The Grenfell protesters are right. Red tape saves lives | Chi Onwurah

Activism following events such as the Grenfell fire is not deplorable, as the Telegraph suggests, but essential. Historically, political response to needless death has advanced society

Since the Grenfell Tower fire, I have gone to bed and woken up thinking about the building, the people who lived in it, why and how so many died. On Saturday morning, I woke up to a headline in the Telegraph, claiming that the inferno was being “hijacked” by political activists. And it made me stop thinking only of Grenfell.

I started to think about New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 when 146 garment workers died from fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, recently arrived.

And then I thought of Nellie Kershaw, the Rochdale textile worker who, in 1924, was the first to die, officially, from asbestosis.

And I thought of the 75 men and boys killed at Heaton main colliery when water flooded the pit on 3 May 1815.

The Telegraph deplores the possibility that the horror of Grenfell should lead some people to political activism. I find it unbelievable that, in 2017 in the UK, it should still be possible to trace the path to political activism through the bodies of the dead.

I believe politics is metaphorically and statistically a matter of life or death – whether lives blighted by school cuts or lost to increasing levels of air pollution. But that it should literally determine whether you make it through the night when a fire breaks out in your neighbour’s home – that is what the political activism of previous generations was designed to end.

The labour movement was forged in the horrendous working conditions of the industrial revolution, a fact too often forgotten. Universal education, affordable housing and, most importantly, the National Health Service are the most recognised manifestations of our mission to bring opportunity to the many.

But to take advantage of opportunity, we need health and safety – regrettably difficult for even the greatest orator to turn into an inspirational clarion call. Having worked for Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, for six years, I know that health and safety regulation is the least sexy of what is not, let’s be honest, a very sexy area. If I was looking at regulations to promote competition or reduce prices there would be businesses, citizen groups and journalists keen to talk to me. If I was considering the safest way to climb a telegraph pole, no one was interested – often not even telegraph pole climbers.

Eliminating regulation is far more inspiring than creating it. David Cameron announcing in 2012 that he would kill off the safety culture was simply a new way to express a Conservative staple: the “bonfire of red tape” that liberates our economy. The Tory requirement that, for each regulation brought in, two must be removed ensured there was every incentive to let those new fire regulations just wait a while.

But health and safety legislation enables our economy to function effectively. The temperature in your working environment is regulated – so you don’t have to spend half your day arguing with your boss over it, you get on with your job. You have a right to a home that protects you against fire, so you don’t lose sleep lying awake at night wondering how you’ll make it down the stairs.

For me, there are the souls of the dead in every sub-clause of health and safety legislation. That is how our society has advanced, through a political response to the needless deaths of the poor, vulnerable, unheard and nameless.

The residents of Grenfell were poor in a rich neighbourhood. They were those the market rejected, a burden on a borough apparently determined the rich should not pay to lift the constraints of the poor. Grenfell residents had warned the council and other authorities that a disaster of exactly this nature was likely. What would the Telegraph have the residents do now dozens of their number are dead? Petition the lord mayor? Write a folk song?

We are no longer in the 18th century. We live in a democracy, one newly reinvigorated through the increased turnout and the first-time voters at the recent general election.

I hope the Grenfell fire is commemorated in song but I strongly believe that, when so many lives are lost needlessly, in a battle for fire safety that we should have won decades ago, then it is absolutely appropriate that people turn to political activism so these lost lives can also be commemorated in bright, shiny, new and effective health and safety regulation.


Chi Onwurah

The GuardianTramp

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