Theresa May’s woes since the general election have only multiplied. To obtain a parliamentary majority, she has been forced into a confidence and supply deal with the sectarian and homophobic Democratic Unionist Party. It came with a £1 billion price tag in investment in northern Ireland - effectively a bribe - and the DUP have promised to demand more when the arrangement comes up for reconsideration in two years’ time - if May’s government lasts that long.
This financial favouritism provoked fury in Scotland and Wales but the political fallout is likely to be greater. The deal will entrench the ban on abortion in the north of Ireland, a glaring denial of women’s rights. Moreover, May has had to abandon her election plans to scrap the triple lock on pension and means test winter fuel payments. These are concessions to Labour as much as the DUP, further evidence that it is Jeremy Corbyn’s popular manifesto policies that are now setting the agenda.
Former Chancellor George Osborne called May a “dead woman walking” after her election debacle. Tensions in her party are threatening to reignite its civil war over Europe and a leadership challenge looks increasingly likely this autumn. She was booed when she visited the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster, a wholly avoidable tragedy, whose full death toll may never be known. After Grenfell, May was forced to issue an apology for the failures of the state at local and national level, but she then compounded these failings by her own stunning misjudgements.
First, she failed to remove Kensington Council from office and replace it with a proper task force, thus allowing those responsible for the deaths to mismanage the survivors. Second, she should have immediately requisitioned housing in the borough, one of the wealthiest in the country, for temporary and possibly permanent accommodation. Third, she should have offered indefinite leave to remain to all survivors whose immigration status was in doubt, to remove any fears about how accessing services could impact on their rights.
May’s appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick to head the public inquiry and the very limited terms of reference he has adopted suggests that her political imperative is to cover up the crucial social issues Grenfell raised.
Of course, the Grenfell fire raises issues about building safety and the failure of services to respond adequately to an emergency. But behind this, and beyond Moore-Bick’s narrow framework, there has been a history of contempt and neglect that has enabled building regulation failures, governmental indifference to the safety of high rise council tenants and a culture of discrimination against the low-paid, the vulnerable and those of BME and migrant communities in public housing, whose safety concerns were marginalised. This institutional discrimination is ongoing. It determines who gets to sleep comfortably and who burns to death in their own home.
Moore-Bick’s inquiry won’t look at this, nor at the denial of effective mechanisms which would allow the concerns of affected communities in such situations to be taken seriously. FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack called the decision a “mighty kick of some really fundamental issues into some very long grass,” adding “there is clearly no intent from government for any wider inquiry or serious debate.”
But just as Labour during the election called for a public inquiry into blacklisting and Orgreave, it could win a lot of support by promising a wide-ranging inquiry, beyond the immediate concerns about building materials, into how laws could change to give communities much greater control over their housing. In doing so, the Party leadership could also signal to those Labour councils, such as Haringey, which sell off public land and housing with minimal consultation, that things must change. Otherwise these local administrations could take some punishment from the new mood among voters.
As the May government limps on, Labour has a real opportunity to reconnect with a range of social movements on housing, health and other public services, the unions and other disadvantaged groups to build a genuinely popular movement focused on political outcomes that only a Labour government can deliver. This interaction can help change Labour into a genuinely campaigning organisation at all levels and prepare it for the huge challenges ahead.