Friday 30 June 2017

The Tories are trying Wriggle Out of Responsibility for Grenfell Tower Disaster - Don't Let Them

Speaking on 19 June 2017,five days after the Grenfell Tower blaze, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said; "My understanding is that the cladding in question, the flammable cladding which is banned in Europe and the United States, is also banned here..."

At prime minister’s questions in Parliament on Wednesday, Theresa May said her “understanding” was that the cladding that has failed the test “was non-compliant with the building regulations”.

She said as well as identifying who was responsible for the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, the public inquiry would also need to look at “why it is that over decades, under different governments and under different councils, material has been put up on tower blocks that is non-compliant with the building regulations”.

Both of these statements from the most senior members of the Tory government are at best misleading, at worse completely untrue. I’m not saying they are lies, because that would require some evidence that Hammond and May knew what they were talking about, which I’m unsure of at this stage.

The statements are factually wrong though, according to experts in the field.

Barry Turner, director of technical policy at the Local Authority Building Control, told the Local Government Chronicle (subscription) that the document the prime minister referred to, Approved document B, was guidance, not a legally required regulation.

In addition he said Mrs May’s comments left out a crucial part of the guidance that allows use of a flammable cladding if it passes a “composite” test that includes other components surrounding the cladding, such as insulation.

Mr Turner said: “Within [the government’s] own guidance they’re very conveniently forgetting the paragraph that appears before the one they are quoting which allows an alternative method of testing a complete cladding system.”

Mr Turner said it was not surprising that cladding on all 137 tower blocks tested so far had failed as the Building Research Establishment (BRE) was carrying out a different test to the one specified in the guidance.

The tests being carried out for the government by the BRE are only testing cladding and do not take account of any other fire safety measures, such as flame retardant insulation.

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, has also said that it is “possible for buildings to be safe with that cladding in certain circumstances”.

Interviewed on BBC Newsnight on Wednesday he said: “All of this cladding has been fitted according to the rules that were in place at the time, according to the rules that were presided over by government.”

Lord Porter, Tory chairman of the Local Government Association, said fire safety tests on cladding from high-rise buildings were flawed.

He criticised the tests for focusing on the core of the panel - rather than the panel as a whole.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that "isn't the right thing to test", adding: "The government needs to listen to a wider set of opinions and not just the experts they have got."

So, the test they are doing on the Grenfell Tower cladding alone, doesn’t prove that the cladding was fitted against building regulations, it depends on the insulation used and other materials used that make up the whole construction.

But these regulations should have been tightened up, by the government, after an earlier fire at a residential tower block.

In 2009 a fire took hold in flats at Lakanal House in London which saw six people die. Following an inquest into the fire the coroner made a number of recommendations to the government and to other organisations like the London Fire Brigade and Southwark Council for how similar fires could be avoided in the future.

The recommendations made to the government in 2013 included:

‘Reviewing Document B (fire safety) of the Building Regulations to ensure that it is easily understandable and give guidance to those who are responsible for maintaining tower blocks, as well as building them.’

“Four years on and no review has been completed despite assurances from former housing minister Gavin Barwell, who is now Theresa May’s chief of staff,” reported the Telegraph.

The BBC reports that leaked letters from the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group to the government show that it repeatedly warned four different housing ministers that action needed to be taken on fire safety regulations.

“Surely however when you already have credible evidence in 2012 to justify updating a small but important part of the guidance in the Approved Document, which will lead to saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?

The government says the work is still ongoing.  

Today, the BBC and the Times reported having seen documents showing that the original cladding specified for the Tower had been a zinc cladding with a fire-retardant core, but in 2014 this was changed to ACM cladding with a PE core to save £293,000 and to allow a change of colour. However, the BBC point out that ‘both types of cladding have the same official fire rating’ (it is not clear what is meant by the word ‘official’).

The motives of the local authority, Kensington and Chelsea, in changing to using this type of cladding are reprehensible then, saving money and making it a nicer colour when viewed from outside, but appears to be within the law as it stands.

But in the end, why did the government not amend the regulations when they had been warned that this needed to happen? Uncaring and incompetent, which just about sums up this Tory administration.

Come to the ‘Not One More Day’ protest in central London tomorrow against the Tory government. Tories Out!

Thursday 29 June 2017

Will We Actually Leave the EU in the End?

I wrote a blog post last week, covering the Day of Rage demonstration in Parliament Square, which included some photos that I took as I headed home along Whitehall of the Pro-Remain No 10 Vigil opposite Downing Street. It was only a coincidence that these activists were there, as they gather on Wednesday’s and Friday’s to protest against leaving the European Union (EU).

