The Grenfell tragedy was all about class – don’t let anyone tell you different
If the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has revealed anything other than industrial scale incompetence, it’s the deep social divide at the heart of British society. Unsurprisingly, in the days that followed, the debate opened along class lines. Some came down on the side of the community, arguing they had been ignored, dismissed and placed at risk because they were poor. Others, on the side of the state, urged calm until the experts had cast their objective eye over the events and discovered the facts.
Regardless of the proximate cause of the Grenfell fire, we can say with absolute certainty that the confluence of negligence that preceded this tragedy is a direct result of political exclusion – a central tenet of social deprivation. This is to say, people living in conditions of poverty find it harder to participate in the political process, for myriad reasons, and when they do, they are much easier to ignore.
This was typified in the chillingly prescient words, written in November 2016, of the same intrepid blogger the council threatened with legal action, which read: ‘It is a truly terrifying thought, but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.’
Not only that, but the same blog repeatedly warned about the risk presented by specific issues like the lack of fire escapes, the precarious stairwell and the ‘stay put’ instruction which appears to have played a fatal role in why people were not evacuated sooner.
What’s been going on in Grenfell was a scandal before the fire even kindled and it’s the same story up and down the country. For those of you so apparently concerned with rationality, doesn’t it seem a tad irrational to continue to ignore the people who correctly predicted the fire? As for facts and experts, the countless warnings in previous years, about the generally unfit state of high-rise housing stock as well as the risk posed by cuts to fire services, all seem pertinent to me.
I think what the debate in the aftermath reveals is that many well-meaning conservative-minded people appear to misunderstand poverty – and the poor – at a fundamental level. To them, the idea of political exclusion is hilariously naive. To them, democracy is about swanning into a polling booth every few years and voting for whichever party has most slavishly attempted to accommodate their personal concerns.
But for the Grenfell Action Group, who repeatedly gave detailed warnings about safety risks in the building over a period of years, it took a wee bit more effort than that. Nearly a decade, in fact, and they were still ignored. Not only that, but they continue to be ignored and spoken over despite being utterly vindicated – at the expense of their own friends and family.
That’s why the Grenfell fire is about political exclusion. These people were trying to get their most basic safety needs on to someone’s to-do list, only to be dismissed, ignored and intimidated. Had they been of higher social standing, it’s almost certain this would not have happened – that’s why this is about poverty and don’t let anybody tell you any different.
Poverty is about more than money. Poverty is like a gravitational field, comprising social, economic, emotional and physiological forces. Every person’s escape velocity is different, relative to their circumstances, but regardless of how those individual factors, such as family or education, may differ between individuals, the forces that poverty brings to bear on a person will subtly direct the course of their life. That’s why we can accurately determine a child’s social mobility and life expectancy based solely on their birthweight and where they were born.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests poverty is more than an economic problem. A recent study conducted by the Crittenton Women’s Union showed chronic stress, of the sort experienced by people living in daily poverty, “has impacts far beyond diminution of personal agency, selfawareness, or understanding of others. It causes physiological changes in brain development that deeply affect the ways people react to the world around them”. The author of