People Don’t Want Theresa May To Emote, They Just Want Her To Lead

Theresa May - Grenfell Tower fire - London Fire Brigade

Not the “Princess Diana Effect”

Sadly, Brendan O’Neill has jumped on the Theresa May apologist bandwagon, mocking the prime minister’s critics for supposedly demanding that she “perform” for us, wearing her emotions on her sleeve as she weeps with the survivors and bereaved relatives of the Grenfell Tower fire victims.

Apparently by criticising the prime minister’s slow, tone-deaf response to the tragedy and its aftermath we are behaving like a baying mob seeking emotional catharsis rather than concerned citizens with legitimate fears about the quality of leadership that Theresa May is providing. But this is to misunderstand the nature of the public anger directed at the prime minister, and assumes that the hard left socialist agitators who shout the loudest are somehow representative of all of May’s critics. They are not.

O’Neill writes:

Do people want Theresa May to weep in public? Allow herself to be pelted with rotten fruit? Make herself available for cries of “murderer” even though it’s ridiculous for her to be accused of murder? What if it isn’t in her nature to show her feelings to strangers — should she still do it? For the good of the nation? I’m finding this climate of emotional retribution quite ugly, I must say. The public’s urgent questions and anger over Grenfell are being channelled by some into a narrow, cartoonish anti-Toryism designed to hurt May and help Labour. To refight the General Election on the ruins of this building strikes me as a far more callous thing than May’s inability to emote for the cameras.

Ross Clark jumps to the same baseless and rather condescending conclusion (those silly plebs want to see emotion, but we enlightened people are above such base considerations as whether or not the prime minister can act like a real leader in public) over at the Spectator:

If she still hasn’t got the message, it is this:  you are expected, Mrs May, to go and blub before the cameras. You are expected to hug, to hold and say that you share everyone’s pain, that you will not rest until you can make sure that tragedies like this will never, ever be allowed to happen again. That you might have been working behind the scenes since Wednesday on an appropriate regulatory response to follow the disaster counts for nothing at all; it is just tears, please.

The idea that Theresa May is some kind of heartless creature who has not been affected by the Grenfell disaster is absurd. I have never met her, but it is quite clear from the look in her face that she is she is as shocked by the whole thing as we all are, one or two psychopaths aside. It is just that she has a very English facet of character which, until a couple of generations ago, was seen as an asset: she has an aversion to showing emotion in public.  

As a public figure in modern Britain, however, this will no longer do. What used to be called a stiff upper lip is now seen as fault, if not a disability which requires treatment. The new rules of emotional correctness demand not just that you care but that you can cry with the people.

This is asinine. I don’t think that any sane critic of Theresa May wants the prime minister to “weep in public” or “blub before the cameras”. That’s not what this is about. The problem is not Theresa May’s failure to behave like the most unhinged of Princess Diana mourners and rend her garments in front of the television cameras. The problem is her complete and utter failure to lead, at least according to any modern definition of leadership in the age of television and social media.

Would Theresa May have been subjected to angry, painful and politically awkward scenes had she gone to meet the survivors and volunteer disaster relief workers in public, the day following the fire? Of course. But as a leader, you suck it up. Even if the people heckle, you show up and let the victims of Britain’s worst fire since the Second World War know that their plight and their concerns are receiving the direct and personal attention of the head of government.

It isn’t that a prime ministerial visit would make much of a tangible difference to the relief efforts. But the visual would have been very powerful, and that counts for a lot when it comes to public sentiment. I wrote the other day of examples of politicians in America mucking in and helping with disaster recovery efforts as a means of showing solidarity and giving the appearance of engagement. Neglecting to do so, and then only relenting a day later and agreeing to meet the affected people in tightly controlled circumstances, away from the television cameras, is a failure of leadership plain and simple.

That’s why Theresa May has to go. Either she doesn’t realise that her behaviour has consistently fallen short of the standards expected of a 21st century leader, or she does realise but is incapable of improving her performance. And unfortunately, Brendan O’Neill has conflated his justified distaste with the way that left-wing agitators from Jeremy Corbyn on downwards have sought to exploit the tragedy for political gain with the erroneous idea that Theresa May’s lacklustre response to the crisis (and leadership in general) should therefore be immune from criticism. It shouldn’t.

Is there a cartoonish anti-Tory sentiment out there? Absolutely. I have been writing about it and criticising the left’s reduction of conservatives to two-dimensional cartoon villains more or less constantly since I started this blog in 2012. And are many of the hysterical accusations being hurled at Theresa May completely outlandish and hysterical? Yes, of course they are. But Theresa May has also opened herself to vociferous and fully justified criticism thanks entirely to her astonishing failure to lead or carry out the basic entry-level requirements of a modern head of government.

This is not the same as demanding that Theresa May “performs” or emotes for us, or leads us in some kind of cathartic national therapy session. This is about demanding that the prime minister either steps up and acts like a leader, or quits the field so that somebody else can do the job.

As a country we are drifting at the present time, and Theresa May bears the overwhelming share of responsibility for this fact. Acknowledging this fact and holding the prime minister to account for her repeated abdication of leadership does not mean validating the separate, cynical attacks of the hard left.

