The Right’s reaction to Grenfell
How did the Right react to Grenfell? Many — the prime minister belatedly among them — responded very well, accepting the need for action beyond an investigation, accepting also the deeper, more systemic problems. Rather than making excuses and deflecting, they admitted that there was need for fundamental changes(1). They also accepted that there was going to be criticism, anger and some protests. But there was a section that responded in a very different way, despite the problems being evident and palpable.
‘It’s all a conspiracy’. Within hours, the rumours started circulating online. The extreme right quickly decided it was all a plot by Muslims, who supposedly set the tower on fire in order to create civil disorder and overthrow the government. The less extreme elements took a different line. The disaster was an accident, but the ‘hard left’ (meaning for them the whole of the Labour Party) stoked up feelings in order to start a revolt. Quite how a (presumably) armed uprising would be started through protests was not specified — just repeated as an axiom. Having a few people push into Kensington town hall, stage a vigil and then march down to Downing Street in order to protest is apparently a threat to national security.
This is very worrying as it is mirrored by what Putin-controlled media and supporters say about protests in Russia. ‘It is all part of the West trying to destabilise and overthrow our President’ they cry. The link between having a few thousand people, surrounded by police, protest in the middle of Moscow and regime change is never explained. They point to the Maidan protests in Ukraine, not noticing the obvious differences in scale and duration (Maidan went on for many months before the Yanukovich regime fell). This untruth is used by Russia to justify violence against protesters by the security services. Putin’s rhetoric is echoed in the West by the likes of Donald Trump, who call protests ‘undemocratic’. Protest in the US are being slowly criminalised.
The other eerie similarity is in the way the Putin regime feeds off multiple conspiracy theories, uses them to create a state of uncertainty in which doubt can be cast upon any definitive claim. It keeps the regime off the hook by having the population in a constant state of uncertainty regarding who is responsible for things not going right. No doubt this is eyed with envy by many political strategists in the West: research shows that conspiracy theory generation seems to be an organised endeavour (the last link is very worth reading in full).
‘Let’s blame someone else’. Fortunately, the conspiracists were very much in a minority: we aren’t yet as brainwashed as Putin supporters. The less extreme elements poured out the excuses: supposedly this was the fault of EU legislation (2) or of green energy initiatives. To which the basic reply is… if the EU and its green energy initiatives endangered our fire safety to this extent, why hadn’t our whole political establishment been vocal about challenging the EU specifically on this? Why hadn’t the Eurosceptics ever mentioned British fire safety if they felt that European rules compromised it?
‘Blame the little guy/let’s wait for the inquiry’. Others accused the Left of trying to score political points. Yes, they claimed, a terrible accident happened, but hang on, let’s have an inquiry and find out what was wrong, and only then make political statements. Until then… shhhhh. This was backed up by long lists of local officials and organisations that were supposedly responsible, with a particular emphasis made on anyone connected with Labour. What those people may not realise is that they are repeating a favourite regime tactic used in the latter days of the USSR, when just about anything going wrong was blamed in its entirety on the low-ranking apparatchik to excuse the big fish at the top. Criticism of minor parts of the system was never allowed to extend to the criticism of the system itself.
Corbyn, Khan and others reacted very forcefully to the disaster, and made it clear that the responsibility for it went all the way to the top. They were entirely right to do that — not just because being the opposition that is their job. Not even because this happened under a Tory government in a Tory-run council. They were right to do it because this is a political issue that showed up both the dire state of London’s affordable housing(3) and how light-touch regulation and outsourcing of government contracts resulted in a catastrophic failure. A government that champions cost-cutting, outsourcing and ‘bonfires of regulations’ has to be held responsible in case of regulatory failure, and this is independent of the conclusions of the inquiry.
Besides, when something goes wrong the first time, it is enough to order an inquiry, but this was not the first time nor the second. When a failure happens despite multiple previous incidents and warnings, it is a failure of the whole system. It is then the time to start apologising and looking at the root causes, the political philosophy that may have caused this. And this analysis necessarily has to go right to the top, that is where the buck stops. ‘Let’s wait and see’ sounds like an attempt to deflect and hope that the public’s attention moves onto something else before anything definitive comes out.
Part of the propaganda campaign against us forbids us to show any emotion or be angry. It is a neat trick: the Right reserves the sole right to be outraged, whilst an outraged ‘Leftie’ is branded to be either trying to score political points or being an out-of-control madman. Corbyn and Khan’s authenticity, their personal qualities, help a lot in this regard however, and it would not be surprising if the mainstream voter responds ‘so what, they are angry. I am angry that this happened, and the people need to know something tangible is going to be done, and done now, not kicked into the long grass.’(4) Arguably, there hasn’t been a riot along the lines of 2011 precisely because disadvantaged people now feel represented by the Labour party.
This crisis showed up a weakness in some sections of the Right. It is the inability of many of them to put their hand up and say ‘yes, guys, we may have screwed up, we will investigate, we will apologise and we will make fundamental changes to ensure this never happens again’. It is indicative that many commenters on the internet accused May of ‘caving in’ over Grenfell. The Right revel in their strength: the more extreme the right-wing belief, the more this is true. Someone who apologises, who expresses compassion is to them weak. So instead they try to think of excuses, deflections and (in the more extreme cases) conspiracy theories.
These need to be brought to light more often. If the Guardian is now behind us, a big splash on ‘the conspiracy theories and excuses following the Grenfell disaster’ could be done. This is so the mainstream voter finds out that some of May’s supporters think this is an Islamist/Leftist conspiracy. Or about the multitude of excuses, deflections, counter-accusations being trotted out. We need to be more ruthless, just like our opponents are when they present any abuse posted by any supporter of Corbyn as somehow connected to the Labour leadership. The public mood is on our side (even Corbyn’s statement about requisitioning of empty houses turned out to be popular) and we need build on that to ensure that this disaster leads to real change in how government assets are managed and run.
(1) Not to say these changes will actually happen. But at least the leading Tories know better than to act like some of their followers who are busy thinking of excuses and counter-accusations.
(2) In fairness, Dr North is a respected voice that champions a gradual Brexit, and the linked blog entry is purely about the legal issues. But it explains the logic of those who blamed EU regulation for Grenfell.
(3) There has been considerable uproar about the survivors housed in luxury flats. This just shows the problem: luxury flats are being built everywhere and affordable housing is not being built.
(4) That said, McDonnell’s day of rage did turn out to be a bit of a damp squib in the end. But I still believe that given the magnitude of what happened it was not an unjustifiable reaction.