The NonSpeak of Grenfell

The NonSpeak of Grenfell

Fri 12 Jan

The Grenfell Disaster is a part of history that has remained unwritten for a long time. It’s not just Grenfell, it’s the whole of our history going back to 1381.

At one point in the reporting of the fire it seemed that the nature of political discourse was about to change. Channel 4 news was hosting a debate in which survivors and local residents were explaining what it was like to live in social housing; being patronised and ignored by bureaucrats who dealt only in procedures – procedures that were clearly not working. Most of all they described a policy of managed decline and lack of accountability. This style of management uses sub-contractors, keeping tenants at arm’s length, focussing on the sale of council property and its subsequent gentrification.

For a few evenings back in June it seemed as though the mainstream programme-makers, journalists and politicians realized that social housing tenants had been failed by the State, and they were willing to do something about it. It felt as though there was change in the air.

Every revolution has its weapons of choice—once it was incendiary missiles and the mounting of barricades, this time it was “sharing” and tweeting. Justice was being asked for; accountability –something that has been missing from social policies for a long time – was badly needed. Throughout history those at the sharp end of society have asked for parity. Revolutions and violence have erupted because of the lack of it. In the 21st century it wasn’t heads that were rolling, it was careers and reputations that were on the line

Was this about to happen, I wondered.

On 17th October 2017, as a tenant of the by-now notorious KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenancy Management Organisation) I went to their AGM at Kensington Town Hall. The object of the meeting was to vote out of existence the TMO and leave the council to deal with the housing stock. The TMO had originally been set up by tenants of social housing to be run by those same tenants. Before entering the chamber, tenants were subjected to body searches, and the walls of the room were lined with security guards. The atmosphere was intimidating; we were being treated like criminals. Meanwhile members of the board – mostly white and middle class – sat on a platform behind an array of laptops and notebooks. In recent years the TMO has become more like a lettings agency run by professional administrators. The Council, led by Deputy Leader, Kim Taylor-Smith, was asking tenants to relinquish what little power we had (our voices and our votes) so that they could disband the organisation.

At one point in his flow of fine words, Taylor Smith said, “You have to trust us”. Howls of outrage went up in the room. Taylor Smith’s use of the imperative “you have to” speaks volumes in terms of the Council’s attitudes towards its tenants. Trust has to be earned but Taylor Smith let slip the arrogance that demands we do as he tells us. This verbal slip shows how important discourse is: how the false figures of speech serve to disguise illogical political and strategic thinking. The writer George Orwell called what Taylor Smith was delivering, “non-speak”. It reveals a fundamental inability to grasp human and moral realities. As Deputy Leader of RBKC, Taylor Smith and his colleagues, the politicians to whom they answer, have become remote personalities, cut off from the feelings, aspirations and sufferings of ordinary people. They lack the human imagination to enter our world. Their world is one of verbal abstractions, moral clichés and deadened emotion, which have no living connections.

Back at the meeting, the tenants had had enough of this “non-speak”. They wanted their TMO back. Rumour had it the council wanted to sell its housing stock to another housing association. The tenants refused to vote for the dismantling of the TMO. The council refused to answer questions about their intentions to sell off the management of their properties. Nor did they take responsibility for their failure to prevent the fire. Instead they promised another meeting in due course.

On the street level, social media had done its job – community grassroots organisations sprang up, picked up the slack, succoured the homeless and bereaved. They did the work that the council should have done. Unpaid and voluntary, neighbour reached out to neighbour. In a tightknit community such as this, the trust between neighbours was already there. So in the vacuum left by the council and government bodies, local voluntary groups organised themselves. In a sense they propped up a failing system. But is it enough?

When the machinery of state did swing into action, it saw the status quo restored. Broadcasters went back to reporting “the Grenfell Tragedy”. Tragedy is an interesting choice of word in that it covers natural disasters, premature death but not corporate manslaughter, negligence or lack of respect. The dialogue that was promised by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea between council leaders and survivors turned into a survey asking for personal experiences of trauma to be graded between 1 and 10. This is not a dialogue between two equals. It is as though, momentarily wrong-footed by their own inadequacy, the council had righted itself and found the right form for the occasion. We were back to arms-length management. The moment in which a new way of speaking to each other had emerged, had been subsumed by other news events. It remains to be seen if the impact of Grenfell will reap some sea-change in social housing. For now, as of 28th December 2017, tenants have been informed that “the Board of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) have unanimously agreed to hand back management of housing to Kensington and Chelsea Council.” This decision was made despite the tenants’ disapproval. The statement went on:

We want to be very clear, this is only an interim measure – the council is not taking over for good. The council will run services and improve services [what does that mean?] while you, the residents, decide how you want your homes managed in the future … we want to work with communities to begin a true and meaningful consultation with you [see King Richard’s promises below].

Something similar happened in 1381, when a nationwide, locally organised people’s movement co-ordinated an attack on the Tower of London. Given that violence was the only recourse for the underprivileged I can feel the parallels with the rage that now fuels social media, demonstrations and tenants demanding justice for Grenfell. The attack on the Tower was fuelled by similar issues confronting low-income workers. This sense of injustice boiled over into a storming of rich men’s palaces and the murder of government officials – the equivalent of slashing the bonuses of fat-cat bankers and demanding the resignation of those in power. It was the cry for justice we hear today that energised the “peasants” of 1381.

