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  • Published in Opinion
Grenfell Tower. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Grenfell Tower. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Cladding being tested from buildings around the country since Grenfell have all failed so far - housing isn't safe any more.

Grenfell is an appalling and shocking indictment of everything to do with our housing: privatisation, cuts, deregulation, and generally a contempt by the rich for those who can't afford the mansions which they believe are rightfully theirs. But it has uncovered worse and worse things by the day.

There is no effective system of building regulation in this country. It has been smashed up in the rush for profit, aided by governments who cared more about leaving the market unhindered than it did for the people it was supposed to protect. Private companies have made millions from regeneration works which have used unsafe materials that apparently did not match the specifications commissioned, where checks on safety seem to have been a slightly tedious box-ticking exercise which did not result in a safer environment for tenants, and where concerns of the people living in housing blocks were dismissed as troublemaking or standing in the way of progress. 

So now we are at the culmination of more than 30 years of privatisation, neglect and demonisation of council and other tenants. I caught a few minutes of the ghastly Tory Kirsty Allsopp on one of her housing programmes at the weekend. You know, the ones where she tells them they have to live within their means, that they need the help of aristocratic experts like her to even buy a house, and where the whole assumption is that your life cannot be fulfilled unless you are on the 'housing ladder'. Programmes like this, aimed at the aspiring middle classes who are patronised by the rich, have set the agenda for how we view housing: as an investment rather than a human right for everyone, and where not being a homeowner means you don't get to square one. These people in media and government have spent those years saying council housing is bad, council tenants are freeloaders or wasters, the market can deliver. But now we're finding it isn't delivering decent housing for the vast majority. Worse, it is deliberately set up to fail. A minority lives comfortably - now almost exclusively the middle and upper classes - while the working class struggle to pay private rents for poor accommodation, borrow from family and get themselves into debt to buy even the cheapest house, or live in council and other social housing which is over crowded, unsafe and stigmatised. 

Latest reports show that all the samples of cladding from tower blocks so far fail tests of combustibility. The government has just announced it is not relaxing the rules on fire safety in schools after all. But what kind of a mentality thinks making children less safe is a good thing in the first place? Unfortunately, this is the mentality which has brought us Grenfell, now has thousands of tenants decanted from their homes, and has meant a worsening of conditions for working people across the board. Incidentally, even the no doubt well-meaning decision of Camden council to move tenants from the Chalcots estate shows how they are regarded as people to be acted on behalf of, rather than in control of their own destinies. One very encouraging thing that has happened is that those affected by the Grenfell disaster have determined that their voices be heard. I was also pleased to see two young tenants from Chalcots challenging the way they have been treated. 

There isn't an easy answer to the housing crisis under capitalism. The reason for that is the glorification of private property. There is enough housing in London to deal with many of the problems outlined above, but even the most timid request for some of this to be handed over to those who need it is met by modern Marie Antoinettes demanding that the poor eat cake when they can't get bread. It is a truism but still needs saying. Housing can only begin to work for the many when it is removed from the market and the profit motive, when it ceases to become an investment and source of profit and is there to fulfil human need. 

It's not that the working class has disappeared, it's just that these people don't know what it looks like 

The shock of the election result has led to a lot of mea culpas on behalf of Labour's right and centre, many of whom spent the months before the election attacking Jeremy Corbyn, and then refused to mention him or his policies on their election material. But as always with these people, it doesn't take long for them to revert to type. I see Caroline Flint, one of the Blairite Doncaster MPs, saying that Labour needs to worry about working class concerns on law, order and immigration to win the next election. The people who so failed to predict the last election result that many of them approached their local counts as though they were being driven to the gallows, are now confidently asserting that Jeremy Corbyn needs to embrace their politics if he is to win a Labour majority.

Their arguments are embellished in a number of ways and are part of an ongoing assertion that Labour won Islington and the students, but not the working class. One variation is the Guardian's Martin Kettle saying Labour can't win next time unless it sucks up to the right in the party and other forces. So far, so Marxism Today circa 1980s. Another is that the working class didn't and won't vote for Corbyn, illustrated by a particularly poor article in the New Statesman which demonstrated that the more working class a constituency was, the less it voted for Corbyn. Do they really expect us to believe this stuff? 