On the contrary, it is our duty to demand strong and effective leadership, and to refuse to settle for Theresa May’s pitiful approximation of the same.

 

Theresa May - Downing Street

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More Concerns About the Grenfell Tower Fire Response

grenfell Tower fire donations - coordination effort

The public response to the Grenfell Tower inferno has been astonishing, but the coordination of relief efforts on the ground has been worryingly inconsistent. America learned important lessons after Hurricane Katrina. We now need to learn some of those same lessons.

Three days after the awful fire which destroyed Grenfell Tower, made hundreds of families homeless and resulted in a death toll which may creep up to three figures, there are alarming signs that some of the problems with coordination and delivery of disaster relief efforts that I previously worried about on this blog have still not been resolved.

The Daily Telegraph’s live blog gives a stark account:

A number of residents left homeless by the Grenfell Tower fire have not even been given a toothbrush despite the volume of items donated following the tragedy, a pastor has claimed.

Derrick Wilson, from the Tabernacle Christian Centre, one of the many which collected donations after Wednesday’s disaster, said he had heard harrowing stories of people still without aid.

Mr Wilson criticised a lack of co-ordination from the council and said his team had been forced to deliver items directly to those affected.

He said that volunteers found around 60 residents, evacuated from the block to accommodation in Earl’s Court, who still had nothing.

The 53-year-old said: “We have just heard some harrowing stories because of the lack of co-ordination.

“We sent out people to find out where these residents are and at Earl’s Court we just found out a number of residents had not received even a toothbrush. They are very angry but they are not really saying much.”

He added: “Some of them, they haven’t received anything, they haven’t got any money.

“They are only being given bed, breakfast and dinner – nothing in between. So what we are doing now is setting up everything from here.”

Mr Wilson said: “There is just confusion, the council doesn’t know what they are doing. We are afraid that these things would be taken away and just dumped, stored…”

This was worrying on Day 1, alarming on Day 2 and is now frankly inexcusable on Day 3. It is rapidly becoming evident that there is no carefully thought-out master plan for how to respond to the aftermath of an incident of mass destruction, that critical phase when the immediate crisis is brought under control but the people affected by it are most in need of assistance.

Three days after the disaster, survivors are being sheltered in a dispersed assortment of churches, mosques and community centres, and the bountiful aid so generously provided by members of the public is clearly not reaching everybody in need. Rather than hearing harrowing stories about the fire, we are now also hearing “harrowing” stories about the impact on survivors of the uncoordinated emergency relief response. Something isn’t working properly.

Hammersmith & Fulham councillor Joe Carlebach, who went to assist with the relief efforts as a volunteer, gives an even more concerning account over at Conservative Home:

There were a small group of young volunteers with mega phones doing their best to organise huge numbers of volunteers to sort and box mountains of food, drink, clothes, toiletries, and toys. What they lacked in management and organisational experience they made up for with dedication, commitment and raw emotion.

I set to work helping form human chains (and being part of the chain myself) for the sorted goods to be moved quickly to the road side waiting for transport for. I met a great variety of people, not just from London but all over the country. They all came with one thing in mind – to do what ever they could to help.

I talked to members of a mosque from North London, a businessman who owned a chauffeur business in Sutton, a prison officer, a Sainsbury’s check out assistant, a taxi driver form Ealing… I could go on, but I think the theme is clear.

There was a significant amount of confusion around where the sorted goods should go to be stored and what transport there was available to help move it. I made several calls to local businesses in an attempt to get trucks and vans to come to site and collect the aid and many, including Olympia Plc, responded quickly and sent several vans (at short notice) to help.

Whilst there was an overwhelming feeling of goodwill for the emergency services, and a wonderful spirit of community pervasive throughout the area where I worked, there was also a growing feeling of anger. At this point it was not directed at the cause of the fire or even at who was responsible, though I dare say that will come in time. It was focused on: where was the help that many had been expecting with the relief effort?

Where were the soldiers to help with the transport of aid? Why were families left on their own to undertake the heartbreaking task of searching the hospitals for missing loved ones? If ever there was a time for a show of force by the authorities, this would be it.

Yes. Where was/is the coordination, the people who bring real organisational skills and have experience in disaster relief to situations such as this? And why did nobody consider calling in the Army Reserve, as other countries frequently do to assist with the logistical aspect? Just because the Grenfell Tower disaster took place in an urban rather than a rural setting does not mean that logistics and transport will take care of themselves. It’s great that proactive councillor from a neighbouring borough had the foresight to call local businesses to request support, but why was this not already being done?

More:

It also has to be said that the visit of many politicians to the site with no tangible results in terms of assistance did not help. It seemed they came to look, not to assist. These are not my words but those of many I spoke to.

Yes. I wrote about this the other day. While senior politicians mucking in to actually help with the recovery process might not make any great physical difference in the grand scheme of things, the visual is powerful and the image projected is one of a political class who actually care rather than one which is alternately terrified of the people and eager to use their suffering as the backdrop for a round of cynical, party political point-scoring.

The examples I gave:

Consider US Vice President Mike Pence and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens actively mucking in and helping to sweep up damage caused by vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Or consider Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, who despite suffering third degree burns from an accident while on vacation still managed to leave the hospital and travel to Dallas to show solidarity and leadership after five city police officers were shot and killed in an ambush.

