The Grenfell Tower disaster is political. Look at the evidence of the fire test ‘fraud’ | Owen Jones

Politics in the UK is often reduced to little more than a soap opera: a story of who is in and who is out, who is favoured and who is marginalised. Unsurprising, perhaps that after his sacking, Boris Johnson’s former right-hand man Dominic Cummings revelled in his cliched evil genius caricature, theatrically choosing to exit via the Downing Street front door for maximum exposure and renewed notoriety. The model of political reporting depends on proximity to power; journalists’ ability to gain access to elite circles relies on establishing close relationships in No 10 and the Palace of Westminster. As a result, allegations that Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancee, was referred to as Princess Nut Nut by the Cummings cabal, has become one of the biggest political stories in a year in which – going by excess deaths – one in every 887 British citizens died during a pandemic, the economy has collapsed, and we are all living under de facto house arrest.

What qualifies as a political headline, aside from sexist nicknames for the prime minister’s fiancee and Labour’s internal forever war? Three and a half years ago, 72 predominantly working-class people suffered unimaginably horrific deaths in Grenfell Tower in west London. When the then shadow chancellor John McDonnell described this entirely avoidable mass death as “social murder”, some spared more outrage for his comments than over how such a disaster was made possible in the first place. McDonnell’s point was this: Grenfell was not merely some human tragedy, but disaster made possible because of a social order that prioritises other things – notably money – over human life. This is politics.

Other than the pandemic ravaging both human life and our economic fabric, the main headline should be about this. A former employee at Celotex – the company that provided the combustible insulation for Grenfell Tower – this week addressed the inquiry into the preventable disaster. Jonathan Roper – a former assistant product manager – claimed that the executives who sold the insulation were guilty of a “fraud on the market”, having “overengineered” a cladding fire test to ensure it passed a safety test, and then made “misleading” claims about it. Here is what they did: after a first test failed in early 2014, they simply added concealed fire-resistant panels, reran it and, voilà, it passed. Both the failed test and the added material was concealed, according to Roper.

Grenfell Tower is one of the scandals of the century. A company allegedly sought to maximise its profits by deliberately cheating fire tests, deceiving buyers into believing they were safe, and in doing so could have contributed to turning Grenfell Tower into a mass grave – and the biggest loss of life in London since the blitz. Yet this story did not merit a top slot in the political merry-go-round: the troubled court of Johnson and Labour strife has taken up all the space. And here are the questions we should be asking. How could it be possible, in a wealthy nation with self-aggrandising claims to a highly sophisticated legal system, for companies to get away with such deception in the search for profit? There can be few more profound political questions than this.

It goes further, of course. The horror of Grenfell was predictable, and it was predicted. For years, residents warned the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation of the fire risk they faced. But this is a society that ignores, marginalises and even demonises working-class people, especially those who are disproportionately from minority ethnic backgrounds, as was the case with the population of Grenfell Tower. The voices of Grenfell residents were only heard when many were dead – and, even then, only temporarily, as many of the traumatised survivors have been fighting an ongoing battle to be rehoused. If they were white middle-class professionals in a luxury block of flats in Kensington – which has Britain’s biggest gap between rich and poor – would flammable insulation have been chosen? Would their warnings have been ignored? And would they have been abandoned in the aftermath of such a calamity? The damning probable conclusions open up equally damning political questions.

Last year, a report published by the Fire Brigades Union – whose members risked their lives to save Grenfell’s residents – concluded that a mantra of deregulation affected “all areas of policy relevant to the fire at Grenfell Tower: research and testing of construction materials, risk assessment, inspection, enforcement, the setting of standards and systems of decision making”. The report’s conclusions represent a challenge to the very basis of a free market ideology that has governed Britain for approaching two generations. This is politics.

Here’s why this matters. In the aftermath of such horror, out come the pundits denouncing “politicisation” of the Grenfell Tower fire, as though this was simply a random act of God to be mourned, but not learned from. But the Grenfell Tower disaster is politics at its most distilled and violent: how a society has become structured to make the avoidable mass deaths of its citizens possible. Whether justice is won for the dead and the survivors remains to be seen: the powerful have a habit of looking after their own and rebuffing the struggles of the victims from communities that can be easily ignored. Politics in this country is theatre, and often pantomime, like the West Wing set to a Benny Hill soundtrack. But politics shouldn’t be about whose careers have been made or broken: but about how human life itself can be relegated below the interests of money. This is politics.

• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

The Guardian

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