After I’d posted the piece on the Day of Rage protest, one of the No 10 Vigil activists contacted me on Facebook, pointing out that the last few photos were of their vigil, and would I like to talk to them with a view to writing a separate blog post? So, I went along to talk to the group last Friday, which was of course the one year anniversary of the referendum to exit the EU.

Here’s a few pictures of the early evening:

The group was founded in February this year and now has almost 1,200 members on its Facebook page. They also run vigils in Camden and Brixton on Mondays. They aim to be a physical presence to increase awareness of the issues around Brexit, and engage with voters. Apparently some leave voters can be a bit aggressive, but they put up with this.

The few activists that I spoke to were buoyed up by the recent general election result, and they said that as a non-party political group, they thought a hung Parliament was the best result to get. It shows that the country is divided over Brexit. They also thought that many remain voters had voted tactically for Labour to put a brake on the Brexit process, even though Labour is committed to leaving the EU.

I asked if they favoured a second referendum, but they weren’t especially in favour, saying that the process will just drag out now, and, in the end, Brexit will not happen. I think the game has changed a bit since the general election, and I could see Brexit being made into a more long term process. There are different versions of Brexit for sure as well, but to just ignore the referendum result? Constitutionally, this maybe legitimate, but surely the people should be given the choice again?

I voted remain but I think it would only be fair to let the people reverse, or not, last year’s decision, rather than kick it into the long grass until it gets forgotten? 

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Seven Years in the Green Party - What Now?

Written by Dave Taylor 

Seven years ago the election of Caroline Lucas as a Green MP gave hope to thousands who had found themselves politically homeless in the face of a New Labour/Tory/Lib Dem consensus for globalisation, privatisation and austerity. Green Party membership grew rapidly, reaching a peak with the Green Surge before the 2015 General Election. This influx included many former Labour Party members and  the subsequent growth of the Green Party Trade Union group and the Green Left, which were influential in changing  party policy. A change which gave equal weight to social justice and environmental justice so that the party could fight the 2015 general election as an anti-austerity party – gaining a record one and a quarter million votes.

The Green Surge saw tens of thousands of people join the party as part of a mass anti-establishment mood which did not stop with the Green Party; within months an even bigger wave had swept Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership of the Labour party. This inspired many Green Party members to join or rejoin Labour in 2016 although most were sorry to leave. As one Brighton member said “Difficult but has to be done.” Another said “it`s a long shot but is what I have been looking forward to for nearly 30 years - a real socialist party with a couple of dozen MP`s and 100,000 members or more.”

That perspective - of a Labour split - seemed the best outcome we could hope for. After news of the snap General Election an article by Graham Bash appeared in Labour Briefing headed “Against the Odds”. Although he said Labour still had a chance the rest of the piece was a list of reasons – media attacks and ridicule; hostile and backstabbing PLP; decades of defeat since the miners strike; dissension within Momentum etc. – which seemed to virtually admit defeat. Six weeks before the election it was hard to disagree with him, which made the election outcome all the more remarkable.

The combination of a radical manifesto, a brilliant tactical campaign and Jeremy Corbyn`s positive and “steady under fire” leadership was able to capitalise on Theresa May`s arrogance and deprive the Tories of the majority they had taken for granted.  Corbyn and McDonnell may not be magicians but they did do two impossible things before breakfast – win back many Labour voters from UKIP (without pandering to xenophobia) and win seats from the SNP in Scotland. Corbyn is now being described as “battle hardened” which is fair enough  and “fireproof” which is just silly. The battle for the Labour Party has only been paused and will continue shortly.

 “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party
so ran the old typing training exercise (even though most of the trainees were women !) But the question now facing us is  – Which Party ?

The Green Party ?  No doubt the autumn conference will be largely a post mortem on the abysmal election result for the Greens. Many activists, the very people who attend conference, have left to join Labour which leaves those who favour “returning to our green roots” – ie ditching our social justice policies - in a stronger position. Caroline Lucas will probably win the day but what then ?
I wrote in a recent issue of Watermelon that “election success [for the Greens] has been steady but modest and at the present rate it is crystal clear that it will be climate crunch time before the party gains any real influence in government.” That day now seems further away than ever and a disturbing pattern can be detected over time. At succeeding  general elections various seats have been tipped as  possible Green wins – Greenwich, Cambridge, Norwich etc – yet ten years later Green candidates in all these seats lose their deposits.

Before the general election, a Green Party councillor commented that “we are right to keep our Green Party identity as the Labour Party has a long way to go and the Green Party needs to be there in case Corbyn is defeated”. Of course, the Green Party is not going to go away; indeed, as the effects of global warming become more evident the party is bound to attract new support. But action on climate damage is needed now – and that means action at government level.  

