Grenfell Tower Now Stands As A Monument To Neo-liberalism : FT and Evening Standard Rejoinder

Dear George Osborne and Lionel Barber,

I have read with interest two articles titled, Grenfell Tower now stands as a stark monument to inequality in W11 and The Grenfell fire ignites anger at UK inequality, which was published in the Evening Standard and Financial Times respectively on 16 June 2017. The two articles published in response to the fire that engulfed the twenty-four story Grenfell Tower in West London notes that the tragedy is a symptom of the inequality occurring in the U.K. It is refreshing to see two prominent London-based newspapers highlight the inequality taking place in London, however, one wonders if it has to take poor people jumping out of a building in flames before making the case for an equal Britain.

The troika of austerity, deregulation and privatisation has contributed not only to the growing level of inequality in Britain but indirectly to the Grenfell Tower tragedy that has so far claimed seventy-nine lives. The Coalition government’s austerity programme introduced in the aftermath of the Great Recession has resulted in the widening chasm between the haves and the have not. The London Evening Standard (Standard) and the Financial Times (FT) cannot absorb itself from the inequality taking place in the land. In the case of the Evening Standard, it rewarded Mr. George Osborne, the architect of the government’s brutal austerity programme (which has decimated the lives of the poor) with a high profile role as editor of the paper. When George Osborne was implementing his spending cut on the poor, the FT took a front row seat acting as the principal cheerleader for the austerity programme. The FT in article after article justified the intellectual and ideological basis of the government’s austerity policy.

To paraphrase the Standard’s article title, the Grenfell Tower now stands as a stark monument to neo-liberalism. Despite several warnings about fire safety conditions in the tower, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council failed to install fire sprinklers, fire staircases and fire alarm system partly due to cuts in local government funding. In addition, the Fire Brigade Union noted that 10,000 frontline fire fighters have lost their jobs since the Coalition government came to power in 2010. A few days before the fire at Grenfell Tower, Dave Green of the Fire Brigades Union warned that these cuts ensured the fire fighters “Ability to respond is becoming compromised.” Since the cuts began, fire prevention visits have declined by 25%.

The £49.5bn funding cuts to local government spending have handicapped local councils ability to provide certain services. According to Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, “Council budgets are stretched beyond measure. Increased demand coupled with the management of nearly a decade of cuts from the government has left local government at breaking point.” As a consequence, a number of local authorities have partnered with private firms to provide services such as the case of Grenfell Tower where fire safety standards were compromised. Furthermore, 309 Conservative MPs voted down two proposed legislations to improve housing safety for council houses and privately rented properties.

Sirs, I hope you will be able to understand why I find your papers concern about inequality not only paradoxical but also hypocritical. Your paper appears to focus on the symptoms of inequality while ignoring the root cause. Some readers of your papers have very long memories and so we can easily recall the many instances in which your paper has pitched its tent with George Osborne’s cutting scissors. In the next couple of paragraphs, I will recall some of the instances in which the FT acted as the cheerleader for austerity.

When Osborne announced his first budget as Chancellor in 2010, he told Britain of his plan to tighten the fiscal belt. The FT in an editorial titled Welfare must take more of the pain described the £11bn cut to welfare as “slender”. Besides diminishing the brutality of the welfare cut, the editorial stated, “The government should go further in this area. Free bus passes and winter fuel payments for 60– year-olds, regardless of need, are unsupportable.” The paper also called for a cut in public sector pay, yet in a 4 June 2015 editorial, it described a proposed 10% pay rise for British MPs as fully justified; a classic case of one rule for the elites and one rule for the masses. A day before the fire outbreak at Grenfell Tower, the Standard in an editorial titled: This is no time to ditch fiscal responsibility called for the continuation of the austerity programme in the aftermath of Theresa May’s poor performance at the General Election.

As the austerity kicked in, the marginalised began to cry out describing the cuts as unfair and inhumane. Even though many Britons were in a state of despair, the FT in an editorial titled, The complaints come marching in published in March 2011 noted, “The government’s approach has already had one important success: it has reassured the bond market.” In short, what is good for an inanimate entity should take precedence over the concerns of millions of poor Brits. Even though the editorial noted the potential downside to austerity, the FT still justified the measures, “True, things could still go awry, and Mr. Osborne must be ready to adjust his tactics if they do. But until conditions dictate otherwise, Mr. Osborne is right to stick to his austerity programme.”

Halfway into the government’s austerity programme, the FT in an editorial titled, UK politicians should not muddy fiscal waters, argued, “George Osborne made two bold claims: first that the economy could withstand such austerity, and second that public services could cope with much less funding. On both issues, he was vindicated.” This is despite the fact that a few years later, a survey of councils in England and Wales conducted by the Local Government Information Unit revealed that nearly 80% of local councils had little or no confidence in the sustainability of local government finances. The FT supported the case for cuts to local council and privatisation in an editorial titled, The risks and rewards of George Osborne’s austerity. According to the FT, “Britain’s councils had become too bloated and inefficient …….It is particularly welcome to see more local authorities commissioning services from private companies rather than trying to act as providers themselves.” This privatisation has lead to what the Guardian describes as, “a race to the bottom” to reduce fees and limit the number of safety inspections carried out.”

The Evening Standard has done a remarkable job in raising via its emergency Dispossessed Fund, £2m for the victims of the fire. The FT also does a great job in raising millions of pounds for its annual FT Seasonal Appeal. However, in addition to charity, the poor left bloodied on the Jericho walk of life also need justice. What is the point of collecting millions of pounds from your middle-class readers to throw at the feet of the poor only to champion the very neo-liberal policies that put the poor in that condition? Or is it a case of what Nadine Gordimer calls offering “palliatives, which satisfy the conscience and keep the same old system of haves and have-nots quietly contained.”

An FT editorial titled: In praise of free markets, noted, “Market freedom is not a fundamentalist religion. It is a mechanism, not an ideology, and one that has proved its value again and again over the past 200 years. The Financial Times is proud to defend it — even today.” Without a doubt, neo-liberalism has helped raise living standards in some countries and allocate resources efficiently. However, it has a very dark side. Neo-liberalism has championed putting profit before people, dehumanising people to statistics and creating an unfair world in which the few benefit at the expense of the many. In referencing the Grenfell disaster, the FT notes: “The tragedy should serve as a warning to anyone in government who still believes in deregulation as an ideological goal.” I hope that one day you will begin to appreciate that the disaster also serves as a warning to those of you who blindly live by every word that proceedeth out of neo-liberalism.

Selah.

Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA

suleaos@gmail.com

June 2017