The Grenfell Tower tragedy has sparked a very real sense of anger in British politics at the moment: anger that people aren’t being listened to; anger that our health service is failing and schools aren’t properly funded; anger that there is no accountability when things go wrong. While our political system did not start the fire that killed an appalling number of people in Grenfell Tower, but it certainly did nothing for the people who lived there.
Residents’ concerns were ignored time and time again by the very people that were elected to represent them. The Grenfell Action Group, set up by residents, raised many complaints with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) - and not just about fire safety in the tower. From calls to protect a local college, to concerns about disruption caused by improvement works, residents’ complaints fell on deaf ears. Our democratic institutions are meant to be responsive to the needs of the people elected officials are put in place to represent, and when wealthy residents are rewarded with tax rebates and pats-on-the-back for not claiming support from the council while disadvantaged residents are ignored, it can only be concluded that this system is fundamentally broken.
For residents in Grenfell Tower, being ignored and treated with near contempt by their elected representatives seemed to be the norm. In December 2015, the Grenfell Action Group expressed dismay in a blog post about their concerns about improvement works being dismissed by one Councillor, who suggested residents were exaggerating their claims that the improvement works were “intolerable” or “harrowing”, and said their experiences could best be described as “very inconvenient.” In January 2016 the group raised complaints directly to RBKC’s Housing and Property Scrutiny committee about the handling of ongoing improvement works, specifically criticising TMO for failing “to engage with responses or respond to a litany or serious complaints”, and for treating “traumatised residents legitimate claims for compensation with derision.”
Far from acting like a democratically elected institution there to serve residents, RBKC Council has made many attempts to shield themselves from public scrutiny. Last week they attempted to ban the media and survivors of the fire from a council meeting, a decision which was ruled unlawful by the High Court. When the council couldn’t have their way, they cancelled the meeting.
Grenfell struck a chord because there are people all over this country living in similar circumstances, being similarly ignored. Up and down the country, people living in tower blocks are fearful for their safety and the safety of their loved ones and friends.
How we elect our politicians - at both a local and national level - and how we hold them to account matters. The way Grenfell residents have been treated and how their concerns fell on deaf ears has shown us, amongst other things, that accessing politics and holding politicians to account is simply not possible for some people.
Our political system is geared up to entrench power systems, and disproportionately benefits those with power. Our First Past the Post electoral system, as an example, ultimately takes choice, influence and power away from voters. It is voters, rather than political parties, that are forced to make concessions on the issues that matter to them. When political parties or individual politicians aren’t scared about being voted out of power, they aren’t disincentivized from representing only those interests they choose to.
In our political system, money speaks louder than words. If you can cough up £50,000 for the Conservative’s Leader’s Group, you get a seat at the table with the Prime Minister herself. Similarly for Labour, a £1,000 membership will buy you access to the exclusive Thousand Club. If you’re homeless as the result of the Grenfell Tower fire, then it will be a challenge to have your voice heard by your own Council.
It’s no wonder that only 29% of people think that Parliament is doing a good job of representing their interests, or that when it comes to picking a party to vote for, 56% of people feel that no party properly represents the view of people like them. For a representative democracy - this is crisis point.
We can’t have another election where polarisation prevails. We need to do more to forge consensus and collaboration across communities and political parties. Our political system doesn’t have to be just about casting one vote every few years at an election or referendum. We must reinvigorate our democracy and people must be empowered to make changes in their local communities and at a national level. There is a crisis in confidence in political leadership both locally and nationally, and elected representatives need to sit up and listen, not hide behind closed doors.