The Labour Party ?  It is a plain fact that any progressive government will be Labour led and it is now realistic to talk of such a government being elected on a radical agenda for change. A Green parliamentary candidate, (who joined the Greens fifteen years ago at uni and has never been in any other party) has said “Labour`s success is needed if we are going to implement policies to protect the environment because at the moment big business has the whip hand, and as long as it does, nothing is going to change”. He told press reporters  “[this is] a once in a generation – maybe once in a lifetime –chance. It`s time for everyone who wants change to rally around Jeremy Corbyn”

A Labour Party committed to a radical social transformation will face huge challenges from the media, the establishment and not least from the right wing old guard within the party. To stand a chance of success they will need the support of a massive broadly based social movement on the ground right across the country. A “former Tory minister” told the “Observer” last week “You can see real anger. Labour many not be able to form a government without an election, but they could get people out on the streets.” Sections of the ruling class must be thinking that it might not be a bad thing for a Corbyn led government to be plunged into the unholy mess of Brexit and crash and burn; they could then come back with a new set of Tory  mouthpieces.

This seems to me to be a critical moment.  At this point we need to back Corbyn.  Whether by working in the broader social movement on the ground or by actually joining Labour - that is a judgement call for each of us to make. Good luck.    

Dave Taylor is a member of Bridgwater and West Somerset Green Party and a Green Left supporter

Friday 23 June 2017

Right Wing Trolls' Vitriol is Raging Against the Dying of the Light

I work close to the Houses of Parliament in London, and after I left work on Wednesday I strolled down to Parliament Square to take a look at the Day of Rage protest, to take some photos and write a report for this blog.

There are often mid-week, evening, protests around Parliament, and I have covered some of them before here. Being so handy to where I work, these are easy stories for me to post. They are generally pretty popular too, and Wednesday’s post was much better than average for these type of posts.

One of the reasons that I started this blog, was to put out an alternative narrative to main stream media and right wing social media. A green left take on things like demonstrations and news stories more generally.

Around about 70% of the traffic to this blog comes from Facebook links, the rest come from left politics aggregator sites, twitter, email groups and google searches. I have over 700 Facebook friends and posts are public, and I also link the blog posts in various Facebook groups. These groups are mainly of the green, left liberal, socialist and anarchist type political groups. But I also post the links into some more general politics groups and some London based community type groups.

The reaction to Wednesday’s post in the lefty groups was overwhelmingly positive, with likes, shares and comments from posters. In the more general political groups, there was some support, but a hell of a lot of negative, and in some cases, downright offensive comments.

I should have guessed really, as before I even went to the demonstration I’d read the twitter #dayofrage thread and it was full of right wing trolls, often complaining of paying taxes for the police to keep order at this protest, and maligning the protesters for being work shy, on benefits etc etc. No proof of these things was offered of course, but hey, why let the truth get in the way of your twisted view of the world?

No doubt these characters have been ‘radicalised’, by the right wing media, such as Rupert Murdoch owned The Sun, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, but the trolls went even further than these right wing rags.

Here’s a selection from the general Facebook groups that I post blog links to:

"Why won't you come face us?" ‘Because you smell and no one likes lefties.’

‘Must have been dole day today, or the snowflakes melted in the heat.’

‘Or was it too early for the great scrounging unwashed perhaps?’

‘If you support the politicization of grenfell, as these brain dead cunts do, then fuck you too, you are what’s wrong with this Country.’

‘The residents of the Grenfell flats disassociated themselves from this march. it would seem it was hijacked to further a political agenda.’

‘Here we go will try anything to win an election.’

‘Deluded twats lol.’

Charming! Remember, this demonstration was about probably well over a hundred people being burnt to death, because of the neo-liberal policies of the last 40 years and general uncaring and negligent behaviour of the local and national politicians, Tory, New Labour nationally and at local level which has been controlled by the Conservative Party since 1964.  

Of course, I fairly often get trolled by these ring wing numpties, and you have to have a bit of a thick skin if you blog about politics, but Wednesday’s post attracted the worst reaction I have ever had. Maybe I hit a raw nerve with this post?

I noticed during the recent general election campaign, as the opinion polls narrowed between the Tories and Labour, the right wingers became increasingly silent. I think Owen Jones, The Guardian columnist, might have put his finger on the reasons causing this outburst now. I’m not a big fan of Jones’ writing, but on Thursday he wrote a piece entitled ‘The old Tory order is crumbling – it’s taken Grenfell for us to really see it’ where he argues ‘The iconic episode that, for the right, summed up the fall of the post-war consensus was the “winter of discontent….If any episode sums up the collapse of our own neoliberal era, it is surely Grenfell Tower.’

Jones maybe onto something here, the political wheel in place since the late 1970s looks to be turning at last. Just like the post-war Keynesian consensus ended by Tory leader Margaret Thatcher, the neo-liberal era looks to be coming to a close. This is why these right wing trolls are making so much noise, but I think it is in vain. Their time, and neo-liberal politics time are about to become a nasty memory. It’s almost the time for the trolls to crawl back under their rocks.

