Is the Grenfell Tower disaster 'corporate manslaughter'?

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(Image via abc.net.au)

"We should call it [the Grenfell Tower fire] what it is, it’s corporate manslaughter ... and there should be arrests made, frankly."

~ British Labour MP David Lammy

THE OFFICIAL DEATH TOLL in the entirely preventable fire in Grenfell Tower is, at the time of writing, 58 confirmed or presumed dead. That figure will, I believe, grow. 

Grenfell Tower housed hundreds of poor people in a 24-storey block in the wealthiest borough of one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

There will be critics who say we should not politicise this tragedy. Tell that to the hundreds of angry residents who booed Tory Prime Minister Theresa May when she stage-managed her second visit. On both visits, she avoided the people. She was too scared to meet them.

Tell the hundreds now homeless and sleeping in school dorms not to politicise the tragedy, while hotel rooms and properties of the rich and powerful nearby sit empty — all 1,399 of them. Jeremy Corbyn’s call to requisition those empty properties and hotel rooms for emergency accommodation has majority support.

Tell the hundreds who marched on Whitehall demanding "May must go" not to politicise the tragedy. Tell those people who invaded the Conservative-dominated local council meeting not to politicise the fire.

The tragedy is a political one. Would the British Parliament have been fitted out this way, with flammable cladding and no sprinklers? What about the homes of the rich and powerful? What about Buckingham Palace?

Safe rental properties have always been a political issue. Last year, Jeremy Corbyn moved amendments to a housing bill that would have 'required private landlords to make their homes safe and “fit for human habitation” last year'. The Conservatives, including 72 Tory landlords, rejected it.

This fire was the result of 38 years of austerity and neoliberalism. From Thatcher to Major, from Blair and Brown to Cameron and May, that politics has cut "red tape". This is code for, among other things, cutting safety regulations to let business make more profit.  

This British version of neoliberalism also drastically cut the very life-saving services, like fire and ambulance, that were stretched to the limit in addressing this crime. The firefighters union warned again about the dangers of cutting fire-fighting services earlier this year.

In 2012, it was then Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron who said he wanted to: 

" ... kill off the health and safety culture for good."

Why? Because it stood in the way of business and profit.

It is the neoliberal version of capitalism that has driven more and more people into poverty. It was the neoliberal version of capitalism that built the shoddy, cheap, unsafe towers and other rental properties that are spread across Britain (and I might add Australia) to house the poor.

The discussion is not and should not just be about the technical issues in Grenfell Tower alone. That hides the deeper reality of austerity, poverty and the increase in the power of the rich few at the expense of the working class and poor.  

It is all about profit before people.

The cladding used in refurbishing the flats last year was, to use the words of Rob Davies, Kate Connolly and Ian Sample in The Guardian:

‘ ... a cheaper, more flammable version of the two available options.’

Because of safety concerns, that cheaper alternative has been banned in Germany since the 1980s. 

The less flammable version would have cost £2 (AU$3.36) a square metre more, so, unrestrained by regulation, the renovators went for the cheaper option. It saved them £5,000 (AU$8,400). Around 30,000 buildings in the UK have the same more flammable cladding as that used on Grenfell Tower. The problem is systemic. It is political. It is a problem created by rabid regulation to put profit first.

There were no sprinklers and only one inadequate emergency exit. Putting sprinklers in would have cost, shock horror, £200,000 (AU$336,000) out of a total refurbishing cost of £10 million (AU$16.8 million). Someone profited to the tune of £200,000 (AU$336,000). It cost residents their lives.

Last year, Theresa May’s Government changed the building code to remove the requirement to fit sprinklers in schools.

Cladding, fire exits and sprinklers are just some of safety issues the Grenfell Action Group raised for years and years. They specifically warned of the possibility of a devastating fire.

Here is what they said after the fire:

Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in RBKC.

ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.

No one listened to them. They were poor people. Who listens to the poor? Certainly not Tories.

