The more things change, the more they stay the same: Lindsey German looks to Engels to help us understand the enormity of Grenfell
The more dirt that is revealed about the Grenfell tower disaster, the more it seems that the establishment is determined to minimise the blame which can be apportioned. The latest to do so is the - I thought disreputable - attempt by Andrew Marr yesterday to challenge John McDonnell on his use of the term social murder to describe what had happened at Grenfell. I was very pleased that McDonnell stood his ground, citing his own anger at the whole background to the disaster, including privatisation, non-adoption of sprinklers, council cuts and cost cutting contracts, as well as his position as a West London MP. Marr then asked Philip Hammond, who called it a ‘disgraceful suggestion.’
He would say that, wouldn’t he? For while the Tories and their allies are quick to apportion blame for individual transgressions, they are much less likely to blame corporations, councils and lawmakers. All the signs from Grenfell so far are that it is exactly these pillars of the establishment who have created the conditions that exacerbated the fire. Any attempt to get at the truth is met with the response that we must wait for the public inquiry - one that is led by a judge who has already declared many avenues of enquiry out of bounds and who is manifestly of a class all too at home in the mansions of South Kensington rather than in the run down terraces and tower blocks north of the borough.
Two things stand out for me so far. Firstly it is simply astonishing that Kensington and Chelsea are still allowed to run a council and that commissioners have not been put in to run it. As a council it is clearly incapable of delivering the services its residents need. Secondly, there appear to be few building and planning regulations which can’t be circumvented in the interests of profit. None of this is new, but it has become much, much worse in recent decades. The close relationship between councils and property developers isn’t new either, but councils have increasingly depended on ‘regeneration’ schemes which are money spinners for the developers but a worsening of conditions for tenants and other local residents.
Friedrich Engels wrote on this topic in his wonderful ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, written in 1845 but as searing and relevant today. He says that the working class press at the time refers to ‘social murder’ to describe the deliberate and callous disregard for dangerous conditions in which workers live.
‘I have now to prove that society in England daily and hourly commits... social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time. I have further to prove that society knows how injurious such conditions are to the health and the life of the workers, and yet does nothing to improve these conditions. That it knows the consequence of its deeds; that its act is, therefore, not mere manslaughter but murder, I shall have proved, when I cite official documents, reports of Parliament and of the Government, in substantiation of my charge.'
Such proof can be found today, in reports which acknowledge inequality and poor health, the effects of overcrowding, the impact of poor nutrition on young children. Aren't the people who ignore these, who allow this situation to continue, who deliberately cut money which could help to alleviate it, who use cheaper materials rather than the best possible for health and safety - aren't they guilty of a form of disregard and neglect which is as conscious as it is callous? And isn’t John McDonnell right to call it what it is?
Even the Tories can see the game’s up for the public sector pay cap
Philip Hammond thinks public sector workers are overpaid, according to reports in the Sunday papers which were leaked from last week’s Cabinet meeting. Obviously, even his rivals to succeed Theresa May realise this is a disastrous way to go, and know that it will be greeted with groans of disbelief in households up and down the country. But Hammond has more than a little of Theresa May about him, so has continued to justify this line by arguing that public sector workers are 10% better off than the private sector, once ‘very generous pensions contributions’ from employers are taken into account! Perhaps Hammond hasn’t noticed, but you can’t buy school uniforms or the weekend shop with pensions you may or may not get in twenty years’ time. Nor is it a particularly good argument that private sector workers have seen their pensions gutted in the past two decades, so public sector workers should be grateful that theirs aren't yet as bad.
Hammond consequently remains in favour of holding down public sector pay. But the problem with that irritating public sector is that it's everywhere. Nurses, teachers, lecturers, firefighters are in every constituency and have been making their feelings known to MPs, including Tories, many more of whom now fear losing their seats. And the workers are asking, not unreasonably, to get pay rises which keep pace with inflation and even go beyond!
Despite the Tories’ appalling election drubbing and their inability to do anything ever since, Hammond is a sign of how determined they still are to make working people pay for their crisis. Luckily, there is a new mood of determination among groups of workers beginning to take action - like the low paid cleaners in East London hospitals and the BA mixed fleet crew. I somehow don’t see most public sector workers putting up with it too much longer.
