The tragedy of Grenfell Tower unites us in grief. It cuts through our fear of one another. It shakes complacency from our politics. It challenges our priorities, our humanity.
But only for a moment.
What happened in Grenfell Tower is incomprehensible. The vision of the burning tower is haunting. Every time I see it I am angry and scared; I want answers and I want this never to happen again. Grenfell is a scar on our national conscience like Hillsborough, Piper Alpha and Zeebrugge before it. The ruins, juxtaposed in one of our wealthiest boroughs, remind us of an uncomfortable truth about how much some have and how little others. It provokes tough questions on austerity, regulation, inspection, private and public sector competence. But as yet, we have no answers.
Over time those answers will come. Changes must happen and towers must be made safer; I hope the public inquiry will make sure of that. People may face prosecution. For most life will move on. Politics will settle back into its usual patterns.
But is this enough? Is it worthy of the victims, the survivors and for those up and down the country who rely on the decisions of others to keep them safe?
The public inquiry will not tell us why, when the residents of Grenfell Tower asked for help and warned of the risks, we were deaf to their pleas. It will not tell us why we routinely ignore people living in tower blocks, on council estates, in poor housing, facing safety and health risks, visible and invisible, every day of their lives. Why we have treated them poorly under Labour administrations, under the Conservatives and under local authorities of all colours across the country.
Under Labour’s Decent Homes initiative, tens of thousands of council homes were improved (many with external cladding to improve insulation). Yet in 2004 under a Labour council, a Labour MP and a Labour government, I brought a group of politicians to an estate where a number of residents had made complaints to the local MP. What we saw appalled us. Children’s bedrooms covered top to bottom in thick black mould. Rusted soil stacks seeping human waste into the kitchens of properties below. One block was uninhabitable. The council leapt into action; residents were moved out in days and the remaining blocks on the estate were emptied within a year. But people had been living in filth and squalor for years and their voices had not been heard.
The problem was not a lack of compassion or a lack of money. It was not because of too little or too much regulation. It was not a lack of will or the ruthless pursuit of profit. What was lacking was the means for people in that estate to fix the problems they could see with their own eyes.
Let us find the moral courage not to use this tragedy to rehearse political arguments. Let’s deny our tribal instinct to absolve ourselves of blame while apportioning it to others. Let’s resist the urge to cast the first stone. Before life falls back to its usual routines, let’s ask the hard questions about how well or badly we are treating people affected by political decisions. Do we truly value their contribution? How far should public confidence be a factor when decisions are made? What are we willing to change to make sure people’s voices are heard?
When I see others responding to Grenfell by stoking hatred, I ask why. Hate is not a tiger I wish to ride. Yet people unfurl the old battle plans, provide seductively easy-to-hate figures; set up the witch hunt. Where does this take us? How does this appeal to our common humanity, our shared responsibility to one another? How does it bridge the divides between communities? Are we trying to heal wounds or open them? If you start a war then what you have is war.
Anger, rage, hate. Raw though they are, they are not our only emotions.
We are all grateful for the kindness of the volunteers; thankful for the generosity of those making donations. We live in awe of the bravery of fire fighters; are indebted to the porters, nurses and doctors that gently carry and care for those injured in body and mind.
Faith in one another, mutual respect, companionship, the willingness to walk in another’s shoes however imperfectly and if only for a moment. Empathy cutting across divides of wealth, region and religion knowing ‘there but for the grace of God…’. The tone of our response is one of humanity.
But why is it only our tone in tragedy? Treating people well should be our expectation at all times.
We can draw on our response to set ourselves on a different path where every life matters; every voice is heard; where people are equipped to deal with the problems they see in front of them. Where our better days are still to come.
But this requires reflection. We need to ask ourselves whether our politics and political representation any longer goes far enough, or whether it just shuts real people out.
Truly valuing people’s contribution to and confidence in decisions, means decision-makers telling us less often what they are going to do and instead helping us achieve our goals and ambitions. It means politicians helping communities to generate ideas and providing the support to make those ideas happen.
For council residents this could mean politicians actively supporting them to take control of their neighbourhood, develop local plans and spend maintenance and regeneration funds on their priorities. It means public officials serving the community by facilitating the process, providing professional advice, bringing in support and executing the decisions reached by the community.
I know many who are horrified at the thought of this. And they fall back on the arguments used against every extension of the franchise; that people possess neither the will nor the qualities of knowledge and reason necessary to exercise such powers responsibly. This argument is on wrong side of history.
Others will point to the inefficiency. Perhaps they are right. It probably is more efficient for expert planners to prepare grand designs for the regeneration of vast estates. But to the proponents of efficiency, I ask this: is there anything more inefficient than the hours spent by concerned residents trying to be heard; hours of wasted worry that could be used deciding about how the money gets spent, where the fire doors should go, what to do about the results of the recent safety check on the playground equipment, how to support young people within the neighbourhood. Surely it is better to use that effort to build a better future by giving residents, who today feel as though they are victims of social cleansing, the means to become decision-makers with real control over their lives and a stake in their neighbourhood?
We will find out and fix what caused the fire, where responsibility lies and exactly what needs to be done to make our buildings safe. But we mustn’t then assume that the job is done; we must not move on from difficult questions about power and powerlessness. And answers to these will not be found in hatred and blame. They will be found in treating people well and trusting them to make critical decisions over their own lives.
To donate to the Grenfell Tower appeal and have your donation doubled, please follow this link: https://secure.thebiggive.org.uk/grenfell