In terms of the latter argument, there are two basic flaws. One is, what is the working class, and doesn't it exist in conurbations which were so enthusiastic in favour of Corbyn? Two, has the working-class vote in traditional Labour areas collapsed because of Corbyn? On the first, it is overwhelmingly working class people who voted for Corbyn. Even in Kensington, where Emma Dent Coad scored her amazing and timely victory, you can bet that her votes came in large part from the north and west of the constituency, not from Knightsbridge and South Ken. To understand this however you have to see the working class as something more than the old stereotypes of men in cloth caps with whippets. There aren't too many of those in the old industrial areas anymore, but they sure as hell don't represent the working class which is also female, ethnically diverse and young. This working class is massive but not organised in traditional ways. It includes very large numbers of students. I teach in a post 92 university and I reckon the majority of my students work while they are studying. So even the supposedly privileged beneficiaries of the abolition of tuition fees are suffering exploitation. If true of them, it is also true of Deliveroo, Uber, catering workers, parcel delivery workers and shop workers (many of whom are of course these same students), let alone nurses or finance workers. The idea they are all middle class professionals is just wrong. 

On the second point, it is wrong to say that the more working class the more they didn't like Corbyn. Look at Wales, where, despite new evidence of corrupt behaviour by the Tories, Labour was well ahead. Look at Lincoln, working class and Leave voting but with a big swing to Labour. Look at Crewe, Derby North, Ipswich -all won by Labour from the Tories. Look at the Scottish seats Labour won, in Glasgow, Bellshill and Fife. You really cannot claim these are naturally middle-class areas. But they voted Labour for fear of the Tories out of good class instincts. Indeed class is back with a bang in Britain. 

If we want to look at arguments why Labour did worse in some of these areas, there is firstly the substantial  UKIP vote from 2015, much of which went to the Tories. This was important in Doncaster, the West and East Midlands and the North East of England. But in most places, it was not decisive because still, a majority voted Labour. Second, there is the appalling behaviour of Labour councils and MPs. In Merthyr, Labour lost control of the council in the May elections to left independents, not to the right. People were fed up with rotten boroughs, three-weekly bin collections and generally being taken for granted. Many of these places have right-wing MPs who have not understood Corbyn's appeal. John Woodcock apparently on the way to his count said Labour had been smashed. He hung on by 300 votes, and only then, as he admitted, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn. Why did he think like he did? Because he, like some of his colleagues, has no idea what's going on beneath his nose.  

The idea that these people should now try to dictate strategy would be laughable if it weren't so serious. 

Remain by the back door?

This doesn't stop them from trying to dominate the debate, as we're seeing over the attempt by some MPs to push Corbyn into supporting the single market, as it seems a prelude to avoiding leaving the EU itself. It seems the less than impressive TUC agrees with them. This would be a big mistake for Labour, which has set out a very sensible path of accepting the decision but wanting a Brexit which benefits workers. I don't agree with limiting free movement, but anyone who backs this move thinking it will guarantee that should think again. In fact, the single market fans want to get a deal where we have access to trade and markets but where they will compromise on free movement. Nothing good for working people here or elsewhere in Europe on that.

Let's get on to the streets

We're at a turning point in politics in Britain. Support is growing for Corbyn's Labour - a break with austerity and privatisation, for taxation of the rich and corporations, a redistribution of wealth. The Tory government is hanging by a thread, and most importantly has lost much confidence of the British ruling class, including over Brexit. The usual plan B is a Labour government committed to helping bail out the system - but this time this would lead to a Corbyn government, which would raise massive expectations for change among working-class people. Parliament is logjammed, which means the onus switches to those of us outside parliament. Next Saturday we can make a start with the People's Assembly demo calling for May to go. Support it if you can.

Lindsey German

Lindsey German

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’.

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