamophobia in this country is high, fanned by the media and government. We are in a horrible cycle of wars, terrorism and Islamophobia which can only be broken with a substantial change in foreign and domestic policies. No sign of this government understanding this.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Brexit breaking point: it May be the end of this government - weekly briefing
- Taking control is the way to end the misery of 21st century work - weekly briefing
- Ship, iceberg... you know what happens next - weekly briefing
- The neverendum won’t help Labour, but it will help the right - weekly briefing
- October Song - book review
- Learnt nothing and forgotten everything: the next crash is coming - weekly briefing
- Racism, war and Trump: the Stop the War Coalition AGM