- Interview by
- Marcus Barnett
In June of last year an inferno in a 24-storey block of public housing flats in southwest London shocked the world. Seventy-one people died in Grenfell Tower, with another seventy injured in one of the worst tragedies in modern British history.
The days that followed saw an avalanche of criticism directed at authorities for neglect of the building, in particular for the recent renovation which had placed highly flammable cladding around its exterior. The local Tory-run council of Kensington and Chelsea, responsible for the Grenfell Tower block, saw numerous protests.
Just days before the fire, Emma Dent Coad had been elected Labour MP for Kensington. Her upset victory in an area often caricatured as affluent was one of the most unexpected results of Jeremy Corbyn’s election surge, unseating the Tories for the first time in decades. Tragically, it didn’t take long for the deep inequalities in the borough which had propelled her to victory to become a national talking point.
Jacobin’s Marcus Barnett talks to Emma Dent Coad MP about her constituency, the campaign for justice for the Grenfell victims and the effort to unseat the local Tory council in today’s election.
Can you describe to me the constituency that you represent? How much does it challenge the popular assumptions about the affluence of the area?
This has been my bugbear for many years! I know every nook and corner of my area, I know people from all walks of life here. For years, I had never understood why so many people saw the borough as a prosperous area.
When I came onto the council twelve years ago, I realized why. It was because the Conservative council were pumping out this propaganda to bring rich people in, to make it more appealing and to bring in property developers. It isn’t the true picture of borough at all, and it never has been: there have always been pockets of genuine, appalling poverty.
Golborne, the north east ward I represent on Kensington and Chelsea Council, is at the top of the Portobello Road. It’s the joint-poorest ward in London, but you wouldn’t know by looking at it. It is a nicely laid out area, with pleasant, nineteen-seventies housing estates, lots of trees everywhere, no rubbish on the street. Where could the poverty be?
Actually, the council have spent lots of money on pruning trees, cleaning streets, and sanitizing poverty. They have spent money on making the area look good – hanging out flower baskets, repaving streets, putting up fancy lampposts. I have no problem with the council looking after our public ground, but people who pay council tax all contribute, and the council haven’t bothered to invest in the people that need them, and the services that people need to live good, productive lives.
In the 2014 local elections, our local Labour Party did quite a lot of work on local inequality. Having studied Office for National Statistics hard, I had managed to prove that the area is the most unequal borough in Britain, and it is shameful. The taxation system is ridiculously confused – I worked out that if you live in a three-bedroom council flat in north Kensington, you pay £10 a week in tax less than the Sultan of Brunei, who has a sixteen-bedroom mansion in Kensington Palace.
How does the inequality you mention impact on the area?
Several years ago, I did a big breakdown of income inequality in the area, and the contrasts were utterly shocking. There is one particular street just off Knightsbridge where the level health inequality is basically zero. On this street, just about everyone has good health and access to what they need to get on in life. Meanwhile, one particular estate in north Kensington has around sixty – higher than the Gorbals in Glasgow.
In the eight years of austerity, life expectancy in my ward has dropped by six years. There was nowhere else we could find where life expectancy has dropped so sharply in such little time. The Tory council’s PR department can shout that Kensington and Chelsea has the best life expectancy in the country: around Harrod’s, a white male can live until he is 92. In my ward, the average Moroccan male immigrant can expect to live until he is 62. In Golborne, the premature aging you see is horrible. There are people only in their 60s who walk around on crutches, who look exhausted, who eat poorly, who can’t get up the stairs, who are really financially and physically struggling.
A few years ago, I was chatting to a dentist friend who said that local children’s teeth were falling out because they didn’t have enough calcium. Children were having so little calcium in their bodies that they were collapsing at school. I warned the council, and Tory councillors laughed at me – one of them, who is still a Cabinet member, pointed at me, and said “Labour love the idea of rickets”.
Now, we have one child registered with rickets, which is incurable. It is a lifetime disability. And that Conservative was laughing.
In 2010 the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition began implementing austerity measures, what was their rationale for the cuts in the area?
There was no excuse. Our council was very well off; the cuts added up to a mere £10 million a year. When you compare that to cuts that some Labour councils are forced to make, that’s peanuts. They didn’t need to do it – they could have kept the youth clubs and sports clubs open, they could have kept on funding the schools. It is a terrible example of “efficiency” and how councils manage money.
Despite its appalling poverty, perceptions clearly exist about the area’s affluence. So many people were taken aback by your victory in the 2017 general election. How surprised were you?
I always knew it was possible. For years, I had been laughed at for thinking that, so now I feel like I have been vindicated. I knew the vote was always there, but nobody bothered voting – I had so many friends who always just thought ‘what’s the point? The Tories will always get in’. A lot of my friends, particularly people from the Afro-Caribbean community, thought that politics wasn’t for them. Why wouldn’t they think that? But that has changed, and you can feel that change.
Some of it was the fact that I was the candidate – people know me, trust me, and know where I live. But much of it was down to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
What was the effect of Corbyn’s leadership – and the change of Labour’s political direction – in the area?
