On 14th June, Grenfell Tower burned to the ground. Grenfell housed the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised - in one of the richest boroughs in the UK, Kensington and Chelsea. Residents warned the Powers That Be about the fire risk, but their voices were suppressed, or flat-out ignored. 30 have been confirmed dead so far; 70 are missing; many survivors remain in hospital. The death toll will certainly rise. It is a tragedy. More than that: the Grenfell Tower blaze is a logical outcome of austerity and conservative politics, which eviscerated and eviscerates support systems for people who need them most, who literally depend on them. It is not hyperbole to say that the stakes are life and death for those who rely on social care, the social safety net in all its forms. Grenfell is emblematic of the complete disdain the rich - and many of the (conservative) political class - have for those who fall below that all-important middle-class line.
I first heard David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, speak at an anti-Brexit march. He impressed me with his passion and focus, his unflinching commitment to serving his constituents. As a result, I started following him on Twitter. And he's just given one of the most gut-wrenching, stark, insightful interviews I've seen in a long while to Channel 4 News (Twitter; website). He speaks movingly - and is himself visibly moved - about the politics of the Grenfell Tower fire, and austerity politics in general. I've embedded the relevant Channel 4 News tweet below, which has the video. But I wanted to ensure that the interview is accessible to all, so I've typed up the transcript of the interview below. Any mistakes are mine alone - and if you spot typos etc, please get in touch so I can rectify them.
David Lammy: This is about the welfare state. For your middle-class viewers, this is about whether the welfare state is just schools and hospitals, or whether it’s about having a safety net. I get quite emotional as I say that. [DL visibly upset] We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable. And that means housing, it means somewhere decent to live. It was a noble idea that we built and it’s falling apart around our eyes. That’s what it about.
And if it’s taken this tragedy to bring that reality home to people, who are lucky enough to live in very different circumstances then thank God. It’s about the welfare state.
Do we believe in a safety net or not? [DL chokes up, wipes eye]
Channel 4 News: Because what do you think this says about the state of some housing? Some state-run, council-owned housing?
DL: You can’t contract out everything to the private sector. The private sector do some wonderful things, but they have for-profit motives, they cut corners. If you haven’t got the officers to check on the enforcement of buildings, don’t expect it to be done. You know, are there fire extinguishers? I knock on doors all the time, all MPs did. We’ve all been up to those tower blocks, they exist right across the country. Where are the fire extinguishers on every corridor? You know, where are the hoses? Are the fire doors really working? Where are the sprinklers? If you want to build these buildings, then let them at least be as good as the luxury penthouse buildings that are also being built. But these buildings aren’t, is the question. So you either demolish them and house people in a different way or you absolutely refurbish them to the best of quality of that we can do.
C4N: Do you think this says anything about the value that is placed on the lives of people who cannot afford to buy their own property? To live in some of the nicer bits of London?
DL: This is a tale of two cities. This is what Dickens was writing about in the century before the last, and it’s still here in 2017. It’s the face of the poorest and the most vulnerable.
My friend [Khadija Saye] who lost her life was a talented artist, but she was a young black woman making her way in this country and she absolutely had no power or locus or agency. She had not yet achieved that in her life, she had done amazing things, gone to university, the best in her life. [DL chokes up with emotion] But she’s died with her mother on the 22nd floor of the building. And it breaks my heart that that’s happening in Britain in 2017. It breaks my heart.