The government cannot shirk its share of the blame
‘Shame on you,’ Tory MPs shouted at PMQs today when Jeremy Corbyn asked about cuts to the fire service and to local authorities in the context of the Grenfell Fire.
It was one of many Conservative attempts to accuse Labour of ‘politicising’ the tragedy, an attempt Theresa May undermined when she cynically highlighted that ‘the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government’. Her purpose was to highlight that the inquiry should deal with the failures of successive governments — as it should — but the impression is of a party and a government attempting to shirk its share of the blame.
Because even if previous governments bear some responsibility, May is in charge now so she — and only she — can fix the problems that have been highlighted by this terrible tragedy. She can halt or reverse cuts to the fire service, she can review housing policy, she can empower local councils to do more to protect their communities.
These issues are political and sooner or later the Tories will have to accept that. Indeed, it’s notable that today’s session began with a discussion of Hillsborough, another preventable tragedy over which six people have now been charged. In the immediate aftermath of that disaster, the Conservatives of the day also tried to present it as an accident, just one of those things.
But despite repeated attempts at cover-ups, and despite the media’s efforts to blame Liverpool fans, we recognise today that political and structural factors undoubtedly contributed to the Hillsborough disaster, including corporate neglect and the failures of the police service. We also know that one of the reasons justice has been so long in coming is that the victims at Hillsborough were overwhelmingly working class and so could be ignored given the anti-poor politics of the Thatcher years.
Similarly, the victims of the Grenfell Tower are largely working class people of colour, or migrants — the kinds of people who have been endlessly stigmatised by the Conservatives over the last seven years. And although there is an astounding amount of uncertainty about the failures of state oversight in this case, it is necessary and appropriate to question political decisions, and to challenge the current government on the impacts of those decisions.
The Tories may attempt to smear any attempt to discuss the structural causes of the tragedy as ‘politicisation’, but the residents of west London tower blocks aren’t buying it. This morning, affected residents angrily questioned housing minister Alok Sharma over the government’s failure to provide them with adequate alternative accommodation.
As Hillsborough has shown, ordinary people affected by tragedy understand that their suffering is political — and can be relied upon to hold government to account.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.