On the night of 13th June, 14-year-old King Richard II looked out from the Tower to see his city burning, the streets in uproar. Thousands of armed men and women from the countryside, self-appointed representatives of the “commons of the realm” had had enough. What happened next has a weird echo in 21st-century Britain.

One of the uprising’s leaders was a chaplain, John Ball. He told rebels who had gathered on Blackheath, “now was a time given to them by God” to seize liberty from the oppression of serfdom. Social upheavals like this one—chaotic and improvised, yet destined—happen when certain sections of society retract their consent to existing conditions and make new demands. The Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci calls it “war of position”.  Revolution now is about changing the way people talk to each other and think. Career death is the modern equivalent of losing everything, of being pinioned in the stocks in a public square.

The king’s advisers counselled Richard to negotiate with the commons, and “to grant them everything that they desire, for if we start something we cannot finish we shall never recover, but we and our heirs will lose everything, and England be destroyed.” Self-interest dictated some form of appeasement.

This is somewhat akin to Teresa May’s initial, rushed response that survivors would be housed within a matter of weeks. She realised something needed to be said; a “human” response was called for. Unfortunately she is supported by a system predicated on profit not compassion. Needless to say survivors were not re-housed within a matter of weeks.

Back to Richard II. The king sent out a royal charter that basically said nothing in a grand-sounding way – the 14th-century equivalent of a Public Inquiry perhaps. But it promised immunity to the rebels, i.e. they would not be punished for the revolt. The “peasants” spurned the obvious attempt at manipulation. They insisted on the king’s participation in a dialogue between equals.

He agreed to meet them on the morning of 14th June at Mile End: “a fair plain place where the people of the city did sport them in the summer season”.

The rebels’ demands were huge. Amongst other things, they asked for the end of serfdom, no man henceforth was to be bound to a lord’s service or his land, but should be free to rent or buy his own property. Interestingly for contemporary readers, property rental was to be set at an affordable four pence per acre. Even in 1381 housing for those on a low income was a pressing issue. Finally all who had taken part in the uprising should receive a full amnesty.

Richard agreed to all these conditions, ordering thirty scribes to sign away a social structure that had maintained an exploitative hierarchy for centuries, and to issue charters on the spot, granting freedom to all men. He asked the rebels to disband and go home in peace.

Was this too good to be true?

On Saturday 15th June, Richard II made his way to Smithfield for a meeting with Wat Tyler, the most famous of the rebel leaders. Wat Tyler, who was in fact a tiler, and from Essex, was a bold man. He did not bow to His Majesty or remove his hat. He shook the king’s hand and congratulated him on his agreement with the “commons”. For his temerity, he paid with his life.

A scuffle broke out between appalled courtiers and Tyler. The Mayor of London, William Walworth, lunged at him with a knife. Tyler fell to the ground. Richard then gambled on his sovereignty – he spurred his horse towards the crowd and proclaimed that he was their king and they must follow him. Quick thinking for a 14-year-old. The sad fact is his ploy worked. The perceived majesty and dignity of the monarch as the earthly representative of a higher power worked its magic. The crowd were subdued by his show of regal strength. They agreed to reassemble at Clerkenwell for another meeting.

This gave the Mayor of London time to raise the militia. They surrounded the leaderless crowd in Smithfield square and issued a full-out attack. Walworth held aloft Wat Tyler’s head on a pike. The crowd broke and begged for mercy. They were lucky to get away with their lives.

They would learn that their king had lied to his people. Sound familiar?

Who were these people? The majority of those who took part in the Peasant’s Revolt were agricultural workers, as well as clergy and local officials. They were community-minded and they sought wholesale change. The movement was countrywide and well-organised. One of the aims was to burn and destroy court records and estate archives that represented the rights and powers of their lords. They wanted to change the dialectic that kept them in inadequate housing and without rights.

What did they achieve? John Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered on 15th July. Tyler’s head was displayed as a warning. All legal concessions Richard had made to the “commons” were repealed in parliament the following month. It took another hundred years for serfdom to be abolished. The housing crisis still has not been resolved. But the hope that can be drawn from history is that there is power in protest and unity.

Certainly there is hope. Having said that, social cleansing and rough sleeping are escalating in this city. It is a crisis not caused by lack of property, but by those on a high income indulging in “buy-to-leave” and “buy-to-let” schemes. They are amassing property portfolios; they have no interest in community or the city. The Conservative government says the answer is to build more houses. This translates as the “regeneration” of council estates, which are then put on the market, resulting in a reduction in social housing. Meanwhile the vulnerable are stacked up in ghettos.

What can be done? The scrapping of right-to-buy would help (as is practised in Scotland and Wales). As would rent control (Germany); as would taxation on non-doms buying in (Vancouver). The latter policy might stop sinister off-shore companies from buying up half of Kensington as an investment, and leaving it as a ghost town. The levying of VAT on renovation and repair so that it is on a par with new-builds would help, too. More punitive taxes would eliminate land hoarding. Democratically controlled planning would restore trust where it is sorely needed.

Change is slow, revolutions in the way housing is managed and tenants are treated will take place slowly. Let us hope we do not have to wait one hundred years for justice. According to the latest statement from Cllr Kim Taylor-Smith, Deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council:

It is important to say that while the KCTMO will no longer be involved in managing your homes, it will continue to exist as a legal entity so that leaders can be called to the public inquiry and held to account in any criminal or civil legal proceedings that may take place in the future. This is not a way for the KCTMO to avoid accountability.

Fine words. But it’s the actions that people remember.

Article by Lilian Pizzichini, editor of The Revisionist.


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