Doug Thorpe from the Radical Housing Network spoke to Penny Duggan for The Anti-capitalist, the newspaper of the NPA in late June. We are happy to reprint it below. Doug is also a member of Left Unity and wrote an earlier article for their website here.
Why did this fire provoke such widespread popular anger ?
There were a number of reasons; the horrific nature of the fire and the number of people who died.
The true number has not yet been admitted and could be in hundreds. That it was revealed early on that residents, through the Grenfell Action Group, had been warning about health and safety risks for years and ignored by the Council (the landlord).
That lessons and recommendations from previous fires at Knowsley Heights, Liverpool and Lakanal House, Southwark had not been acted on by government.
Sheer disbelief that flammable panels could have been used on a tower, when inflammable ones would have only cost £5000 more for the entire block.
That there are another 600 such tower blocks in the UK that may be at risk. All these played a part in the popular anger.
But also, as with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party election campaign, there is a growing popular feeling in the UK that austerity has gone too far; and that the poorest in society are being sacrificed for the profits of developers and the rich. This may be a turning point against austerity in Britain.
How have the the different demonstrations been organised? A spontaneous effect of the fire or more linked to the overall political situation?
The Central London demonstrations were called by the traditional left, housing campaigns, and social/black justice organisations. These were linked to a great extent to the overall situation.
But the local demonstration at Kensington Town Hall was spontaneous by local people who place the main responsibility with the local council. Subsequent demonstrations in the locality have been self-organised by local residents with a growing level of organisation which is focussing into the #Justice for Grenfell Campaign.
Housing activists from the Radical Housing Network (which the Grenfell Action Group is part of) also played a part in getting information about the tower out into the social and mainstream media. The local anger is increasingly being turned to the overall situation, as well as maintaining a strong focus on the criminal failure of the local council.
But, the Grenfell fire is now fuelling the general anti-austerity movement. The demonstration called by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity on 1 July for which John McDonnell, Corbyn’s shadow Chancellor, has called for a million people on the streets. This demonstration’s size and level of anger and militancy will be fuelled by the Grenfell fire, and the growing information about the number of other unsafe social housing towers. (To date every tower with these cladding panels, 60 so far, that has been tested, has failed the tests). Also demonstrations and vigils in solidarity with the victims and survivors of Grenfell have taken place in many UK cities.
What is the housing situation in London (and elsewhere)? Are there permanent campaigning structures?
The housing situation in London is at crisis point, particularly for young people and working people. There is a critical shortage of really affordable housing. Social Housing is being demolished and replaced with more expensive privately owned housing.
Many of the new properties are being bought by speculators (a great number from abroad) and left empty to profit from the rising property prices. Rents are often over 50% of a household’s earned income. Throughout London there are permanent housing campaign structures, often organised on a local area, or type of tenure basis. These are increasingly linked up through the Radical Housing Network.
Elsewhere the issues vary. In the south and some central metropolitan areas, as in London the main issue are shortage and price. In other areas, the North, Wales, Scotland; other issues such as disrepair, and state benefit restrictions may be more important.
In rural areas it can be shortage caused by rich outsiders buying second homes at prices local people cannot afford, or rental properties being used as holiday lets and Air B&B instead of homes.
But every area has some sort of housing problem. There are housing campaigns in most cities, but perhaps the coordination and linkage of these campaigns is not so developed outside of London.
What is the relationships between popular rejection of May on this question and a broader rejection of her policies as a whole?
The left, young people and the black communities have quickly made the link.
There is a more complex debate in other sections of the working class.
The horror and outrage at the fire is general. So is the anger and rejection of May, who provoked outrage by failing to meet survivors of the fire. But it is not yet clear whether that anger will generally, or uniformly build into a rejection of her policies of austerity. There are signs it will.
But the right wing media is increasingly fighting back and suggesting the problem is social housing (particularly in towers) itself, and that it is occupied mainly by immigrants. This could be used as further argument for social cleansing of working class communities. This is completely wrong.
The rich live safely in multi-million pound towers with safe materials, sprinkler systems and fire escapes. The problems are austerity and the neoliberalism (privatisation, deregulation of controls etc) that underpins it. But that argument is still to be won.
The popularity of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and his policies will be a key element in winning that argument, toppling the May government, and reversing the policies of austerity and neoliberalism.