Why isn’t Grenfell an election issue? Because politicians like Boris Johnson simply don’t care

Almost 1,000 days after the Grenfell Tower disaster, residents’ fight for justice has been largely ignored by all parties in the run-up to the election

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 04 December 2019 16:00 GMT
Jacob Rees-Mogg unable to answer Grenfell question

This election was supposed to be about so much more. With days to go until we all drag ourselves to our designated poll stations, or cast our postal votes, the chance to make it about anything else already seems to be a lost cause.

Our leaders, particularly the incumbent Boris Johnson, have made it clear that there is room for a maximum of two issues in this election campaign: Brexit and deflecting scrutiny of any governmental failures onto the nearest available parliamentary candidate.

Regardless of the lack of sincerity politicians often display when forced to retroactively pay lip service to issues they would otherwise let slip through the net if not for an election, it’s a huge shame. Nowhere greater is that shame than in the decision to continually neglect historical failures such as Grenfell.

The families haven’t stopped fighting for their right to be taken seriously since that fateful day in 2017. And rightly so. But they’re doing it alone. Almost 1,000 days later, their efforts have all but been ignored, with the most attention they’ve been afforded confined to empty gestures about safety measures that should have been rolled out long ago.

“Two and a half years since the Grenfell fire, there has been no effort to identify the buildings most at risk or to prioritise work on the basis of safety … Action is needed now,” wrote Natasha Elcock, Grenfell United’s chair, in a letter to party leaders this week.

At the time of writing, there has been no response, least of all from the party charged with dealing with the issue in the first place.

It’s a plea we’ve heard countless times before, including from Jeremy Corbyn. He has echoed the frustrations of the families earlier last month and has not stopped speaking out for them since 2017. But just as similar issues have failed to rouse the fighting spirit that a number of mainstream politicians seem to have saved solely for self-promotion, so too has this.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s telling comments about his impression of Grenfell residents last month should have been the last possible moment for practically non-existent efforts to do something. Days after Johnson’s assertion that “the truth will out and justice will be done”, it should have signalled the death of Rees-Mogg’s career and pushed Johnson into action. It should have left no ambiguity as to whether this, as well as so many other issues the prime minister has personally contributed to, should be a non-negotiable aspect of his otherwise Brexit-dominated campaign.

It’s clear why it hasn’t been.

This is a party that, amid widening social divisions – from poverty to hate crimes – insists that compromising democracy by railroading the people into blindly accepting Brexit is the best way forward for the UK. That complex problems like youth violence and other forms of crime can be solved with draconian restructuring of the criminal justice system.

This is a party that, as the home secretary Priti Patel suggested weeks ago, doesn’t see itself as being responsible for the worst stains on our society. A point Sandra Ruiz, a member of the Grenfell United action group, raised in The Guardian on Tuesday: “For the past two years we’ve heard from successive government ministers that local authorities should step in, or building owners or developers. All this means is that little gets done, and that residents remain living in fear.”

The largely non-white, immigrant residents of Grenfell could almost serve as a stand-in for communities of colour across the UK at this point. Just as they and all residents of similarly dangerous buildings have experienced, our wellbeing has been almost uniformly excluded from the “big issues” of the election.

It will continue this way if Johnson manages, between yet more examples of what I see as his deep discontent for people of colour and the wider electorate at large, to secure a majority next week. It will continue this way as long as parties keep sorting forms of racism and discrimination into hierarchies that suit them. It will continue this way as long as the programming and coverage that is supposed to voice the concerns of the electorate barely recognise racism as a necessary part of the national conversation.

To this day, excluding the quite frankly exhausted communities he has nonchalantly insulted, Johnson’s racism and Islamophobia have stirred barely a whisper in the national debate.

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The hypocrisy of his opportunistic attempts to manipulate voters into accepting antisemitism as an exclusively Corbyn-created, Labour Party issue, rather than the global, historical atrocity it has long been, (including in the Conservative Party), have passed us by with little scrutiny. Nothing, it seems, that Johnson and his party do to fuel the impression that they care not about anyone else but themselves, is worthy of mainstream coverage.

This election, just like 2017’s before it, hasn’t just failed us, it has normalised the apathy our lives are routinely met with. Whether it’s the prolonged failure to deal with the fallout from Grenfell, the practical disappearance of any semblance of care for victims of our inhumane immigration system – including the forgotten victims of the never-ending Windrush scandal – or the general dismissal of the importance of eradicating poverty, one thing is clear: under the governance of Johnson, we don’t and never will matter.

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