Here’s to the not too distant future. 

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Day of Rage Protest - London - Photos and Report

I stopped by the Day of Rage protest in Parliament Square in London on my way home work this evening. I was only there from about 4.45 pm to just after 6pm, although the protest had been going on all day. It was the hottest day of the year in London.

The demonstration organised by Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary [MJF] saw protesters marching from Shepherd’s Bush to Downing Street on Wednesday afternoon and is aimed at “bringing down the Government”.

The MFJ said the protest was in reaction to “brutal austerity, cuts and anti-immigrant attacks” and last week’s Grenfell Tower tragedy.

From what I saw the demonstration was peaceful, if definitely angry, the mood was mainly calm. One woman said to me, pointing to the Palace of Westminster on the other side of the road, 'why won't they come and face us?'

 Organisers made speeches calling justice for the Grenfell Tower victims and survivors.

Whilst I was there, there was only a few hundred protesters, they were outnumbered by police. Isaw several police vans with riot officers in side streets, but they were not need when I was there.

Rebel Media, which is a Canadian right wing media outfit, provoked some of the demonstrators, with angry words exchanged, but it did go beyond that.

There were plenty of home made placards, although, as usual there was the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party made ones.

The Rebel News interviewer was led away by police, after some angry exchanges with the protesters. Police stopped the traffic to get her away from the crowd.

The discussion carried on with the crew from Rebel Media.

Messages were chalked on the pavement on Whitehall opposite Downing Street.

There will be further protests against the minority Tory government over the next few months.

Tuesday 20 June 2017

How Long can the Tory Government Survive?

A week and a half after the prime minister Theresa May went scuttling off to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen that she is to form a government, there has still been no announcement of the terms of the deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), that is meant to keep the minority Tory government in power. It could be argued that May was somewhat premature in seeking the sovereign’s ascent to form a government, with no agreement in place. May acted quickly to shore up her position as prime minister, but it a fair bet that some deal, perhaps a promise of not voting down the Queen’s speech, by abstaining at the least, is in place with the DUP.

Or maybe it isn’t. Rumours are circulating that the DUP, apart from wanting extra funds and other concessions for Northern Ireland, may want to curb the austerity measures of the last seven years.

A DUP source told the Guardian: “The DUP is a unionist party and that means it has concerns for the people of the whole of the United Kingdom. That means protecting the winter fuel allowance for the elderly person in Scotland is as important to us as protecting the welfare of the elderly person in Northern Ireland. We are keen to defend the rights and welfare of the vulnerable across the UK and that is why any arrangement in our view should be one that benefits everyone in the UK.”

It has been suggested the DUP could achieve this objective by voting for amendments to the Queen’s speech put down by Labour. It depends on what is in the Queen’s speech, so it is likely that, certainly on domestic policy, there will be little of consequence. The main thrust will be Brexit, with some anti-terrorist measures and a bit of infrastructure spending, but it could still be possible to design amendments around an anti-austerity agenda. We will find out tomorrow.

Meanwhile, a legal challenge will be made to the agreement between the Tories and DUP, as a breach of the Good Friday Agreement.  

If the government are forced into accepting Labour amendments to the Queen’s speech, it would in effect mean that the government cannot control the domestic agenda, and it would be carrying on just to deliver a Brexit deal. It is hard to see the government surviving for long when it is implementing Labour policies, but they might just stretch things until March 2019, when we formally leave the European Union. Although, there will be a fierce battle in the Tory Party over what the terms will be. This is a sport that the Tories can’t resist, and hasn’t it always been the case, Tory infighting over Europe?

Even if no amendments are forced onto the government, and they pursue a minimalist domestic agenda, the fight over Brexit in the Tory Party will still take place, and threatens to destabilise the minority government. 

The government will also be at the mercy of events, like last week’s Grenfell Tower blaze, and is likely to be buffeted about by these events, as it staggers on in zombie like fashion.

The House of Lords, where the government has no majority, will feel at liberty to be awkward with any legislation brought forward, since the government has no effective mandate or majority in the House of Commons. It may be that no primary legislation will be introduced in this Parliament, because of the emphasis on Brexit, but also because the government will be unsure of getting anything through. In short, a recipe for paralysis.

So how long can this state of affairs last? Well, it depends on events to a very large extent. Will there be by-elections in Tory held seats? If there are, and they are lost, the government’s majority will be whittled away, even with support from the DUP. But the main threat to the government will be from within its own ranks.

There are just too many forces pulling in different directions, particularly over Brexit, Europhiles and Eurosceptics, the Scottish Tories 13 MPs, who are looking for a soft Brexit, are one dangerous grouping for the government. It doesn’t look like they will be able to keep all of their MPs happy, given the differences of opinion.