Do such gestures make an actual practical difference to disaster responses? Not really. But they are highly symbolic and can make a huge psychological difference. Pictures speak volumes, as any leader worth their salt knows.

Turning up and pitching in to help out is basic Leadership 101 in the United States. Apparently our more aloof senior politicians in Britain have not yet received the message.

The Huffington Post then gives this account of Theresa May’s latest cringeworthy television interview, this time with BBC Newsnight:

After fleeing Kensington, she struggled in a BBC Newsnight interview that was meant to focus on the £5 million aid package for the fire’s victims.

After May described what victims had told her, Emily Maitlis said people needed to hear her say: “Something has gone badly wrong. It is our fault. We acknowledge that and accept responsibility.”

“Something awful has happened,” May began. “This is an absolutely awful fire that has taken place.”

Maitlis interrupted to ask whether she would admit she misread the public mood by not going to visit the victims until now.

May answered that she had worked to “ensure the emergency services have the support they need”.

Maitlis told the prime minister: “But that’s three days on prime minister. This is Friday evening. They needed those things in place on Wednesday.”

The presenter described the support efforts for people made homeless by the fire as “chaos”, adding: “No one was in charge.”

May’s answer focussed on the £5 million: “What I have done today is ensured that, we, as a Government, are putting that funding in place for people in the area.”

Ignoring Maitlis’ questions about how victims would get the money, May said: “This has been absolutely terrifying experience for people.”

Again, put aside the mounting evidence of Theresa May’s robotic ineptitude and inability to command the situation – I have written extensively about the prime minister’s inexcusable failures of leadership, here and here.

No, what’s most concerning here is interviewer Emily Maitlis’ assertion that three days on from the fire, there is still a lag in getting the emergency services and aid volunteers the support that they need. Nor does there seem to be any kind of mechanism in place for disbursing the £5million aid package announced by the government, or a clear idea of how the money will be targeted to do the most good.

Instead, it seems as though the government is willing to make sweeping general pledges but then throw the ball to others when it comes to delivering on them:

 

All sensible measures, but it is one thing to draw up a list of promises in Downing Street and quite another to translate that list into tangible action on the ground. And it is still far from clear how these pledges will be delivered, or who will deliver them.

As I made clear in my previous pieces, to point out these various failures is in no way an attack on those goodhearted people who are freely giving of their time, money and resources to help the survivors and the bereaved, and do as much as possible to reduce their suffering. With the exception of the prime minister, the failure is systemic, not personal.

The community spirit and public generosity on display since the awful fire took place have been gratifying to witness. But it is not enough to praise the London spirit and take satisfaction in a job well done. In some cases and in some aspects the job is not being done well, not due to lack of effort but due to lack of advance planning for disasters and an uncoordinated response.

I wrote the other day about how much more organised and proactive aid efforts often tend to be in America, which may be counter-intuitive to many readers who have recently heard lots of smug, politically motivated comparisons of Theresa May’s ineptitude with former President George W. Bush’s failure to get to grips with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

But since that awful failure of the federal government, improvements and changes have been made. When I witnessed disaster recovery efforts up close, in response to a huge deadly tornado in the Mid-West, they were a well-oiled machine:

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town a few days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

We need to learn some of those lessons and apply some of this best practice here in Britain. The disaster relief aspect in particular is certainly not a party political issue, but it is a vitally important issue in terms of social cohesion and even national security. We need to get this stuff right, and we need to make sure that better plans are in place to deal with future incidents, especially if – God forbid – there is a larger scale humanitarian disaster, perhaps resulting from a terrorist attack.

The problem seems to be the failure of any one involved party to take ultimate ownership of the relief effort. National government is partially paralysed following the indecisive general election, and in any case is led by a prime minister whose leadership skills seem to have gone entirely AWOL. Furthermore, Westminster seems to have no grand plan or desire to lead the effort, preferring instead to pledge a sum of cash and leave it for others to work out how best to put it to use.

Local government is similarly ineffective, as numerous eyewitness accounts have now now shown. And the slower Kensington & Chelsea council are to respond, the angrier people get (as we saw with today’s storming of the town hall by protesters), which then makes the council even more defensive and prone to error, a negative spiral which is now already well underway.

That leaves the charities, community organisations and private individuals who have borne the brunt of the effort and gone above and beyond the call of duty, but who do not necessarily have the organisational expertise to coordinate a disaster relief effort on this scale. Very specific skillsets are needed to manage a situation such as this, including logistical knowledge, communications expertise, public health guidance as well as legal, housing and insurance advice.

Charities can only hope to coordinate all of these tasks adequately if they know that they are explicitly expected to do so upfront and given the resources to do their work. Local government would seem to be a much more natural fit for these responsibilities, but government is so centralised in Britain that local authorities would struggle to maintain any kind of readiness given their reliance on (squeezed) funding from central government and inability to raise taxes of their own. And even if the funding was there, it seems increasingly evident that there are no longer any real civil contingency plans to speak of. Perhaps they were all considered obsolete and scrapped when the Cold War came to a close and history “ended”.

