On November 20, 2016, the Grenfell Action Group, a tenants’ organization for a tower block of low-cost housing in one of London’s wealthiest areas, issued a statement regarding the company that managed the property, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, titled “KCTMO—Playing With Fire!” The tenants wrote: “[We] firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO…. It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!”
These proved to be prophetic words. Seven months later, in the early hours of June 14, the 24-story Grenfell Tower was consumed by flames, leaving an estimated 80 dead and 70 injured. In this building disproportionately inhabited by immigrants, people of color, and the poor, some people leaped to their deaths; others were burned alive.
Ordinarily, following a tragedy such as this, the political implications would have been buried even before the victims’ bodies had been recovered. In the version of requiem so often recited by the political and media classes after a mass shooting in America, sentimentality is privileged over the critical faculties: “Now is not the time for politics. Let us mourn instead.”
But this was no ordinary moment. The fire took place less than a week after the British parliamentary elections. The Labour Party, led by the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, had run a campaign arguing for the redistribution of wealth (including more social housing) and against austerity, thereby challenging a consensus that had dominated British politics for a generation. As a result, with these arguments still reverberating, the tragedy was immediately understood as the product not of bad luck, but of bad policy.
With the black smoke still billowing from its upper stories more than 24 hours later, Grenfell Tower stood as an enormous sepulchre to the inhuman ramifications of inequality and neoliberalism. People started drawing a distinction between the living standards of the emergency-service personnel, who risked their lives to save the tower’s residents and have seen a significant decline in wages following a seven-year public-sector pay cap, and the ballooning wealth of those who live in the nearby Kensington and Chelsea neighborhoods.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May visited the first responders at Grenfell but failed to meet with residents when she was initially scheduled to do so—and when she finally did manage to meet them, she was booed. Corbyn, on the other hand, was embraced. None of this could bring back those who had perished, but thanks to the broader arguments made during the weeks before, the incident was framed as an avoidable outrage made possible by greed
Corbyn’s liberal detractors are quick to point out that Labour did not win the election. On this point they are, of course, correct. Nobody won it: The Conservatives emerged as the largest party but lost their majority and, at the time of the Grenfell fire, were still cobbling together a shaky coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party—the UK equivalent of an only recently demilitarized Tea Party. (Indeed, the main reason Corbyn’s supporters were so buoyed by the result was that his critics in the party had predicted a humiliating defeat; when Labour actually gained seats, the bar had been set so low they couldn’t help but jump for joy over it.)
But the fact that Labour lost doesn’t mean nothing was gained as a result of Corbyn’s campaign. There is more to politics than elections, and more to elections than just winning. This doesn’t mean elections aren’t important: The world would be a better place if the Conservatives weren’t in power, and even with their fragile coalition, they can do a lot of damage. But the terrain on which British politics is now being fought is radically different thanks to Corbyn’s leadership and the policies he set out. There is a different idea of the progressive things that are possible and the regressive measures that are no longer tolerable. A clear left alternative has been not only presented but found popular. This has had two main consequences.
First, the Conservative government, fearing an assault from its left, has had to make important concessions regarding key pillars of its policies. Within a week of the vote, the Tories all but conceded that austerity had run its course. Recently, they declared an end to the 1 percent pay cap for public-sector workers. They have also signaled that they may back down on education cuts. Of course, none of these promises should be taken at face value; to ensure that the Tories deliver, pressure will have to be maintained.
Which brings us to the second point: that the return of these alternatives to the public square, along with the electoral proof that they’re popular, has emboldened many to keep fighting. Prison officers and firefighters have already rejected the government’s enhanced post-pay-cap offer. Meanwhile, the Tories lost a parliamentary vote to maintain the freeze on health workers’ pay and to impose a rise in tuition fees. A poll shows that more than half of the public thinks the pay cap is unjustified, and more of them credit Corbyn for the change in policy than May.
Labour didn’t win the election, but it did win the argument. And while winning both would have been preferable, Labour’s ability to shift the frame of the debate will make a concrete difference in the lives of many and lay the foundations for more progressive interventions in the future. Corbyn’s Labour Party still lacks power, but it has gained powerfully in influence.