My best guess is that May is replaced as prime minister in the autumn, and a new leader elected, and a general election next spring, but they may stagger on a bit longer, or may be brought down sooner. But, bookmaker Paddy Power has the odds at 13/8 that a second General Election will be called this year.

There is a protest march and demonstration tomorrow in London, called the Day of Rage, where protesters will march from Shepherd’s Bush to Parliament, to demand the government goes, and as the facebook page puts it ‘Bring Down the Government - Shut Down London.’ Attend it if you can.  

Sunday 18 June 2017

5 reasons Theresa May will stay — and one she goes

First published at Politico

After a botched election, and then an awkward response to the Grenfell Tower fire that left the Queen to intercede to calm the nation, even the loyalist press has turned against her — with the conservative Sunday Telegraph and Daily Mail ganging up on her.

The widespread talk of stalking horses, leadership challenges and party coups may appear to confirm her Tory nemesis George Osborne’s christening of May last week: “dead woman walking.”

But there are good reasons, five to be precise, why May isn’t going anywhere anytime soon — and one big reason she might be forced out of the driver’s seat in the U.K.

1. There’s no legitimate excuse to ditch her

If May leaves No 10 Downing Street of her own accord or is dragged out by her rivals, the result would be the same: she was forced to go because the public rejected her leadership. What then gives her successor the right to assume he or she can govern without the endorsement of the public?

“Unless she says it’s for medical reasons then we’ll have to go to the country sooner or later and that’s a real risk,” one government minister told POLITICO.

One option being discussed by Conservative MPs is for a “caretaker” prime minister to come in and oversee Brexit before calling an election in 2019. It would doubtless mean a softer, more consensual Brexit with big questions over the single market and customs union potentially left unanswered. One name being discussed is Philip Hammond, the Chancellor.

2. No obvious replacement

If there was someone obvious who could do what May has failed to by uniting the country, then she might have gone already. But there isn’t.

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters like to claim he is now the prime minister in waiting — but he won fewer votes and fewer seats than the Tories, he has a fuzzy vision of Brexit and he ran a campaign about austerity, not leaving the EU.

Perhaps more importantly, on the Tory side there are no clear contenders either. David Davis and Boris Johnson are the favorites. Both are more confident, charismatic figures than May. But in the wake of the Grefnell Tower fire, Johnson’s bumbling persona is judged unsuited to the times by many of his colleagues.

Davis tried for the leadership before, losing to David Cameron in 2005. Many Tories do not believe he’s the answer to their problems.

Amber Rudd, the home secretary, may have been an option before the election but she sneaked back into parliament after two recounts and could well lose her seat at the next election.

Tory grandee Kenneth Clarke is fond of reminding people that the winner of Tory leadership contests often emerges from left-field — from Thatcher to Major to Cameron. So don’t rule out a centrist candidate who embraces Brexit — the new First Secretary Damian Green perhaps, or the George Osborne acolyte Sajid Javid.

Watch out for any young pretender who reaches out to the Conservative’s popular leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson — a potential kingmaker in any future election.

3. Not another election!

The last thing the Conservative Party wants is another general election. The emotional national mood is too unpredictable to risk it.

Some ministers who spoke to POLITICO fear the “intensity and ferocity” of the public response to Grenfell Tower, and how quickly it has turned into a symbol of Tory misrule, may yet be too great for the prime minister to withstand. However, even if she is forced out, Tories remain determined to kick the can of another general election down the road for as long as they can.

It’s not just the Conservative Party that doesn’t want a general election. The Democratic Unionist Party, May’s prospective parliamentary partners, will never again be in such a sweet spot. A party with 10 MPs, representing the unionist half of the six counties of Northern Ireland, now holds the balance of power in the world’s sixth largest economy. They’ll want to eek this out for as long as possible.

In Scotland, the SNP are desperate to avoid another poll. They fear a further erosion of support should voters be given another chance to debate a second independence referendum, which has become a millstone around the party’s neck.

4. Jeremy Corbyn

There are many non-Corbynite Labour MPs who told the electorate he could never be prime minister and who now fear having to go back to those same voters to tell them that he can. Many in the Labour Party still do not believe a Corbyn premiership is in the national interest.

If that’s what Labour MPs feel, imagine the reaction from Conservative MPs. There is a genuine concern in the party that anything that increases the chances of a Labour general election win has to be avoided at all costs — even if that means sticking with a party leader whose authority is shot.

The alternative view is that the public will “come to its senses” when it comes to Corbyn, in the words of one Tory minister, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But for most MPs and ministers it is too big a risk.