The net result is that Britain’s current civil contingency plans for a medium-sized disaster like the Grenfell Tower inferno seems to be “make it up as we go along” mixed with “muddle through and hope for the best”. This isn’t really good enough, but neither is it likely to change so long as ultimate responsibility for coordinating disaster response efforts falls down the gaps between national government, local authorities and the charity sector.

As the official public inquiry into the fire grinds on and answers are sought as to how such a grievous lapse in fire safety could have been tolerated, we should also spend some time conducting a post-mortem investigation of the disaster recovery effort. It is likely to show an amazing outpouring of financial and tangible assistance which sadly were not put to their best immediate use because nobody in Britain plans for the nightmare scenario anymore, and nobody is ultimately responsible for standing ready to execute against the plan even if one existed.

Yes, there are lots of lessons to be learned from this scandalous fire and its aftermath. And they are far too important to become fodder for some party political blame game.

 

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The Grenfell Tower Fire, Labour’s Cynicism And Theresa May’s Abdication Of Leadership

Tower block fire in London

By seeking to overtly politicise the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have overplayed their hand. But far-left protests and anti-Tory incitement must not excuse Theresa May’s unforgivable failure to exercise basic leadership skills

There is a bizarre new defence of Theresa May’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire doing the rounds, in which some people are claiming that public anger at the prime minister’s refusal to publicly meet with survivors and grieving relatives of the victims is somehow comparable to the way that the British people lost their collective cool over the death of princess Diana, demanding more and more conspicuous displays of emotion from politicians and the Royal Family.

Here’s Guardian, New Statesman and Spectator writer Stephen Poole scoffing at those who were angry at the prime minister’s aloofness:

 

Others have contrasted the prime minister’s cowardly behaviour (and her risible excuse that “security concerns” prevented her from meeting the victims) with the fact that the Queen managed to put in an appearance together with Prince William, to meet the people and offer some consolation.

Here’s the BBC making that very point, gleefully contrasting the Queen’s behaviour to that of Theresa May:

Mistakes that have included the significant time that elapsed before the Queen visited the site of the Aberfan disaster in the 1960s and the “Show us you care” newspaper headlines that were printed 20 years ago, in the days following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

As Theresa May is learning to her cost, it is a tragedy with a growing political dimension. There is a howl of pain and anger being directed at an establishment which has the royals at its heart.

There’s the talk of the divide between rich and poor. The Queen’s grandson is a millionaire prince living in a palace in the same borough as Grenfell Tower.

In coming to the site, the Queen was acting as “head of the nation” – a focal point at a moment of considerable pain. She was also providing her prime minister with a masterclass in how to respond on such occasions.

I think it needs to be made clear that Theresa May’s critics are not demanding that the prime minister engage in some kind of performative emotional labour on our behalf, or to be principal therapist to the nation. This is not like the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death twenty years ago, when there were virtually Grief Police on the streets making sure that everybody was appropriately sombre and baying crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace until the Queen showed up to personally examine the mountains of flowers.

On the contrary, May’s critics are simply expecting the prime minister of the United Kingdom to show some basic emotional intelligence and political common sense. They rightly expect Theresa May to display fundamental leadership skills instead of skulking fearfully in 10 Downing Street, terrified at the prospect of a negative interaction with members of the public.

Sadiq Khan managed to go on a walkabout and meet rescue workers and victims, and he was willing to endure heckling and visible public anger in the process. Why can the prime minister of this country not do the same, in the face of what may prove to be the most deadly fire since the Second World War? Yes, people would have shouted at her and emotions would have been very raw. But you know what? As leader of the country you stand there and you take it. You absorb the hate and you try to deliver a message of condolence, solidarity and action, even if the public anger makes it almost impossible to get your message across and the whole thing makes for awful TV. That’s just what you do.

Can anybody seriously imagine Margaret Thatcher, John Major or Tony Blair not having met personally with the Grenfell Tower fire victims were they in office at the time? Gordon Brown had the personality and empathy of a tree stump and he would have suffered through the indignity in order to show solidarity with people who are suffering something far worse than an awkward political situation.

David Cameron would have rolled his sleeves up, put his Wellington boots on and showed up to help, and probably ordered most of his Cabinet to do the same. And yet Theresa May thinks it is acceptable to sweep in by motorcade, confer briefly with the emergency services, avoid the victims altogether and then dash back to Downing Street without acknowledging the volunteers or the survivors, choosing instead to give a sterilised TV interview from back inside Downing Street.

This is Leadership 101, people. I am starting to think that there may be something physically or mentally wrong with the prime minister at this point – the utter collapse of her authority, the inability to regain her political footing, her unbridled terror and fear of any interaction with the public and her seeming unwillingness to do the basic things which are expected of the office of Prime Minister are getting mighty hard to explain away due to a mere confluence of unfortunate events or simple “bad luck”.

Obviously one should refrain from attempting to make any kind of remote diagnosis, but if the prime minister is having some kind of breakdown or stress-induced episode then she needs to resign immediately for the good of the country. And if she isn’t, then she is quite simply the worst leader Britain has suffered in nearly forty years, and she needs to resign immediately for the good of the country.

