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The Grenfell Tower Tragedy Represents A Fork In The Road For Our Society

25/09/2017 16:35 BST | Updated 25/09/2017 16:35 BST
CHRIS J RATCLIFFE via Getty Images

Tony Benn said famously in an interview that "every generation must fight the same battles again and again. There's no final victory" he offered "and there's no final defeat." Benn's attempts to democratise the Labour Party were defeated, however. Standing on a radical manifesto in 1983, the poor showing for Michael Foot's Labour Party meant that many of the socialist ideals of Bennism became dormant - if not killed off entirely.

This is the context for the recent legacy of social movements that thrived beyond the electoral sphere. A sweeping account of protest movements in the years since Bennism's decline would encompass groups as diverse as Stop the War, Occupy and Sisters Uncut. In many ways with Corbyn -and especially via Momentum- the spirit of these movements, nurtured in spaces outside political parties, are now coming home to Labour.

Why? In many ways Jeremy Corbyn is a political descendent of Benn. Yet, where the latter was held back, Labour Party conference this year will be a testament to Corbyn's achievements. As Corbyn begins his first conference as Labour leader, he looks set to oversee changes that will go some way to democratising the party. While beyond the glare of the official venues, Momentum's offerings reflect the new creative mass of political energy that has entered the party; such scenes Tony Benn could only ever dream of.

In answer to Benn's mantra of democratic struggle then, we can say that the reason for Corbyn's advances have as much to do with circumstance as with will power.

Specifically, ours is an era that has grown tired with the dominant way by which society has been organised in the long years since the election of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher's vision of free-market fundamentalism violently set the anarchy of the market upon every corner and every moving part of our social world; a logic that was progressed by successive governments up to now. Yet this way of doing things has generated problems that have promoted an awareness of the need for urgent and radical solutions at the level of government.

Thatcher's mode of organising society - often referred to as neoliberalism - throws up problems in every aspect of politics. Speaking in my own capacity of Shadow Minister for Fire and Emergency Services, I see how neoliberalism contributed to the horrorific scenes at Grenfell.

The blackened shell of Grenfell Tower continues to cast a shadow over the capital and serves as both a traumatic symbol of the loss of life and a warning for the future. Like a giant tomb stone, the tower currently stands as an indictment to the danger of free market ideology and, if the event is to have any real political consequence, it should represent a fork in the road for society.

We do not need to wait until the official inquiry reports back - late next year - to know some simple truths; many have already been spelled out to me personally by experts working with the Fire Brigades Union.

One aspect of the systematic failure that led up to the fire was the decision to subject building control inspectors to competition. Introducing the imperative of the market into a job concerned with the provision of public safety had two major causes. The first was to drive down quality as each inspector, looking to cut costs, abandoned regular and proper training; the second was to turn a public oriented service into a business oriented one where, in a bid to win over clients, inspectorswere more likely to turn a blind eye to safety concerns. The same logic is at work in the deregulation of fire safety inspections, which was passed from the fire and rescue service to the owners of buildings instead. And there has been the unprecedented cuts to the provision of properly equipped firefighters.

Grenfell should be recognised as a chapter in Britain's failed experiment with the free market. Other symptoms of this dogma include in-work poverty, crippling student debt, financial instability, homelessness - the list goes on. Over three decades of neoliberalism has created a wide-spread appetite for change to a degree that didn't exist in the same way in the early 1980s.

Unlike many of his peers, Corbyn was lucky enough to have never swallowed the pill of neoliberalism, while many of today's younger generation, and those left behind by globalisation, have never seen the appeal. The zeitgeist has now shifted and with instances like Grenfell, people increasingly feel it in their bones that system change is desperately needed; these are the foundations for a Corbyn-led Labour government.

Chris Williamson is the Labour MP for Derby North and shadow fire minister