5. Brexit

After May, the next long-term Tory leader is unlikely to be forced on the party in another coronation. That view has been publicly put forward by the former education secretary and leadership hopeful Nicky Morgan, but is widely held.

Unless there is a “caretaker” leader for 18 months, the new Tory leader will therefore require a vote and that means a campaign. And campaigns take time, which is the one thing Britain doesn’t have as Brexit negotiations start in Brussels on Monday.

What’s more, any campaign will inevitably boil down to Brexit — hard or soft. So any leadership contest forced on the country by May’s resignation (or a coup) will mean Britain’s Brexit clock ticking away while the governing party decides its own future.

The public anger at such obvious national mismanagement might well be enough to force them out of power.

So for worse and for better, Theresa May is the prime minister seen as the one who should settle the divorce with Europe.

But …

Reason and logic are all very well, but sometimes the pressure for change is too great to withstand.

At the moment, May can do no right. The personality traits which were qualities two months ago when she called the election — steadfast, unshowy leadership — are serious deficiencies. She is now unresponsive and robotic — a leader lacking compassion.

Theo Bertram, a former adviser to Gordon Brown, summed up May’s problem in the Sunday Times. “No matter what May does, she has an unshakeable problem with people,” he said. This is unsustainable.

If May does not have the confidence of the people, then she has to go.

Her party will ensure that happens, because they will have no choice — any option which keeps her in power would be worse and all the problems associated with removing her will have to be managed, even if that means another election which produces another stalemate.

Saturday 17 June 2017

Grenfell Tower is a Monument to Tory Britain

Neither oversight, negligence, nor malfeasance lies at the root of the Glenfell Tower fire in West London. Strip away the sickening obfusaction and platitudes, peddled by the usual coterie of confected politicians, and the roots of this disaster lie in the virulent disdain, bordering on hatred, of poor and working class people by the rich in a society which in 2017 is a utopia for the few and a dystopia for far too many.

What will future historians say about a culture in which there is more than enough money to pay for nuclear weapons, to finance the bombing of other countries, to fund tax cuts for the rich, but not enough to provide decent housing for people whose only crime is that they happen to be poor and on low incomes? Given the scathing nature of the evidence, it’s a fair bet that the verdict issued will be a scathing one —and rightly so.

If this mind numbingly awful event does not mark the end of 7 long years of callous cruelty that describes the previous and current Tory government — unleashed in obeiscance to the god of austerity — then nothing will and we deserve to end up in the abyss where, make no mistake, we are headed unless we rise up with a collective and resounding cry of “No more!”

No more living in a country in which cruelty has been raised to the level of a virtue and compassion relegated to the status of a vice, in which foodbanks, benefit sanctions, zero hours contracts, homelessness, and crumbling public services are justified on the basis of moral rectitude and fiscal responsibility, when in truth they are symptoms of the class war unleashed by the Tories on working people and which up to now working people have been losing.

The hollowing out of the state, deregulation, the near free rein accorded to property developers and private landlords, all at the expense of people’s wellbeing and safety, is tantamount to a crime committed by the rich people who govern us in the interests of other rich people. Don’t politicise the Grenfell Fire, they tell us. Are they serious? Are they having a laugh? This event is verily dripping in politics. Indeed it could not be any more political, coming as it does as the logical conclusion of decades of under investment in social housing that is a badge of shame and refutes any claim by Brexit Britain to the status of a civilised country.

The one hope we can cling onto is that despite the inordinate and sustained efforts by the Tories and their rancid media cohort to pit working and poor people against one another in recent years — Muslim against non-Muslim, low waged against unwaged, migrant against non-migrant, refugee against native — it has failed. Out of Grenfell, along with the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, has come incontrovertible evidence of the innate solidarity of people of every background, ethnicity, faith, and creed when the chips are down. The outpouring of kindness, support, and humanity in response stands as a rebuke to those who want us to believe there is no such thing as society, that we are not connected by a common humanity but instead are merely a vast agglomeration of individuals, just like so many atoms spinning in the air.

Then, too, as a further rebuke to these rotten Tory values we have our emergency services. Made up of men and women who have no hesitation in risking their lives when tragedy strikes, they deserve better than a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich — and so do we. They stand in sharp contrast to a Prime Minister who cannot even summon the decency to face angry and traumatised residents during her recent visit to the scene of what bears all the hallmarks not of a disaster or a tragedy but a crime.

In memory of those who perished and whose deaths are indistinguishable from the fact they were poor and working class, let Grenfell be the line over which Tory greed and mendacity does not pass.

Yes Theresa May you are right: enough is enough.

