Pound Notes

Written By: Stephen Pound
Published: July 6, 2017 Last modified: July 6, 2017

When I first visited Grenfell Tower after the horrific, murderous and entirely avoidable fire that has killed so many innocents I was struck by the fact that green trees and unburned grass grew around the still smouldering blackened tower. The contrast was shattering and confirmed that the intensity of the blaze was such that not even the London Fire Brigade could bring it under control – even if they could damp down and preserve the immediate surroundings.

The grim Gormengast of a building seemed so utterly out of keeping with the area and the sight is utterly shocking to the viewer – no matter how many times you see it.

Struck silent by the sight I found an echo of some long ago horror stirring.

The building awoke in me memories of the Asch Building in Manhattan where the worst civilian tragedy – after the Twin Towers – to affect America took place on a Saturday afternoon on March 25, 1911.

This was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and one of the many books written about it was rightly entitled “The Fire that Changed America” (pictured).

Look at pictures of what is now the Brown Building and see the shape of a ten storey Grenfell Tower.

Read the stories of the one hundred and forty six desperately poor immigrants – the youngest only fourteen years old – who died and a connection leaps across the century from Greenwich Village to Latimer Road.

Read how a sweatshop existed in one of the richest cities on earth and see how the poor, the newly arrived immigrants and the wage slaves locked into a death-trap by the bosses died in agony while the firefighters lacked ladders able to reach the lethal 9th floor and where no factory safety legislation was in place, as capitalism with the brakes off was the force that powered New York and the workforce were mere units of production – expendable and abused.

Sometimes it takes tragedy to change history – the Chicago fire at the Iroquois Theatre and the Ring Theatre fire in Austria are examples – and this was the case in respect of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

Politics came to the rescue and the great Al Smith and the Democratic machine in New York vowed that there would be no more such fires.

The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was formed and those who fought until some measure of justice was achieved included the great union organiser and mesmerising public speaker Rose Schneiderman and Louis Waldman who was later elected a Socialist NY state assemblyman.

Jeremy Corbyn responded to the government in the House this week by drawing comparisons with Hillsborough.

Where the victims are the voiceless poor there can be a reluctance to accord them the dignity and attention that might otherwise be the case.

Theresa May’s soulless visit to meet only with the officials and not the bereaved speaks to her character.

Jeremy Corbyn’s arm round the shoulder speaks to his character and I know which one resonates most with me.

There is much handwringing, crocodile tears and stinking hypocrisy but the stark facts of Grenfell Tower cannot be deflected or denied.

After Lakanal House there should have been no excuse whatsoever. After the government’s firm commitment in 2013 there should have been a full review of fire safety regulations.

After Parliament demanded the installation of sprinklers nearly five years ago the housing ministers who ignored this need to look very deeply into their souls and examine their consciences – if they can be found.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire did change America. It proved the need for good strong unions and for a politics that saw its duty as the defence of the poor.

Properly enforced safety regulations proved their need in America in 1911.

In this country we need to accept that trite unthinking soundbites about a bonfire of red tape and regulation can lead to a different sort of fire altogether. There must never be another Lakanal House and never, ever another Grenfell Tower.

The contemptible Kensington and Chelsea council ,who think it right and just to lavish council tax rebates on those in the highest bands, to subsidise opera to the south of the borough and save a few thousand pounds by showing that lives on Latimer Road mean less than those in Lansdowne Road, should be thrown out of office next May.

We cannot let these people get away with murder.

About Stephen Pound

Stephen Pound is Labour MP for Ealing North