Gavin Bardwell, the new chief of staff of PM Theresa May, was a former housing minister who "sat on a report" warning that high rise towers like Grenfell were 'vulnerable to fire’.

Former Conservative Housing Minister Brandon Lewis, as part of the deregulation madness, told MPs:

“We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.

The many dead in Grenfell Tower are testimony to a capitalist society which puts profit before people.

As Labour MP David Lammy said:

"We should call it [the fire and the deaths] what it is, it’s corporate manslaughter, that’s what it is and there should be arrests made, frankly."

The politicians who made this crime possible will likely not be prosecuted. Given public anger, some commercial underlings might be. I say "might be" without any sense of that happening.

Unlike the austerity politicians, the community has responded magnificently by providing supplies and giving their time and money to organise help for all those affected. Not so the local council, the manager of the property or the May Government.

Theresa May clearly cannot last as prime minister. Her ruling class standoffishness as well as her neoliberal policies, exposed by the Grenfell disaster, doom her already tenuous hold on power.

Her disastrous decision to go to an election three years early cost the Tories their majority. The Conservatives are right now searching for a viable alternative PM. That they do not have one, least of all one who has the common touch and is prepared to pull back from neoliberalism, shows that the problems for the British state are systemic.

Even Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in his saner moments, is tainted by Grenfell. In 2013, while Mayor of London, he told a Labour opponent to "get stuffed" after they questioned his plans to abolish ten fire stations.   

But, of course, this is just a problem for the UK, right? Wrong. Most major developed countries have been infected with the neoliberalism whose ultimate product is Grenfell Tower.

It is a myth that neoliberalism is about less state control. That might be true for market relations and state interference in safety regulation, for example, but neoliberalism recognises the main barrier to implementing its policies is the organised working class and its unions. The history of neoliberalism is, therefore, the history of attacks on unions.  

From Australia to Chile, and on to the UK and the U.S., the main target of neoliberalism has been unions. To implement its attacks on workers and social services requires a strong state (Chile), or strong state action (the UK, U.S.) against workers and their unions. In Australia, it was and is subtle and not so subtle state action, including the Accord, the deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation, the use of the air force to smash the pilots’ strike, the masked scab labour in the 1998 waterfront dispute, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption and so on.  

It is building unions, still bravely fighting for safety on site, who are the main targets of the Australian state. It is no accident that as the Government attacks the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, and reintroduces the ABCC, more building workers will die.

During the 2016 election, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull lied about the Country Fire Association and the Fire Brigade Union issue. He painted it as a union takeover, when the reality is that in a time of urban sprawl in one of the most urbanised countries in the world, we need more paid professional firefighters. Far from protecting our homes from fires, Malcolm Turnbull is trying to do a "Theresa May" to paid firefighting services. 

The driver in refurbishing Grenfell Towers was cheap products, which means more profit. That disease is here too. Building workers found asbestos in roofing products being used in the refurbishment of the Perth Children’s Hospital.  

That profit, profit, profit at all costs, coupled with a lack of regulation, also explains why the more combustible form of cladding is widely used across Australia.  

Maybe putting unions in charge of safety on building sites would address these issues.

What can be done? In Britain, the anger continues to grow as does, for some at least, the realisation that this was a manmade crime – not a natural event – and that neoliberal policy and the drive for profit at the expense of people is to blame. 

Grenfell Tower is a monument to neoliberalism and a society divided by class.

Well before Grenfell Tower, the Left in Britain, including Shadow Finance Minister John McDonnell, had called a protest for 1 July to drive Theresa May out. It will become the focus for the anger against decades of neoliberalism and its tombstone, Grenfell Tower. 

The same neoliberal cost-cutting conditions exist in Australia — although we have not yet had our Grenfell Tower. The spark for the rebellion against neoliberalism here may not be a crime like that. It could be a strike against the economic conflagration destroying our living standards. Whatever its form, it will come, and then the fight for a society that puts people first can begin in earnest.

John Passant is considering running for the Senate in the A.C.T. in 2019 as an independent socialist. 

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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