There are many things that make me angry about the Grenfell Fire and the tragic loss of life it caused. However, to find the thing that most stuck in my craw, we have to travel halfway round the world to Colorado. A short while ago, Slate's Political Gabfest podcast (which, is great and you should all listen to it ) did a special live episode with guest Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. Practically the first thing out of the Governor’s mouth was a claim that no one defends red tape and that his administration was working hard to get rid of as many regulations as possible. He seemed pretty proud of that.
This may not be as overtly enraging as factors on that ground in the Grenfell Fire - the poor response from the council, Theresa May refusing to talk to homelessness families - but it speaks to some pretty lazy assumptions that we have been making for a long time. Assumptions that have probably cost more than 100 lives in this case.
The UK equivalent of Governor Hickenlooper’s railing against red tape is "health and safety gone mad". The idea that regulations aimed at preventing the place where your children sleep being turned into a 25 story pillar of flame are somehow stifling private business and preventing them from creating a bounty of wealth for all.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron, said he wanted to cut back the health and safety “monster”. This idea has a lot of credence in politics. Donald Trump promised a "bonfire of red tape" when he was running for President and the Daily Telegraph supported the idea. The Telegraph is currently running a campaign to cut EU red tape post Brexit.
Too many laws are holding back the natural British entrepreneurial spirit. The next Steve Jobs can't get his tech company off the ground because of all the rules about how much screen time employees are allowed without a break. For years this idea has been pushed to the point where lots of people say it without thinking about what it means. It has led to complete disdain for government and red tape, but these rules are here to keeps us alive.
Red tape must be got rid of to help businesses grow, that's the argument, and growing business is the most important thing that anyone can do. It's our highest and noblest calling, or so the argument goes. It is parroted by people like the Governor of Colorado who should have other priorities beyond growing business, like using government look after people and make their lives better.
Wait, doesn't growing business make people's lives better, I hear you say? The core of Governor Hickenlooper’s argument is that growing business employees more people and creates more wealth so that we can all live in lovely homes and raise healthy happy children and then retire to live near the seaside. Cut the red tape and the struggling Steve Jobs out there will make lots of wealth for everyone.
Except it doesn’t quite work like that, because the jobs created are insecure, low paid and sometimes dangerous because we just got rid of the red tape preventing that sort of thing. Cameron wanted to get rid of the health and safety culture to help business make jobs but almost all of the jobs created were low paid and insecure.
We have spent decades reducing red tape to allow business to grow, and where are we now? High unemployment, whole communities where there are very few jobs (have you been to Whitehaven recently?), stagnant wage growth, massive inequality between those owning/running the businesses and those working in them, job insecurity, people in work being more likely to be in poverty than anyone else and a huge increase in people relying on food banks. Helping business is not helping ordinary people.
None of the benefit of the getting rid of red tape goes to the people in the tower blocks or the food banks or the low paid insecure jobs. It goes to the landlords, the company owners and the people employing workers on low wages and insecure contracts. These people suffer the low wages, the insecure work, the housing crisis, the benefit cuts. They never get anything back, but the people who own the businesses get tax cuts and bonfires of red tape to make their lives easier.
Cutting red tape allowed for Grenfell Tower to be dangerously re-clad at the cheapest price, because cutting red tape is inherently good and not a penny more than necessary should be spent on the houses of poor people. They deserve it through not working hard, so the argument goes. This idea is not an 80s retro throwback; it is alive today in the benefit cap and the bedroom tax. It lives on in the Tories’ rhetoric of ‘strivers and skivers’.
The end goal of all this is to punish the poor for being poor. You might see the Tory prime ministers saying that The Grenfell Fire is a tragedy on TV, but her party caused this by perpetuating the idea that the poor deserve less because they are where they are through their own fault. Tories use their divisive rhetoric to turn workers against unemployed, low paid workers against the slightly better off, non-immigrants against immigrants. By positioning one side as undeserving and the Tories as the champions of the good, honest, hard-working people, they create the circumstances when the homes of poor people can be turned into a death trap.
Why should they get a safe home when I don’t get anything from the government? So the argument goes. Poor people are lazy and don’t deserve anything nice or safe. If they don't like it, work harder. This is the subtext and often the text of what the Tories say. Now people are dead because of the idea that poor people deserve as little as possible.
The assumptions that underpin a lot of our current economic and political thinking allowed the Grenfell Fire to happen. A lot of people have said how upset they are by this, but I bet they are still concerned about how much the government spends housing the poor. Either you’re on the side of a "healthy economy" (few subsidies to the poor and a good business climate with little red tape) or you’re on the side of protecting people's lives. I am on the side of looking after people, which means that business needs to move over.
The materials used in the Grenfell cladding failed safety tests. This shows we need more red tape to keep everyone safe. Everyone should be safe in their beds while they sleep, regardless of how much tax they pay or how many services they use or what job they have or how much they earn. Everyone. If people being safe while they sleep is a problem for business, then we have a problem with business. If red tape keeps people safe while they sleep then it is something we should be proud of and the Hickenloopers of this world should be ashamed of their desire to use public office to reckless endanger the public.
The Grenfell Fire is a tragedy and something needs to be done so that it never happens again. Even if people in business don’t like it. These people don’t care about our lives. At least they don't care about our lives as much as they care about making life easier for business, which from where I stand today has not led us to the shining corporate sponsor city on the hill that it was supposed to. It has made us less equal, more insecure and less safe.
I sincerely hope that Grenfell leads to a change in public opinion about the role of regulation in keeping people safe. Everyone's life is important and I want them to be bound up in red tape if that’s what it takes to protect them.