If Labour manages to do this, and if it makes sure that its politicising is based firmly in facts and grounded evidence, it will not only do a much better job at helping the victims of the fire, but it’s also much more likely to present itself as a party ready to take power.
The Grenfell fire has shocked Britain, causing the public to question how we treat those less well-off, and how we conduct our politics. Indeed, on this latter issue, many have argued that to politicise the fire is to disrespect the tragedy, and show a lack of compassion towards the victims. However, this view seems a little short-sighted.
The fire spread so quickly partly because of cladding that failed to comply with safety regulations, and, in the months before the fire, residents had repeatedly complained about fire safety concerns, only to be ignored. These failings highlight not only problems in British building projects, but also deep flaws in the country’s ability to look after all. Thus, to me, it seems that the fire is inherently and unavoidably political.
As the party that stands for the many, Labour should – indeed, Labour has a duty to – bring these failings to the forefront of British politics. It needs to make sure that the Conservatives support and listen to the Grenfell victims, and that those responsible for the fire face the just consequences. In other words, Labour must politicise the Grenfell tragedy.
However, equally important to politicising the fire is doing so in the appropriate way: that is, in a way the primarily helps the victims of the fire, rather than primarily advances Labour. The disadvantages of inappropriate politicising are two-fold: firstly, it would do little to help the victims; secondly, it would fail to present Labour as the responsible, competent party it must be perceived as to gain power.
Arguments used in the politicising, for instance, should be based on facts, not mere speculations. Conclusions drawn from inaccurate information can result in dangerous consequences, incorrectly punishing people and actually doing very little to help victims. Admittedly, substantiated facts often take time and patience to surface, and can hamper attempts to politicise events as quickly as may be preferred. Nonetheless, they are essential for grounding effective arguments, and thus Labour must know when to politicise quickly and when to wait for the sake of accuracy.
Furthermore, though part of Labour’s politicising of the event should certainly involve criticism of Tory mishandling of the fire, it shouldn’t criticise every Conservative response. Helpful Tory reactions should be praised, not criticised; unjust criticism will do nothing to help the Grenfell victims, and it is only aiding them, not advancing any party, that justifies politicising this tragedy.
What’s more, any criticism of the Tory response to the fire should be delivered in an appropriate, civilised way, and shouldn’t disrupt any effective responses to the fire.
An example of criticism of the Conservatives gone wrong is Owen Jones’ (later deleted) Facebook post, where he gave the address of a church that Theresa May was visiting, and encouraged people to protest outside it, albeit peacefully. This kind of personal hounding incorrectly gives Labour an uncivilised image, and does nothing to portray it as the competent but caring party it needs to be seen as in order to gain power. It’s also very difficult to see how this kind of criticism helps the Grenfell victims; rather, it just wastes May’s time, and prevents her from potentially carrying out actions that may otherwise be useful.
It is politicising of this kind, that aims to advance the party rather than aid those affected by the fire, that is inappropriate so soon after a tragic event. I’m not trying to argue here that all criticism should be avoided or softened: where mistakes have been made, people need to be held accountable. But they must be held accountable in an appropriate way at an appropriate time. If Labour manages to do this, and if it makes sure that its politicising is based firmly in facts and grounded evidence, it will not only do a much better job at helping the victims of the fire, but it’s also much more likely to present itself as a party ready to take power.
Francesca Sellors is a Young Fabians member. Follow her on Twitter at @fransellors