John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1

Friday 16 June 2017

Grenfell Towers Blaze – Grief Turns to Anger Against the Establishment

The horrific fire at Grenfell Towers in west London in the early hours of Wednesday has shocked the entire nation. The images of the tower block ablaze in one of the world’s leading cities conjured memories of the 9/11 tragedy in New York in 2001. But unlike New York, which was attacked deliberately by Islamic terrorists, the Grenfell Towers fire was a self inflicted disaster. Brought about by the callous pursuit of profit for construction firms and a negligent, uncaring government set on slashing public spending and building safety regulations. Police fear that in excess of a hundred residents have perished in the fire.

As the shock at least begins to subside, it is increasingly being replaced by a feeling of anger that these poor people, the residents, have been sacrificed to the ideology of free market neo-liberalism. Many questions are being asked, but not so many answers are being proffered. A group of angry residents stormed Kensington Town Hall this afternoon to try and get some answers.

David Lammy, Labour Party MP for Tottenham in London, has called for criminal charges to be brought against those responsible for the decision to clad the building in combustible plastic material, which is banned from use in the US for buildings above 15 meters in height. There have been several fires in the US and elsewhere where this type of cladding has made fires worse.

Speaking to the Municipal Journal (subscription), the chair of the Passive Fire Protection Forum (PFPF) who is also a trustee of the Children’s Burns Trust, Hannah Mansell, said: 'To every local council and housing association, I say, you know what to do, take action today. The next one could be tomorrow.

'We have a right to be very angry at the news about Grenfell Tower. I regularly sit in meetings with fire safety professionals, and their fury and frustration at the inaction of local councils and social landlords is palpable.'

Ms Mansell added that the PFPF has been warning about the risks of a fire like this for years and that there is an 'endemic' fire safety problems in buildings such as this one. She said she has seen flats without fire doors, emergency lighting or signages or smoke seals.

Minutes from a 6 January 2016 meeting of Kensington & Chelsea housing and property scrutiny committee about the refurbishment of the building, noted new cladding, now thought to be among potential causes of the fire, “improved the look of the building,” according to the Local Government Chronicle (subscription).

The original plans for the refurbishment of the block had been to site boilers in kitchens but “it had then been considered easier to place these boilers in the hallways which had been conveyed to residents”, the minutes said.

A posting on a blog run by the Grenfell Action Group on Wednesday morning said warnings over safety failings at the tower and other properties managed by the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) had “fallen on deaf ears.”

In posts dating back four years, the group detailed concerns raised with councillors and officials at Kensington & Chelsea, and senior staff at the TMO.

In November last year the group complained of inadequate fire escapes and expressed the belief that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

In 2015, the group reported London Fire Brigade issued an enforcement notice following a fire at the Adair Tower in North Kensington. The unverified enforcement notice was said to have ordered the TMO to improve safety in fire escapes and install self-closing devices to all front doors.

In 2013, the group complained the closure of the block’s car park would seriously restrict emergency vehicle access. Later that year the group reported “continuous electric surges” that had resulted in smoke emanating from electrical appliances and light fixtures.

In October last year Gavin Barwell, who lost his Parliamentary seat in Croydon Central at last week’s general election, and who has been appointed as Prime Minister Theresa May’s new chief of staff, announced a review into Part B of the Building Regulations 2010 that cover fire safety in tall and wooden buildings.

However, the review has yet to be launched. In March, a spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government said the review would be undertaken “in due course.”

The Part B review was due to look at how fire safety measures could be improved following a major fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, in 2009, in which six people lost their lives. Earlier this year Southwark Borough Council was fined £270,000 and order to pay £300,000 legal costs after admitting safety failings at Lakanal House.

Ronnie King, honorary administrative secretary of the parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue, told the Local Government Chronicle ”We still have 4,000 older tower blocks in the UK which have the same regulations applied to them. The message to other social landlords and housing providers is unless there is a review of [part B] of the regulations you could face multi-million pound legal costs and compensation should you experience a Lakanal House tragedy.”

If criminal charges can be brought against individuals, as David Lammy suggests, then of course they should be. But the problem runs far deeper than negligent individuals who, are only acting within the logic of neo-liberal ideology, where ‘red tape’ (safety regulations) must be cut, and housing policy is to maximise profits for building firms, and increase the value of surrounding privately owned properties in an area.

The right wing media has tried to blame the fitting of the wall cladding on an ‘obsession’ with ‘green’ issues, that is energy conservation, but this was a secondary consideration. As the  minutes from the local authority’s housing and property scrutiny committee, quoted above demonstrate, that making the outside of the building more attractive for some of the very rich residents in adjacent flats and houses was the primary goal.

Non-combustible cladding could have been used instead, but it is a little more expensive at around an extra £5,000. Too expensive for the likes of the working class residents of Grenfell Tower. Things have got to change, people before profit.

Tuesday 13 June 2017

After the General Election – What Now for the Greens?