(The prime minister finally – partially – acquiesced and made a highly controlled and sterilised visit to some of the victims and volunteers this afternoon. At this point, entirely due to her own lack of leadership, public rage had reached such a boiling point that she was heckled, called a coward and her motorcade was chased down the road by angry protesters as she departed).

It is bad enough that through her inept leadership and lack of political vision, Theresa May has allowed 1970s-style Corbynite socialism to regain not just a footing in our political discourse but a very real shot at entering government and taking power. It is bad enough that the prime minister and her team prosecuted such a feeble, uninspiring general election campaign. But now Theresa May has compounded these errors by hiding away in the face of one of the worst peacetime disasters to befall modern Britain, and worse still she ceded the role of Healer in Chief to the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn.

That’s not to say that Corbyn is suddenly a saint. Far from it. The Labour leader has done everything he can to make a party political fight over something that should have united all politicians with the determination to identify the root causes of the Grenfell Tower fire and take whatever action is needed to prevent a recurrence. He has come perilously close to blaming the Evil Tories for the whole affair, which naturally has encouraged his acolytes to make that very accusation, as though Theresa May had personally ordered that the building be doused with accelerant and set ablaze. Just because this is a scandal does not mean that blood is on the prime minister’s hands.

At this point we need to keep two distinct and non-contradictory ideas in our head at the same time. Yes, Theresa May has displayed atrocious leadership skills, even by her own dismal standards, and has utterly failed to carry out the basic public duties one would expect of any other prime minister. But this does not mean that May or the Tories are culpable for the fire, or that “blood is on their hands”. This is a simplistic and reductionist take on the situation, born from the idiotic left-wing conceit that all conservatives are two-dimensional cartoon villains who actively want to harm the poor.

Therefore we should be able to condemn Theresa May in the strongest possible terms for her failures of leadership, while also condemning Jeremy Corbyn’s opportunistic scapegoating of the Conservatives as the villains responsible for the Grenfell Tower inferno. The two facts are complementary, not mutually exclusive. But ultimately, Jeremy Corbyn is simply being opportunistic as leaders of the opposition sometimes have to be. Theresa May, by contrast, has been doing everything that a prime minister should not do, and there is nobody else to blame but her.

This is not about expecting some kind of emotional performance from the prime minister. This is about expecting Theresa May to show the kind of basic leadership skills that would be expected of a small town mayor, never mind the prime minister of one of the most powerful and influential countries in the world. Theresa May couldn’t get the general election right. She can’t get the government’s Brexit approach right. She can’t even make policies consistent with her own party’s worldview or successfully articulate that vision to voters. And now she has proven herself incapable of showing basic humanity in response to a dreadful disaster.

At some point, one has to acknowledge that the game is up. Theresa May’s premiership is not going to get any better, it is not going to recover, it is not going to find stability, and every day that it is allowed to limp on, the country suffers from a lack of basic competent leadership. I don’t know whether there is some extraneous reason which has prompted Theresa May’s sudden political self-destruction, but at this point, from the perspective of what the country needs, that doesn’t matter. She needs to go, now.

This is not about expecting Theresa May to jump through emotional hoops in order to provide catharsis for a shocked nation. This is about expecting and demanding basic competence from our political leaders.

Who in the Conservative Party will step up, acknowledge that we are now drifting under the non-leadership of somebody who has proven to be completely out of her depth – in office but not in power – and force a leadership challenge?

 

Grenfell Tower protests - Theresa May car

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The Grenfell Tower Inferno – Shortcomings At Every Level

Grenfell Tower fire inferno

The deadly inferno at the Grenfell Tower apartment building revealed more systemic and political failures than those relating purely to fire safety

I woke up early on Wednesday morning with the television still playing, the BBC News Channel showing a long shot of a burning tower block with a plume of smoke drifting away across the skyline. It looked like a miniature version of 9/11. Then came the close-up shots taken overnight as the inferno raged, the entire exterior of the building in flames, with people still clearly trapped in their apartments. It was a vision of hell.

This disaster – aptly described as “Dickensian” by Brendan O’Neill – has clearly exposed huge safety concerns when it comes to building codes and fire regulations, particularly with the type of external cladding which has increasingly been widely used to soften the harsh edges of 1960s Brutalist concrete architecture in towns and cities across Britain. I have often remarked to my wife how much nicer the serried ranks of tower blocks in nearby Swiss Cottage look with their new exterior cladding – one can only imagine the trepidation that their occupants must be feeling now, having seen Grenfell Tower burning like a torch.

Predictably, there was a rush to point fingers before the flames had even been extinguished. The Left is naturally running with the theme that the blood of the victims is on the hands of the Evil Tories, as though Theresa May had been secretly abseiling up and down the tower at nighttime, sloshing accelerant across the surface of the building before the blaze. This is deeply unhelpful. Clearly some calamitous decisions and errors have been made, and it may well be the case that criminal liability comes into play. But making a partisan issue out of a mass casualty incident before any facts are known is cynical and wrong.

Brendan O’Neill is quite right when he says:

Such a staggering loss of life in West London, worse than we yet know, and all that observers can think to say in response is “Tory scum” and “We love Corbyn”. The gap between the largeness of this calamity and the smallness and self-interest of the political response to it is vast, and increasingly nauseating. It’s as if the General Election is being restaged on the smoking rubble. I cannot remember any other national tragedy being marshalled so quickly to the cause of petty party politics. It’s dreadful. London deserves a better discussion of this horror.