Well, many middle-class mums like me had already marched alongside poor and working class people against the behavior of the council and the levels of inequality in the area. So quite a lot of the politics resonated with people. In terms of the party, our local membership quintupled under Corbyn. Before the first leadership election, we had 300 members – now we have 1500. That is largely down to Jeremy Corbyn.
What sort of people have joined the party?
A lot of people who didn’t stick it out through the dark years – I found it very difficult, but I did – they came back. A lot of students, who have it so hard at such an early stage in their lives, joined. A lot of people from ethnic minority communities, who had previously had no interest in Labour, got involved for Corbyn. A huge amount of people I spoke to never forgot his involvement in the eighties anti-apartheid protests and so on: he has that solidity, and people recognize that you can’t buy that.
Were quite a lot of people in the area fed up with the Conservative administration as well?
Yes, before Grenfell, lots of people were fed up with the council. People thought the council wasn’t listening, particularly on all sorts of planning, development and bad funding issues. People thought their priorities were bad and were waking up to the inadequacies of the Tories.
Inadequacies that were highlighted by the tragedy at Grenfell, which threw your area into the international spotlight. Kensington saw unprecedented, bitter social strife – there were demonstrations, people occupying the town hall, and so on.
Actually, three large properties are still occupied. After the fire, people started occupying and opening up unused buildings, offering services to other people, because the council were useless. Now they have stayed and are broadening out their activities.
So there is a large level of community agitation after Grenfell?
Yes. Before the general election, there was around ten campaign groups who all knew each other, helping each other on specific issues. Lots of tenant activists who weren’t Labour members helped me out during the general election, which was really nice. After Grenfell, they were already connected. On the morning of the fire, they networked, and went out there, and the good work activists were doing grew and grew.
Many people say that the morning of Grenfell is one of the key moments where the neoliberal consensus collapsed.
It was, absolutely. The façade of the Conservatives also collapsed – the façade that they had been working hard for the area for so long. If you don’t look after people, terrible things happen, and sometimes the worst possible things happen. They should hang their heads in shame, but they haven’t – they still don’t get it. Even Sajid Javid has said that their response is totally irresponsible. Why haven’t they sent in commissioners to rehouse people? It is unacceptable. We have said that if we get in, we’ll do it. There are Grenfell survivors of all ages who have still not been rehoused. Some are feeling suicidal – their lives have been completely put on hold. It is appalling.
How has the local election campaign to unseat the Tories gone?
There has been lots going on and it is incredibly impressive. After we had the London local elections launch, I went to Chelsea with Sadiq Khan and Jeremy, and got some great responses from people. Every weekend, we have got London Young Labour coming in, and we have had Owen Jones and Momentum holding one of their Unseat events here. There are currently 25 sessions a week in the borough – there is always something going on somewhere.
If we take Chelsea Riverside ward, the symbolism will be extraordinary. We haven’t done a lot of work there over the years, but we have the membership to do this work now, and the results are looking interesting. There are other wards where, when you’re canvassing, you get the feeling that they won’t be “True Blue” on May 3rd. It is not impossible that we can win the council. But even if we just get lots more Labour councillors elected, we can change the council’s political complexion.
What is the situation with people who voted Conservative even in 2017?
Some Conservatives actually voted for me last year, for all sorts of different reasons. I try to find common ground with people. ‘Where will your children live?” is a big question. It is applicable to everybody here. Whether you live in a mansion flat or a council flat, can your children afford to live nearby you if you are going to stick around? Where’s the post office, the doctor’s, the local services? The corner shop is the centre of the community for many people – you buy your utilities there, your parcels go there, the owners deliver food to you if it is icy on the pavements, they are who you regularly talk to if you live alone. Can the corner shop afford to stay? A lot of people are looking at these things in the area and thinking that even if they don’t like Labour, they recognize faults in the current system.
Is the Labour apparatus helping in the local elections a lot more? Since the Party bureaucracy’s strategy was defensive during the general election, I imagine the change now must be palpable.
Oh yes, it is much more upbeat. It was very negative last year, which I found very difficult. There is a real confidence in the air, and we are getting real help.
So, it is safe to say that you are benefitting from the sense of change in the party’s structures?
Absolutely. Many of the new candidates are fantastic, and really know their stuff. The party has been renewed. We’ve had some good people coming forward – teachers, nurses, a very mixed group of people. Our candidates look like the people they want to represent.
In the area, would you say that the local elections are focusing on Grenfell, or the national political sphere – or more London-wide issues such as knife crime?
Everything relates back to Grenfell, really. It pretty much always comes up in conversation. I have met Tories who are truly ashamed about their council. They hadn’t a clue how bad the problem was in tower blocks like Grenfell, and they had no idea how mismanaged the area was. Now they are seeing the situation in a new light.
With all our members, we don’t have any no-go areas – we knock on every door. One thing we are getting a lot of is people saying they would “never vote Labour in a general election,” but “want that lot out.”