Apart from Green co-leader Caroline Lucas doubling her majority in Brighton Pavilion, last Thursday, the general election delivered a poor result for the Green Party. The national vote halved from 2015 and in Bristol West, where we started the campaign as favourites to win the seat, the Greens finished a distant third behind Labour. I got wind of this from local activists here in London who had visited Bristol to help out. The Labour surge swept the Greens away, in Bristol and across the country, with not even a second place finish anywhere.

We can perhaps claim that our very existence pulled Labour to the left, and so played a part in Labour’s success. One of the reasons Corbyn supporters cited for electing him leader, was to get votes back from the Greens.

For sure, by pursuing a ‘progressive alliance’ which in practice meant the Greens standing down in dozens of constituencies, in favour of Labour or the Lib Dems, our vote was bound to fall. And even where we did stand, the message either got through that we didn’t think we could win, or else people just threw their support behind Labour without giving us a thought. We did invite this with our strategy.

It is likely that even if we had stood everywhere the result would have been similar, I think, although our total would have improved a little. Something happened in the election campaign, a big shift in the mood of the electorate. All the various discontents of the voters coalesced into a surge in support for Labour. I can’t ever remember a late swing to Labour in a general election campaign before, but it happened this year.

Most Greens will be pleased that the Tories lost their majority in Parliament. I for one was jumping up and down, punching the air as the exit poll was revealed on TV at 10pm on Thursday. But now the dust has settled a little, we need to think through where we go from here. Off the top of my head, there are a couple options available.

Labour pretty much lifted their environment policies from the Greens, and may well drive this further home by appealing even more to Green voters, next time. Certainly, this is one of the recommendations from Paul Mason, economic journalist and Labour member, on how Labour should proceed. It doesn’t look as though returning to our old policy of standing everywhere in Parliamentary elections will be fruitful.     

Therefore, we could continue and extend the current strategy, that is defend Brighton Pavilion and stand in less seats elsewhere, at least saving some money. It could be that a few other target seats can be identified, but logically this will involve challenging in Tory held seats, perhaps where the Lib Dems are the main challengers, but Labour nowhere. I haven’t picked through the results of Thursday’s election in any great detail, but there may be some areas where this is feasible.

This might mean that we largely give up on Parliamentary elections, and become a party that exists mainly at local and regional government level, until such a time as support is solidified enough at local level in an area, before any attempt is made to stand in Westminster elections. We can continue to press for proportional voting, but I doubt Labour or the Tories will introduce such a system for Parliament, it is in their interest to continue to back the status quo.

The only other strategy that I can think of for the Greens, is to pursue an ecosocialist approach and to outflank Labour on their left. Not full blown ecosocialism of course, that would mean tearing the down the capitalist system entirely and starting again. Much as I might like this idea, I think the public is not ready for it yet. But there is still electoral space in being radical, which in all honesty the Labour manifesto was not. It has been likened to the Social Democrat Party manifesto from 1983, which at the time was considered tame by the left.

There are obvious areas for Greens to exploit. Labour are in favour of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, which is a subject that a sizable minority of people in the UK are opposed to. Labour will not change their approach to this, whatever Corbyn’s views are. These voters will be disenfranchised if the Greens do not stand.

Labour is pretty much committed to carrying on welfare benefit cuts, with no mention in their manifesto of reversing the Tory cuts of the last seven years. Anyone with a once of compassion for their fellow citizens cannot support such cruelty. Some in Labour are toying with the idea of a Citizens Income, but it will not be in their next election manifesto.

Labour is essentially a centralising force, with big government solutions to everything and a desire for control at the centre. It is part of Labour’s tradition to be like this, and I can’t see them changing this approach. Greens can champion a real kind of localism, as opposed to the Tories bastardisation of the term, by handing back real and substantial powers to local communities. No other party offers this.

We should tax wealthy individuals and corporations more than Labour is suggesting. Their policy on raising corporation tax would leave the level still 2% lower than it was in 2010, so this is an easy hit. We should also advocate a wealth tax on the richest individuals including any property owned. 

We should end the absurd notion of a monarchy and all the hangers on who go with it. We would make the country a republic, and not before time in the twentieth first century. Labour, much as some of them might like it, will not go near this type of policy.

Although, as I say, it is probably too soon to advocate full ecosocialism, we should not shy away from pinning the blame for our environmental ills where it firmly belongs, on the capitalist system, and say that we should be transitioning ourselves away from this damaging system, in the longer term.

Perhaps the dye is now cast, and there isn’t anything much we can do to improve our electoral prospects in the short term. The political wheel will no doubt turn again at some point, but we may have a very long wait indeed. Some may consider joining Labour and trying to Green them, but I don’t think I will be one of them. But whatever we do we should aim to be part of this movement for change, however we position ourselves electorally.