Pete North does a good job of stepping back and looking at the broader systemic issues rather than seeking to pin the blame on any one person:

So Grenfell Tower is going to be heavily politicised. It’s austerity, it’s private greed, it’s too much regulation, not enough regulation, Toories and blah blah blah.

Rather looks to me like it is a toxic combination of all of the above. The outer cladding is to do with meeting thermal requirements as set out in regulation, fireproof panels were stripped out to meet requirements on asbestos and corners have been cut all over the shop.

Ultimately the failure lies with the local inspectorate. They will blame “austerity” because that’s the convenient scapegoat but ultimately it’s negligence and bureaucratic indifference. The same factors we see in many other scandals involving local authorities.

I did see that a blogger had been threatened with libel for raising the alarm. The claims made were indelicate and probably did fall foul of defamation law, but ultimately the council, probably environmental health, have utterly failed to respond to the concerns of residents. The usual institutional lethargy and arse covering we saw in Rotherham. Anything but admit fault. Similar to my own experiences when trying to confront lawbreaking bailiffs.

This seems to be how things are. Only when there is an egregious failure do we see any real activity – and is soon brushed under the carpet as soon as the immediate risks and liabilities are covered. Then it’s just a matter of time til it happens again. I would say this is a sign of the times, but actually, I don’t ever recall a time when it was any different.

The incident has been described as an accident waiting to happen. I concur. Somebody somewhere is responsible and that person needs to go to jail. Until there are serious consequences for failure we can expect this will happen time and again. But then we say this every time, don’t we?

Ironically, many of those blaming the Evil Tories are likely the same people who patrol Twitter after a terrorist attack, calling out anybody who dares assume that the perpetrator is a Muslim extremist. People who counsel calm and urge others to suspend their judgment when it comes to Islamist terror but are happy to convict conservatives of murder without trial when there is a terrible fire have a truly warped moral code, and one can have no meaningful engagement with them.

Of course, Theresa May has once again been her own worst enemy. I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that Theresa May has simply lost whatever mojo she once had. It’s inexplicable and it happens in the blink of an eye, but sometimes a politician or leader can go from appearing vaguely competent to looking like an utter clown for no discernible outside reason. Why else would the prime minister tour the disaster site, speak to emergency service personnel but fail to publicly meet with residents? Why allow Jeremy Corbyn to become the nation’s de facto Healer in Chief and cement her own reputation as cold, aloof and unwilling to risk unscripted, difficult interactions with people suffering real hardship?

There is simply no recovering from the nadir to which Theresa May has sunk. Humiliated on the world stage having undercut her own authority by calling an election and then losing her majority, stripped of any real authority within her own party and unable to push forward with much of her own pitiful domestic agenda and still displaying the emotional intelligence and charisma of an old sock, this is just untenable.

The prime minister’s unravelling is as astonishing as it is appalling, and while none of her likely successors are remotely better in terms of policy, she nonetheless has to go. A 21st century democracy, particularly a major nation wishing to influence world affairs and defend widespread global interests, simply cannot be led through difficult times by a natural introvert halfway through a political self-destruct sequence.

May’s shameful failure to talk with and be filmed among the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire is just the latest example of the prime minister’s failure to “engage her humanity”, as Michael Portillo scathingly put it on television this evening. Sometimes as a leader you have to show up and just be among your people, even if many of them rather hate your guts.

Consider US Vice President Mike Pence and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens actively mucking in and helping to sweep up damage caused by vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Or consider Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, who despite suffering third degree burns from an accident while on vacation still managed to leave the hospital and travel to Dallas to show solidarity and leadership after five city police officers were shot and killed in an ambush.

Do such gestures make an actual practical difference to disaster responses? Not really. But they are highly symbolic and can make a huge psychological difference. Pictures speak volumes, as any leader worth their salt knows. And today’s most memorable pictures showed Jeremy Corbyn hugging sobbing survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, while Theresa May’s motorcade briefly swept in so that she could stare at the charred building and confer with fire chiefs before whisking her back to Downing Street without the prime minister having to risk any difficult human interaction. The incompetence and cowardice from a basic leadership perspective is simply off the charts.

But the Grenfell Tower disaster has exposed potential issues with leadership not just at the national level, but at the local government and community level, too. From the reports I have seen on the news, together with the personal account of a friend who spent today volunteering at one of the community centres processing donations for the Grenfell Tower displaced families, it sounds as though the aid response – so well-intentioned and earnestly given – has nonetheless been worryingly disorganised at times.

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town a few days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

Some of this we have also seen take place in West London in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. Apparently more than £1 million has already been donated to various appeals and JustGiving sites, which is astonishing – as have been the number of donations of physical goods such as clothes, shoes and food.

But still it seems as though the coordination part is not yet fully in place. My friend noted that donations of clothes and toys were being collected but then sent haphazardly to different locations around the city, with no real understanding as to where the aid was most needed or where displaced families would end up. And volunteers arriving to help reported a lack of coordination at the various scattered sites – perhaps understandable, and certainly not a real impediment to mucking in and helping wherever there are obvious tasks to perform.