The Remain Sirens will have us on the rocks
One thing the Cabinet leaks over Hammond show, in the meantime, is just what a bunch of rats in a sack our so called leaders are. They fear an election where they would get roundly defeated but know that they have to get rid of May sometime soon. There is hardly any legislation going through Parliament, they have had to make a number of ignominious retreats and U-turns, and they are in the most terrible state over Brexit.
Besieged on all sides, this is going to be a diplomatic and parliamentary nightmare for them. The Tory crisis over this is leading to growing calls from the extreme centre and its fans for an abandonment of the Brexit process. The unwelcome sight of an increasingly messianic Tony Blair on the news media over the weekend underlined the determination of this extreme centre that British politics remain under its control. In particular, these people are desperate to stop Brexit and to ignore the results of last year’s referendum. We should be clear what this is about: it is in part a contempt for democratic decisions, and it is also about recreating a political centre led by Blairites and Lib Dems.
There is absolutely no justification for reversing or ignoring the referendum result. The arguments put by Blair and his allies are condescending in the extreme and go along the lines of ‘when people know what it means they will change their minds’. In other words, we knew this all along and these stupid and ignorant people will find out the hard way. It assumes that people didn’t know or think about what they were doing and that just isn’t true. It seems to me that any such reversal by the same gang that brought us so much cynicism towards politicians in the first place would have terrible political consequences, including fuelling the far right and leading to even more political disillusionment.
Jeremy Corbyn should resist the siren calls from those commentators on the liberal wing of the extreme centre to go along with this. Corbyn has done well to argue for respecting the decision of the vote and also to argue for a Brexit which guarantees our rights, and which will not allow a worsening of working conditions. Those urging him to abandon this have, for the most part, not supported his leadership or his policies, and will be untrustworthy in the future. And let’s remember, Labour’s policies such as nationalisation would mostly not be possible if remaining in the EU.
No to abuse, yes to political debate
There has been a lot of talk about abuse of politicians, including a debate in Parliament. A lot of this from both Tories and right-wing Labour is a not so coded attack on the left. We can, I hope, all put our hands up to oppose personal abuse. But can we take a closer look? It is without question that the main victim of personal abuse in British politics for two years has been Jeremy Corbyn. He has been bullied by the Tory press, by Tory MPs and ministers, and by many on his own benches. Can we recall Jess Philips MP saying that she would stab him in the front? The PLP meeting where they lined up one after the other to tell him publicly how useless he was? The sneering at his clothes, his manner, his allotment? I can recall no incident where he responded in kind. The whole election campaign was one big sneering attack on Jeremy Corbyn - and it backfired.
But still, we have politicians blaming violence and abuse on Momentum, and on the Left. I have no doubt that there is personal abuse on the Left. As an older left-wing woman, I have suffered it, and it's one reason my engagement with Twitter is limited and that I occasionally block people on Facebook. Sexist and racist abuse are disgusting and should have no place in left-wing debate.
However, is it centred on the Left or is this a trend which has been encouraged, amplified and refined by the Right, both here and in the US? Is there anything on the Left compared to Katie Hopkins or Rod Liddle? I would say for racism, sexism, abuse of ‘political correctness’ and witch-hunting or McCarthyism, the Left really isn’t in the same league as the right.
There’s also a related issue here, and it concerns the rights of politicians. They have the right to do their job in safety and not to be abused over their race, gender or anything else. But they don’t have the right to avoid political criticism or debate. They don’t have the right to avoid accountability if that is what their members want. I have stood in elections and they are hard-fought. That is part of being an MP, and if you’re lucky enough to be elected, you need to take account of what the people who worked for you to get elected think.
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
- Where do we go from here? – election briefing 13 December
- We have a world to win – election briefing Polling Day
- Ignore the naysayers and keep fighting – election briefing 11 December
- Lindsey German: don't underestimate how far we've come - video
- One nation or the one percent? - election briefing 10 December
- Ten points to remember before polling day – election briefing 9 December
- Antisemitism, politics, and voting Tory - election briefing 6 December