Warning: this article contains distressing information about the Grenfell Tower fire.
Since the onset of the devastating fire that destroyed the Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West housing estate on June 14, North Kensington in West London has been operating as a people’s republic.
Local residents and volunteers from around London and the UK have taken to the streets in scenes of unity rarely seen in British life. I am one of those locals, and a former resident of the estate.
The local authority – Kensington and Chelsea council – failed, or chose not to, establish a meaningful strategic presence on the ground in the area in the days after the tower caught fire.
Similarly, the national government under Prime Minister Theresa May has been conspicuous only in its absence.
Leadership on the crisis has by default been taken up by the local population.
Both local and national governments are Conservative-run and have long displayed a callous attitude towards this ghetto of deprivation, in a city swimming in aimless wealth.
The Tories’ avarice has now been exposed to the nation but was already well understood in North Kensington.
The UK has the fifth largest economy on the planet, it is a first world country, but the Grenfell fire is a ‘third world disaster’. It was borne of neglect and a disdain towards the working class so profound that Conservative leaders seem unable to identify it even now.
The maltreatment of the poor on Lancaster West estate is as natural as the air they breathe to the Kensington and Chelsea council leadership. I experienced this directly, as did my neighbours. We were all aware that the estate was being consciously run down, while the whims of the nearby nouveau riche and the Tory-voting Notting Hill set were meticulously attended to.
Obsequiously devoted to austerity, the servants of power in Kensington allowed their prejudice and carelessness to pave the way for a mass immolation.
The estate is working class, and the Grenfell Tower was home to a significant migrant population, many of whom were mercifully either out or awake due to it being Ramadan.
Over years, residents have been treated abysmally by the council and the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), who have the contract to run the estate. Repeated warnings were given to the authorities over fire safety, but these were ignored. This was part of a pattern of disregard for residents’ needs and concerns, as everybody who has ever lived there knows.
Lancaster West estate is the warehousing of the inconvenient poor in the richest borough in the UK, with an estimated £300 million budget surplus. No improvements have been made to the estate, and the cladding attached to the Grenfell Tower is widely believed to have been introduced at the whim of newly arrived wealthy residents on an unaffordable development nearby.
Three almost identical tower blocks, out of the line of vision of the new penthouse occupants did not receive the “improvement” of the cladding, which appears to have been the cause of the rapid spread of the fire.
Kensington and Chelsea council will surely change its leadership in the coming days. Council elections are scheduled for April, but the Conservatives’ failure over Grenfell is beyond redemption for the thousands in the community who have lost whatever sliver of confidence they had in their local government.
Likewise, Theresa May will struggle to recover her reputation. May initially made a visit to speak with fire chiefs and was criticised so heavily that she had to make a subsequent visit to meet residents, only to be met with cries of “coward” from the street.
May has already seen her stature decline significantly following a woeful and hateful election campaign, which saw the Tories fail to win a majority. As with her stance on refugees, over Grenfell the prime minister appears to unable to muster genuine empathy. Over the Grenfell disaster, and in the election, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn eclipsed May with his non-staged, compassionate approach to politics.
Welcomed as one of the people, Corbyn spoke with survivors and local residents, taking the time to chat with traumatised children, before heading back to parliament to raise questions about how such a tragedy could come to pass.
The balance of power is shifting in British politics, and while May is clinging on with the help of the right-wing DUP, her cold, calculated approach has failed and is leaving her exposed. She appears to have no plan B, and Corbyn looks prime ministerial, ready to offer leadership based on the needs of communities.
“It’s wonderful when communities come together” was Corbyn’s parting line to volunteers gathered at the St Clement and St James centre when he visited.
This was a sentence that anyone helping out over the past few days has experienced as a reality. An atmosphere of unconditional comradeship has pervaded North Kensington. Youths supporting the elderly, Muslims feeding non-Muslims at the mosque, total strangers working in harmony together.
The unity is such that some residents have commented that there is no longer a Muslim community, a Christian community, a Sikh community or any other sectarian community in the area, there is just a community.
Such has been the burden on local residents that many are suffering from fatigue, caused by working long hours on the relief effort and dealing with the traumatising effects of the horrors that have visited the neighbourhood.
These factors have been compounded by the lack of coordination. Council or government leadership would have eased stresses and provided much-needed direction.
Confusion has been widespread, with conflicting messages coming from different groups and centres, with volunteers and donations being turned away. Worse, some survivors have been treated appallingly with claims that some have been sent out of the borough and that the millions of pounds being pledged are not reaching the displaced.
There are also astonishing but credible reports that some survivors are being handed just £10 by the council.
In the absence of conventional leadership or government, the most multicultural of populations is emerging from a horrifying blow, with a display of resilience that nobody in the area will ever forget.
It suggests a new way of organising communities and a new progressive way of doing politics, in which the scapegoating of the poor, migrants and the Left will no longer have a place. This has profound implications for the UK’s role in the world.
As a country, the UK must learn from the compassion of the North Kensington community and invest in a mindset in which equality and peace are political priorities.
by Tom Charles @tomhcharles
This article was first published by The New Arab on 19th June 2017. Republished on Urban Dandy 14th January 2019.