My friend spoke of volunteers who offered their own vans and trucks to the relief effort, but who ended up largely driving back and forth quite aimlessly, shuffling donated goods around the city with no sense of the broader plan, rather than transporting them in a coordinated way for sorting and redistribution. She spoke of fresh fruit and perishable food being delivered with no capacity to receive, store or refrigerate it. She spoke of people with significant social media followings successfully hitting up companies for funds and goods, which is fantastic – but begs the question of why the job of getting companies to donate phone chargers and other useful items was left to proactive individuals rather than being an integral part of a pre-written disaster response plan.

Accounts that I have heard suggest that overall ownership and accountability for the humanitarian response is falling down the cracks between national government, local government and the charities and community groups which are doing much of the delivery on the ground. Politically, this makes sense – nobody wants to have ultimate responsibility for emergency accommodation or the health and safety of evacuees, because there is only risk and no political upside. Kensington and Chelsea borough council have no desire to be the primary public face of the response, and nor does the Westminster government – particularly the weak government-in-flux that emerged from the general election. That leaves well-meaning community groups to do the hard work of coordination, for which they are perhaps not best suited, backed up by various charities.

Now compare this disorganisation to the scene at US airports when Donald Trump’s ill-considered travel ban saw hundreds of travellers refused entry or detained at the border. In that case, lawyers immediately descended upon airport arrivals halls and self-organised legal aid triage centres to help refugees, US visa holders and citizens who were being impacted by the policy. Any new lawyers arriving to lend their assistance were then quickly identified and routed to wherever they were needed most.

Now, one cannot directly compare the white collar effort of resisting/subverting a dubious immigration ban with the hard physical and logistical work required to address a disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire. But I think we can still learn something from the proactivity and coordination aspect which often seems much stronger in America, where the federal government is more remote and civic organisations are much more capable of stepping up quickly in times of need.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a criticism of anybody who is selflessly giving of their time and money to help people in need. The response from faith communities and civic groups has been heartwarming, just as it was after the heinous terror attacks in Manchester and London Bridge. But the wonderful London spirit alone is not always enough. That spirit needs to be coordinated and channelled in the right direction, to make the best possible use of the time, money and talents that people freely offer up in times of disaster.

If somebody has knowledge of housing or insurance law and can potentially help people find accommodation or deal with an insurance claim, for example, they shouldn’t be stuck filling boxes with donated toothpaste. Donations should be better coordinated and where possible, the official response needs to speak with one voice rather than through a multiplicity of separate Twitter accounts.

This is a tragedy, and in so many ways the disaster has brought out the best in the British people, with communities coming together to assist the survivors and numerous people donating their money and their time to the recovery process. But it has also exposed flaws, some of which (like Theresa May’s appalling leadership skills) we already knew about and others (like the organisation of relief efforts) which perhaps we did not.

Once again Theresa May proved herself to be a leaden, unresponsive prime minister without either the courage or emotional intelligence to lead the country. But it also seems as though the organisation of relief efforts on the ground has lacked coordination and struggled to fully leverage the amazing influx of aid and assistance. Again, this is in no way to criticise the individual efforts of anybody who is freely giving of their time and resources to help people beset by tragedy. But neither is it enough to mindlessly praise the strong community spirit, as if by rote, without asking questions as to whether the response could be better planned and coordinated, and whether this ad hoc approach would cope if there were an even larger scale disaster, or if the epicentre was somewhere else in the country, far away from the beating heart of central London.

It is a fact that we rely on the government to assist us and provide us with services more than would be the case in some other countries, particularly the United States. And to some extent we are entitled to demand a more comprehensive service – we certainly pay enough in taxes to expect government to be on call 24/7, even if bitter experience shows us that we will continue to receive RyanAir level service for an Emirates level fee. But has this general reliance on government eroded the ability of civil society to respond effectively to major domestic disasters, particularly at the all-important level of local coordination?

At present it feels a lot like this aspect is falling down the cracks between national government, local government and charities/community organisations. Somebody needs to take ultimate ownership. Perhaps this should be national government (through a new agency such as the United States’ FEMA), since Westminster already takes the vast bulk of our taxes and probably ought to show us something in return. Perhaps it should be local government – and certainly we generally should aim to be empowering local government more and more rather than perpetuate the overcentralisation of services in Britain. Or perhaps it should be charities, provided that they are organisationally capable of providing that coordination role.

We mourn the victims of the Grenfell Tower inferno and the suffering of their loved ones, of course we do. And we should refrain from partisan finger-pointing before the facts are known. Which makes this the perfect time to begin a sober discussion about the way we deal with the aftermath of major disasters, either terrorism-related or not (as in this case), so that we can do an even better job the next time that tragedy strikes.

We take it for granted that our emergency services and first responders will do a brave, heroic job, and they always do. But if there is room for improvement in the way we coordinate a response in the hours and days following such tragedies – the humanitarian aid and relief aspect – then we should not shy away from having those discussions.

 

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A Semi-Partisan Pledge Drive

Tip jar

Time to pass around the tip jar…

As I write this, the Labour Party cheerleading blogs Left Foot Forward and LabourList are launching fundraising drives in an attempt to capitalise on what they see as Jeremy Corbyn’s “triumph” in the general election and the regaining of the political momentum.

