I often say that the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong in the past seven years of coalition and Tory government. Last year, the local council leader, before his resignation in the wake of the Grenfell fire, denounced my fellow councillors for becoming ‘emotional’ and ‘unwittingly mock heroic’ when we proposed a motion asking the authority to let one of our four food banks use a vacant council commercial property. The suggestion provoked outrage among the Tories, who accused us of ‘virture signalling’.
‘Labour acts as though the growth of food banks is a searing indictment of Tory Britain,’ the Conservative leader declared. ‘Rather than politicking about them,’ he went on, ‘why can’t we just agree that [they] are making a welcome and important contribution to our welfare arrangements?’ Food banks, he suggested, are ‘a fine and noble thing’.
Where did this sort of attitude emanate from? In 2009, the organisation Localis organised a series of seminars. Localis calls itself ‘an independent, cross-party, leading not-for-profit think tank’. Another former Kensington and Chelsea leader is now its chair. Conservative councillors returned from these sessions with a whole new narrative and language. The picture painted by Localis’s ‘research’ was graphic and powerful, and introduced the pervasive term ‘broken’, as in ‘Broken Britain’. Here is the narrative in summary:
‘We have a broken society, suffering under the burden of a dependency culture/culture of entitlement. Our neighbourhoods are broken, they are barracks for the poor, ghettoes of multiple deprivation, warehousing poverty, allowing welfare farming. We need realistic long-term solutions that cater for genuine housing need, we will unlock development sites and improve density. It will break the cycle of dependency and provide mixed and diverse communities. And [most importantly], during this process, do not be put off by a vociferous minority.’
These terms were so widely used in council meetings that I set up a game called ‘Tory cliché bingo’. But sadly this narrative was highly effective, and along with a number of alarming proposals it morphed into the much-loathed social cleansing instrument, the Housing and Planning Act 2016.
Labour has some effective housing policies, but where is our counter-ideology? We can’t allow self-appointed ‘think tanks’ to sneer at social tenants from their moral high ground, in order to marketise social housing. We need to change the narrative.
The current hierarchy – political, corporate and monarchical – is feeling insecure and under threat. And they will fight back using any means they can, mobilising their armies of bots and poison pen letter-writers, particularly against women politicians who speak unwelcome truths.
They are scared of our intelligence, of the research we do on their backroom deals and their hidden cash in tax havens, which contribute to the destruction of the NHS and public services. They are scared that people listen to us. They want us back in our box.
They want to pursue the path of social determinism to maintain political control, and it comes direct from the ‘food banks are a fine and noble thing’ mindset of charity for the deserving poor.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in post-Grenfell Kensington.
I live three blocks from Grenfell Tower. I am part of the community that has been shaken to the core by this avoidable atrocity. I was there that morning.
I’ve heard talk about the fire being the result of how ‘the rich’ treat ‘the poor’. But it’s far more complicated than that. There were families struggling but there were also those doing better financially, with three generations working, albeit living in overcrowded conditions. There were leaseholders and their tenants. There were some illegal sub-tenants – but very few. And there were two rough sleepers.
Quite simply, Grenfell Tower was a slice of life in North Ken. A mixed and diverse community.
One survivor told me: ‘I had a life, a husband, a job, a home I loved, and now I have nothing. They have turned me into a beggar.’
The reality is that two-thirds of benefit recipients in Kensington and Chelsea are in work. When we demanded in council meetings, year after year, that the council pay its employees, and those of its contractors, the London Living Wage, we were berated for such profligacy, as it would cost £1 million. This is the same as the net annual loss of the council-funded Opera Holland Park. Supporting privilege while embedding poverty.
And while the press crowed about Grenfell survivors being offered luxury homes at 375 Kensington High Street (they weren’t), Transparency International’s analysis of ownership revealed that two-fifths of the private units in that development were sold to anonymous companies funded by potentially illicit wealth.
So who are the scroungers now?
This top-down social determinism of how social tenants should live must be challenged. House building must be removed from the grasp of corporate greed and politically motivated elites.
Kensington and Chelsea is a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong in our society, and how we provide housing. If we can get this right in Kensington, we can do it anywhere.
This is an extract from our latest edition We Rise Again: Dispatches from the anti-Tory front line. Subscribe now for more cutting-edge comment and analysis.