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Grenfell Tower: a political prop in a morality play

John McDonnell’s use of the M-word in relation to the Grenfell inferno marks a new low in the political milking of this catastrophe. I’m not normally squeamish, but I must say I have found the marshalling of the Grenfell horror to political ends, the transformation of this human calamity into effectively a meme saying ‘Austerity Bad’ or ‘Tory Scum’, deeply disturbing. And now McDonnell has dragged it down to its nadir, with his claim at Glastonbury that the residents of this tragic block were ‘murdered by political decisions’.

The entire setting of McDonnell’s comments feels nauseating. Here we had the shadow chancellor of the deceptively bourgeois Corbynista movement shoring up his party’s support among the leisured classes by using the poor almost as political props. One can imagine the sad-eyed look on the generally well-to-do Glasto attendees’ faces as they heard about these ‘murder’ victims in a faraway tower block on Planet Poverty. One can’t help feeling that McDonnell was exploiting the poor’s pain to secure the backing of the public-sector and cultural types who visit the political tent while at Glastonbury.

To McDonnell’s credit — kind of — he didn’t specify that the Tories and their nasty ways were responsible for this ‘murder’. Instead he said the Grenfell residents were ‘murdered’ by political decisions ‘taken over recent decades’. This allows for the possibility that Labour decisions, as well as Tory ones, helped to put social-housing residents in such an unsafe, unloved situation. But McDonnell knows — he must — that his comments will flatter and intensify some leftists’ low, ghoulish use of Grenfell to indict the Tories and everything else they don’t like.

These Grenfell ghouls are everywhere. This tragedy speaks to Britain’s ‘austerity-fuelled unfairness’, says one columnist. ‘Burn neoliberalism, not people’, said Labour MP Clive Lewis, somewhat madly, his implication being that an ideology he doesn’t like caused this inferno. There is almost a perverse relish to the politicisation of the Grenfell disaster. It ‘perfectly captures the politics of the last seven years’, says Polly Toynbee. So it tells us nothing about politics before then? During the New Labour era? No, the fire only proves the arguments certain people had already been making. How convenient.

If you criticise this Grenfell point-scoring, people will say: ‘Of course things like this are political, you idiot.’ I don’t deny this is a political issue, an issue of great public, national importance. My problem is not that the Grenfell calamity is being subjected to political questioning but that it is being turned into a morality play.

It is being reduced to a simple story of good and evil. On one side there are nasty Tories and rich people who won’t even publicly emote over Grenfell (we’re looking at you, Theresa May) and who demand the prettification of tower blocks with cladding because they can’t bear to look at the urban blot that is poor people. And on the other side there are good, pure, Corbyn-leaning folk who weep for the poor and share memes containing the word AUSTERITY, except the letter ‘I’ has been replaced by the blackened Grenfell Tower.

The hyper-moralisation of Grenfell, the use of it to tell one, simple political story, actually means that serious thinking is discouraged. So Grenfell tells us neoliberalism is evil, but apparently it says nothing about environmentalism, even though much of the flammable cladding on tower blocks was justified as an energy-efficiency measure. It is an indictment of seven years of Tory rule, but apparently it tells us nothing about the preceding 13 years, which did so much to plunge Britain into recession. It confirms what happens when rich boroughs treat social housing as an eyesore, but apparently tells us nothing about Labour governments’ pretty relentless reduction of social-housing tenants to anti-social problems to be managed and policed.

As with all morality tales, nuance is positively frowned upon. No intellectual depth can be allowed. This horror story has been turned into a moral play in which Corbynistas are the good guys, Tories are evil, and the poor have at best a walk-on part.

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