The left wing hubris in the week since the general election has been off the charts, with more fatuous articles claiming that Britain now has a permanent “progressive majority” than one could possibly read without going mad from sheer incredulity. Worryingly, the demonisation of conservative ideas and Tory voters also seems to be picking up pace, with Labour MPs like Jon Trickett actively accusing everyday, garden variety conservatives of practising “hate”, an accusation we once reserved for real extremists on the far left and right.

Worse still, many of the more spineless and uninspired elements within the Conservative Party seem to have swallowed this narrative unquestioningly, and are agitating for even the most tentative efforts at fiscal responsibility to be abandoned and core conservative principles thrown overboard in favour of competing with Jeremy Corbyn to promise the British people endless free goodies with no responsibilities and no consequences – needless to say, a competition we can never win.

The British Left has gone insane, claiming victory in an election which parliamentary arithmetic clearly shows they lost. The Conservative Party under Theresa May is proving itself a useless keeper of the flame of conservatism and liberty, cranking up the size of the state, eroding civil liberties and taking their Brexit policy direct from the mouth of Nigel Farage. Worse still, the Right seems to have completely forgotten how to engage young people, ceding the youth vote almost entirely to the parties of the Left without even putting up a fight.

In short, there’s a lot going on and a lot to be fought over in the coming months and years. There are people to be held to account and ideas to be kept alive, particularly when the political party which should be the natural keeper of those ideas seems more inclined to accept Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left framing of the political and economic debate.

I haven’t done a pledge drive on this blog thus far in 2017, mostly because my blogging output was significantly reduced in the early months of the year, and it didn’t seem fair to ask for donations while cranking out less of the product. However, you’ll notice that the pace of blogging has now picked up once again.

And so, the time has come… to ask regular readers who get value from this blog and from my writing to drop any spare change you may have into my virtual PayPal tip jar.

 

 

As always, I want to make absolutely clear that my regular contributors and generous occasional benefactors are specifically exempt from this request – you guys are already tapped out, and I would not dream of asking any more from you.

However, if you have recently discovered and enjoyed this blog, or perhaps been a long-time reader but didn’t realise that this blog is supported by generous reader donations, your support would be greatly appreciated.

 

 

You may have noticed some changes on the blog lately. On election day, June 8, we launched a new blog theme. Partially at Pete North’s suggestion, I made the change because the old theme was beginning to show its age and the grey text was difficult to read. Hopefully everyone will find the new theme more modern, streamlined and easy to navigate. However, if you have any issues then please do let me know.

I wrote last year about my hope that 2017 would be the year of the independent political blog. It is happening – slower than I would like, but unmistakably happening nonetheless. Many of the intelligent think pieces and best bits of commentary are now published on Medium, or on WordPress or Blogspot blogs, by people who would struggle to gain the attention of the BBC or the prestige media. And the ideas about Brexit pioneered by independent researchers like Dr. Richard North at eureferendum.com and championed by Pete North are now finally forcing their way into the mainstream conversation, albeit often in plagiarised and unattributed form.

The point is that we can influence the national conversation when we want to, particularly when independent writers and campaigners work together in a concerted effort. This is something that both the hard and soft Left have known for years – they have read their Saul Alinsky. We on the right, or elsewhere on the political spectrum, are still scurrying to catch up.

As Pete North rightly says in a recent piece, there is a political revolution underway in this country. While Brexit may not deliver any clear economic benefits in the short and medium term, the disruption that leaving the EU is causing to our political elite and frameworks for governance is ultimately a necessary thing. They are no longer fit for purpose. This had to happen eventually.

But with only a few honourable exceptions, most mainstream commentators and much of the media have not yet broken out of the old paradigm. Overwhelmingly pro-EU, overwhelmingly metro-leftist and secretly (or sometimes openly) incredulous and baffled by people who think differently, their deep-seated biases and preconceptions warp their reporting and colour their coverage all the time, in hundreds of small ways which add up to one enormous cumulative effect.

As I recently wrote, the fake news actually worth worrying about is not the obviously false and hysterical stories about Hillary Clinton being a demon or other such nonsense, but rather the soft bias of the mainstream media, because of the way that prestige news reflects and moulds the worldview of key decision-makers in this country. One weepy Guardian article about Brexit meaning the end of cooperation with Europe, sincerely believed by people with proximity to power, does more real-world damage than a thousand angry Facebook memes about the EUSSR precisely because the Guardian article is credulously swallowed by people who then make consequential decisions based on their prejudice.

Even if you still find value in the mainstream media (and I certainly do – for all the low grade nonsense there are still some diamonds in the rough, and somebody has to hire reporters to go out and be primary newsgatherers) I hope it is now clear that the BBC, the national newspapers, their online personas and internet giants like HuffPost and Buzzfeed are not enough on their own. We also need independent media to keep politicians and the media honest, or at least hold them to account for their failures and evasions.

Long story short: you need independent political writers, and we need you. Now more than ever.

Any donation you can make to this blog – large or small, one-off or recurring – will be most gratefully received, and will aid in the fight.

Thank you.

 

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