Grenfell Truths: do they interest the Protest Left at all?

by Dave Hill

Even before the flames were out, the Protest Left had assigned blame for the Grenfell Tower fire: it was the Tories, it was austerity, its was racism, it was “social cleansing”, it was inequality, it was pandering to “the rich” that had made those people die. For example, journalist Jack Monroe (the Guardian), surmised from someone else’s completely naive reading of an online document that the cladding through which the fire spread had been put there “in order to appease luxury developers nearby”. Another journalist, Giles Coren (the Times) responded to this with mock amazement: “You mean local rich people wanted it covered in something pretty to improve their view? Can that be? Surely not?”

Some might have been glad that a pair of prominent food writers were so swift to spread their expertise in planning regulations among their many thousands of Twitter followers. However, I take the broader view that people of influence should keep their ignorance about what caused the horrible deaths of 72 people to themselves. This aversion to leaping to fatuous conclusions places me in a minority, of course. The majority stance is that prejudice, presumption and premature judgements are the essence of unarguable truth. At least, it often feels that way when venturing into the hermetic world of Grenfell-related activism and “radical” commentary.

I recently attended a meeting of the Kensington & Chelsea Council committee that scrutinises the borough’s Grenfell recovery programme. It was well attended by residents, including, I am told, some survivors, some who lost family members and friends, and many who live in the vicinity of the tower. Tears were shed during a minute’s silence. Consistent with the council’s pledge to increase transparency, an open invitation had been extended to anyone with questions for its deputy leader Kim Taylor-Smith, who heads the recovery programme, and the council officers who work with him. All too predictably, that part of the evening was effectively run by those we might call the usual suspects.

I won’t name names, many of them familiar from TV appearances and claims reported by the written media, because they get too much attention as it is. Suffice to say that they set about dominating the meeting, just as they have dominated previous ones, seizing their chance to once again heap insult and contempt on whoever is present from the local authority in the hope of provoking a response they can exploit.

Many points were raised, some of them quite valid, but those raising them seemed more interested in getting on to their next one than in listening to the answers they were given. Answers, after all, tend to disrupt the delivery of lists of denunciations. At times, I wondered if the committee’s Labour chair was too indulgent of the chuntering, nit-picking and grandstanding, but I can see on reflection that I might have handled things in the same way. In a no-win situation, low key loss limitation can be the wisest course.

I felt the same but more so for Taylor-Smith and his colleagues, obliged to address demands that were variously petty, irrelevant, spiteful and inane with elaborate deference and great forbearance. The implacable hostility of their accusers was such that any opportunity to proclaim that local people were being lied to, silenced or ignored would be seized upon with glee, used to sustain a cycle of triumphant self-congratulation, generate outrage through social media and prompt phone calls to tame journalists. There were even demands to be co-opted onto the committee, with those making them professing to know better than council officers how to conduct their delicate and demanding business. But did any of these self-appointed champions of the bereaved and dispossessed encourage quieter souls present to step forward and make their voices heard? No chance.

There were arcane sub-plots too, with claim and counter claim from the floor about which local grouplet should control a certain building, the rights and wrongs of which I could not fathom. But the overwhelming impression left by this particular exercise in local democracy was of a sort of high stakes ritual being played out in the Royal Borough’s Small Hall, with the ascendant antagonists relishing the licence the fire has given them to torment and denigrate those who have accepted the task of trying to heal the hellish harm that has been done, and the latter obliged to warily indulge them, the better to deny them further scope for impugning their trustworthiness and goodwill.

It was all pretty depressing, and the more so when considered against the quietly unfolding picture of fact and evidence that has weakened the instant Grenfell charge sheet listed above. Remember how quickly it emerged that council-owned high-rise blocks in Labour boroughs had been clad in the same way, deflating assertions that only a Tory administration would allow such a situation to occur. Even the Guardian, which has insisted that the fire was a product of inequality, has reported that more private high rise housing blocks have been found to be wrapped in “Grenfell-style” cladding than local authority or other social housing ones.

The case that RBKC is endemically neglectful of its social housing was lately made in The Independent on the basis that 133 social rented properties there stand empty. Is that exceptional? There will always be some such homes unoccupied in any borough, perhaps due to refurbishment or impending sale or demolition. I asked two Labour councils to give me their empties figures: 150 in one case, 450 in the other. The figures for the three boroughs are not precisely comparable, but the latter two at least put the first into some perspective.

One of the most dismal things about all this is that no amount of inconvenient reality seems to deter purveyors of the Protest Left’s Grenfell narrative from continuing to perpetuate it in its purest form: not disclosures about failings in the regulatory system that point to the possibility of landlords of all types and under the control of different political parties and none taking decisions on the strength of bad information in good faith; not the evidence of distressed firefighters that the scale and ferocity of the Grenfell blaze was more than they could cope with. None of this must interrupt the populist cry against RBKC Tories and “the rich”. Even if, at the end of all this, the heads of five Kensington & Chelsea Conservatives were removed and stuck on poles in Exhibition Road there would be howls of outrage because there were not six.

The official inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire still has a long way to go, as has the police investigation. In time, it might emerge that elements of the Protest Left narrative, albeit a crude ideological construct built from animus, ignorance and bias, do have some credibility. But if so, the hecklers and disruptors will deserve no credit for it. They had decided within hours who and what is guilty over Grenfell, without troubling themselves with evidence. Does the truth really interest them at all?

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