A system that let working-class people burn

London's tragedy has transformed celebration of Labour's strong showing into white-hot anger, writes Australian socialist Corey Oakley, in an article written for Red Flag.

A deadly inferno consumes Grenfell Tower in London (Natalie Oxford | Wikimedia Commons)A deadly inferno consumes Grenfell Tower in London (Natalie Oxford | Wikimedia Commons)

THE HORRIFIC fire that destroyed Grenfell Tower in London, killing at least 58 people and possibly many more, was not simply a tragedy. The disaster has exposed in the starkest possible terms the true horror of an austerity-racked, class-divided society, and the inhuman, brutish nature of the Tory government and the system it rules over.

People died in Grenfell Tower because they were poor. They died because the Conservative Party-dominated local council hated them and would not lift a finger to put measures in place to stop people burning in their beds. They died because public housing has been left to rot, and successive governments, in the name of a "war on red tape," have ripped up safety regulations and left working-class people at the mercy of unscrupulous, cost-cutting private firms.

The exterior cladding likely responsible for the fire is banned even in the U.S. because it is a known fire hazard. It would have cost just $6,000 to put in a fire-safe alternative. And now it has emerged that the cladding was put up not to improve the lives of the residents of the tower, but to make it less of an eyesore for those in nearby rich areas. What greater symbol could there be of the utter contempt with which the Tory council regards its working class constituents?

In the wake of the fire, endless stories have emerged, painting a sickening but accurate picture of government and power in the age of neoliberalism. For example, Theresa May's new police and fire minister, Nick Hurd, was among the 72 Tory MPs who are also residential landlords and who voted against a motion to make homes "fit for human habitation." And her new chief of staff was one of a series of housing ministers who sat on a report warning that high-rise blocks such as Grenfell Tower were vulnerable to fire.

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A WEEK earlier, when votes began to be tallied late on election night, young people poured out of clubs and pubs around the country, chanting Jeremy Corbyn's name. It was an extraordinary moment of hope. Now, as Britain digests the full horror of what happened at Grenfell Tower, that sense of hope has been replaced by white-hot anger.

Thousands have taken to the streets demanding justice for the victims, and opposing the whitewash that has begun.

It's not just anger at the Tories. The fact that Grenfell sits in the richest borough of the country, only a short walk from some of Britain's wealthiest streets, lined with opulent houses owned by bankers and billionaires, underlines the monstrousness of the class divide. Those at the top have everything--unbounded riches, more wealth than all the kings and queens of history combined. But even a sprinkler system in a tower block is too much for the poor.

Anger against austerity has been building for years. But the political establishment and the ruling class it serves, consumed by hubris, has done nothing to change course. When longtime leftist Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party and promised to fight austerity, restore public funding to health and education, and take on the power of the rich, he was ridiculed in the media and mocked by political opponents--both Tories and Labour MPs. He was living in the past, they said: socialist politics are dead, there is no alternative to the neoliberal consensus.

Now the apparatchiks of the old order are reaping the whirlwind. The Conservative Party is in tatters; its majority in parliament gone, its leader utterly discredited. In the days after the Grenfell fire, when Theresa May refused even to meet with the surviving residents, the magnitude of the gap between rulers and ruled became glaringly apparent.

The indifference of the Tories to the suffering of working-class Britons is not news, but to see their callousness and inhumanity on display in such a manner was almost beyond belief. All the false sympathy, the crocodile tears of politicians who leap in front of the cameras within minutes of any terrorist attack, manipulating mourning in the service of their grubby interests, was suddenly exposed for the vile hypocrisy that it is.

If the party had any honor, it would respond with compassion and contrition to a catastrophe that was so clearly the result of its own policies. The Tories ran and hid. Not just May, all of them.

Virtually no one has come to the government's defense. Even Rupert Murdoch's tabloid, the Sun, ran a front-cover headline "It was murder" alongside an image of thousands of protesters marching on Westminster. Its editorial said, "Tory failures are stark as poor lay dead in the blackened Grenfell Tower block after fire so close to Britain's most opulent homes."

The editors of Murdoch's vile rag don't give a damn about the poor. But they can see what is happening around them. YouGov reports that 59 percent of people back Jeremy Corbyn's demand that some of the empty houses of the rich in the Kensington area be requisitioned to house those displaced by the fire. It's a reasonable and perfectly sensible suggestion, but one that would usually meet howls of protest and be offered as proof that Corbyn is a dangerous communist. Not anymore.

In the Labour Party, the endless array of Corbyn critics fell silent after the election, stunned by the results. The Grenfell tragedy should make them hang their heads in shame. It's not just Tory policies responsible for this disaster--Blair's New Labour was equally committed to the neoliberalism that caused it.

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IT IS right that so many millions reacted to Corbyn's dramatic election success with joy and hope. It was proof that it is possible to conceive of a radical alternative to the right-wing consensus of cutbacks, privatization and handouts to the rich.

But the horror of the Grenfell fire shows that hope for the future is not enough. The Tories may have been battered at the polls, but they are still in charge. The system that creates disasters like Grenfell, and which every day entrenches a brutal class divide and grinds working class people into the dust, remains entirely intact.

As thousands of people take to the streets demanding justice, the powerful are behind closed doors, plotting ways of protecting themselves from the onslaught of anger. In coming weeks, there will be an avalanche of solemn promises that they will do better, that changes will be made.

It is all lies. The politicians, the media owners and the bankers aren't shamed by the injustices of the social structure off of which they grow rich. They regard the bulk of the population as nothing but the means to create the wealth of the powerful. For them, this disaster is a political tragedy, not a human one. They are moved by it only insofar as it threatens their position.

To beat them, we need not just hope in a different future, but anger as well: furious anger, and a determination to resist, to fight back, to overthrow a system and a social class whose murderous indifference causes working class people to burn to death in their beds.

First published at Red Flag.