But like in wartime, suspending ‘business as usual’, not just for the survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy but for hundreds of residents in potentially hundreds of tower blocks across the country, will be a cause for reflection on the status quo. As domestic refugees take up residence in pricey hotels, leisure centres and the spare rooms of benefactor families, suddenly we really are, (or it’s more like we really are), in it together. The ‘haves’ are finally confronted with life as it really is for the ‘have nots’.
The Express newspaper is not so well-known for its sympathies towards benefit claimants or foreign nationals living in Britain. But it appeared furious at the idea that victims of the fire could be hit by underoccupancy rules, or the BEDROOM TAX as they called it, deploying suitably angry, upper case text in middle of a headline. It seems tenants, starting with Grenfell residents, are being canonised from undeserving to deserving poor and, in turn, their experience of the realities of government policy may be seen through a more sympathetic lens.
A unique set of circumstances created the conditions for a change of perspective on claimants and those living in poverty. The tipping point may have been the fire but the government was already under pressure from a newly politicised electorate and a media forced to accommodate more anti-establishment public mood. In part, Brexit mobilised an angry youth vote at the election, but political upheavals in the US and France played a part in motivating non-conservatives to vote tactically to make their opposition known. Brexit itself was only made possible because idealism (people disaffected by a LibDem betrayal voting ‘with their heart’), pragmatism (the ‘common sense’ of austerity) and outright mendacity (fake news) stood shoulder to shoulder at the previous election and referendum hustings.
That may all be a bit oblique but there’s no doubt public mood is somewhere new. In turn, the media are, in their relentlessly morose way, looking for conclusions to draw and someone to blame. And while none of that is healthy or especially helpful, it is at least an opportunity to expose some truths.
Let’s hope the media trails the fortunes or otherwise of the Grenfell residents. Bleakly, their story is the prize case study we’ve been waiting for to expose the realities of austerity and poverty. They are victims not only of a tragedy but of their own poverty too. They have the sympathies of the public and (currently) media behind them. Through them, we can see the simple injustice of the Bedroom Tax and benefit caps, and how people with limited options are punished financially for being poor.
If we can understand how it is unfair that someone forced out of the charred remains of their home and into a property too big for them has 14 or even 25 percent of their housing benefit taken off them, we can understand what the same treatment means to hundreds of thousands of others who every month have no choice but to cough up the shortfall in rent.
Let’s hope the cost of living in limbo is exposed. This might just shine a light on the poverty premium and why it costs more to be poor. Living in a hotel may sound luxurious but that denies the practical and emotional impacts of not having a place of your own. Imagine trying to hold down a job when all the conveniences of cooking, washing your clothes and having your kids sleep in another room are denied you. Food handouts or a cash grant may sound like a prize but these will almost certainly fail to compensate for the cost of shelling out on hot food or using a laundrette.
The dangers of politicising the fire itself, seeking to score points over the despatch box on the whys and wherefores of public safety, is to overlook and undermine an ongoing and more universal issue: Poverty. How the survivors are treated could reveal a more shocking story about austerity and how it has turned the screw on the poorest in all our communities.