Politics

‘Nothing has changed since Grenfell’: Emma Dent Coad on loss of life threats and PTSD as Kensington’s Labour MP | Labour


Emma Dent Coad greets me within the civic reception of Kensington city corridor. It is the place she has been making herself a thorn within the Conservative council’s aspect since her election as a Labour councillor in 2006. At the time, she had been an structure journalist for 30 years (she is now 67), and she or he is enthusiastic about this 70s constructing, displaying off the debating chamber earlier than main me to her workplace. Her enthusiasm is contagious; by the point we’re accomplished, I too am awed by the house, which seems like a mini UN – even the chunky door handles are beautiful.

This is a degree Dent Coad stresses in her forthcoming guide, One Kensington (subtitled Food Halls, Food Banks and Grenfell: Inside the Most Unequal Borough in Britain) – that there’s nothing contradictory about combating for social justice and having a ardour for aesthetics. One of the tacit precepts of Labour rhetoric is that solely elitists care about structure, whereas genuine individuals care about placing roofs over heads. That has enabled a parallel narrative – that social tenants don’t deserve lovely housing, not to mention in prosperous areas. This is the angle she fights the council on continuously, whether or not it’s attempting to relocate sheltered-housing tenants from Holland Park to East Molesey in Surrey, or anticipating Grenfell survivors to be grateful that they’ve been rehoused.

“People in social housing are told: ‘You’re lucky, you’re privileged, don’t you know what you’ve been given?’ I always say [to the Conservative councillors]: ‘It’s completely irrelevant whether this flat they’ve been put in is worth £1m, because this is your game – to financialise the market, to force up prices by sitting on plots of land for years. You’ve been 100% complicit in the game of making homes too expensive for people. And then you complain that you’ve put them in a £1m home and they’re not grateful enough.”

Talking to Dent Coad jogs my memory of the way in which Labour individuals used to talk within the very early Blair years (“I was a fan of Tony Blair at the beginning”), when everybody from architects to anarchists had swung behind the occasion, when issues might solely get higher. But she additionally sounds very new-generation left: radical, trendy, decided to smash the system. She hasn’t modified, she says, it’s simply that leftwing politics is all over. “I’ve always been this person. A lifelong socialist,” she says.

Dent Coad celebrates winning Kensington in June 2017
Dent Coad celebrates successful Kensington in June 2017. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Her guide is simply one of many methods by which she is marking 5 years since Grenfell. Her recollection of that point is as visceral as if it had occurred yesterday. That week in 2017, she had been elected because the Labour MP for Kensington by the unbelievably slim margin of 20 votes. Of all of the hammer blows to Theresa May in that election, this will need to have been essentially the most alarming, a psephologically not possible coalition of Labour supporters, hardcore remainers and prosperous residents’ associations swinging behind this fully unabashed … nicely, if not Corbynite, definitely Corbyn-adjacent MP.

“My socialism is Corbyn’s socialism, but that doesn’t make me a Corbynite,” she says. “I have always been very loyal to the party, however hard it was. I’ve always worked for the leadership – always.” Her victory didn’t look seemingly, no less than not at first. “A friend said: ‘Don’t look at the polls, look at the bookies.’ That’s when I thought: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to win; this is going to really mess my life up.’”

Having lived within the space for many years, raised three youngsters and been a councillor for 11 years, she was already a well known determine. She had been going to political conferences since her faculty days, at Sacred Heart, a Catholic faculty in close by Hammersmith that was very buttoned up till a free-thinking headteacher took over within the 70s and turned Dent and her 4 sisters (she is the youngest of six) into curious proto-activists.

So Dent Coad was used to the optimism of the Labour grassroots when issues have been going their method, however June 2017 was one thing else. “We had four glorious days,” she remembers. “People were dancing on Portobello Road when I won.” Then, on the fourth evening, she was woken by the sound of a helicopter. Her eyes fill with tears, however she flicks them away and forges on. “I turned on my radio, heard what happened. Not even realising what I was doing, I was halfway down the street. Then I thought: ‘I’ve left the house. I’m naked. I’m barefoot.’ I had no memory of getting dressed, but I was dressed.”

She reached Grenfell, the place the hearth had already been raging for 2 hours. “It was horrific. People saw me, and said: ‘Oh, thank God you’re here.’ As if I could do anything.” She has a number of blanks in her reminiscence from the day, however she remembers the sensation of impotence keenly. She has had remedy 3 times for post-traumatic stress; no less than certainly one of her volunteers was recognized with post-traumatic stress dysfunction from listening to survivors’ tales. “The treatment hasn’t helped at all,” she says. “I’ll get upset sometimes, and I’ll get angry, and I’ll just live with it.”

She didn’t realise till Grenfell that there was such scant help for individuals dealing with a catastrophe. Immediately, there have been “vulture journalists literally poking cameras into people’s faces and waiting for them to cry”, she says. Police arrived in riot gear, as if the victims have been a menace. To this present day, the council will cease a gathering if persons are talking loudly. “‘I just want to say to them: ‘Do you have any notion of what people have been through and how angry they are with you?’ There are still people who are not housed, five years later.”

That was her introduction to Westminster, then: making a maiden speech not about lofty dedication to social change, however a few contemporary and scarring atrocity; utilizing volunteers for months as a result of she didn’t have time to workers her workplace; speaking to “four secretaries of state and housing ministers in my 30 months as MP, and they were literally just staring out of the window. They don’t know. They don’t care. They don’t understand.”

Dent Coad additionally needed to change gear repeatedly to attempt to get justice for Grenfell whereas parliament might suppose solely about Brexit. She had all the time been an ardent remainer – “that was the first time I ever voted – in 1975, to join the EU” – and took significantly the truth that it was a part of the rationale she had been elected. She was arguing for a comfortable Brexit, fairly than a second referendum – “I knew it couldn’t happen; I knew that it was too late” – however felt duty-bound, after People’s Vote did a petition and analysed the outcomes constituency by constituency, to shift in direction of a second-vote place. “I said: ‘If the number of people who signed in Kensington goes over the number of people who voted for me, I’m gonna have to support it.’ How could I not?”

This is a standard chorus. “I do genuinely work for everybody [in my constituency]. Obviously, some people need more help and more time, which is reasonable, but everybody’s important.” It is the traditional political praise, perhaps a bit backhanded, to name somebody a “good constituency MP”, signifying a employee bee, a diligent public servant with out grand schemes or large concepts or political allies. It shouldn’t be fairly true of Dent Coad, who was a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, the Corbyn-loyal wing of the parliamentary Labour occasion. Also, along with her resolute views on inequality, I count on she would wrestle to sincerely pursue the pursuits of constituents comparable to David Cameron and George Osborne.

Emma Dent Coad speaking at a demonstration for Grenfell victims opposite parliament
Speaking at an indication for Grenfell victims reverse parliament. Photograph: Maja Smiejkowska/Rex/Shutterstock

Nonetheless, her years in native politics have given her a sensible, solutions-driven angle, a give attention to the granular enterprise of individuals’s lives. In this sense, she was out of sync with the parliamentary age; the debates of 2017-19 have been primarily summary and performative. That didn’t cease her combating the following election, however she didn’t win it, for various causes. Scarcely anybody was united round Corbyn by then – “I was really angry with him because of Brexit, but I still thought that a lot of the kind of hysteria around him was completely misplaced” – and the Lib Dems break up a beforehand united anti-Brexit vote by promising a second referendum.

The marketing campaign was extremely ugly, though she says that’s all the time true. “The week after Grenfell, the previous MP gave an interview to the Evening Standard saying that I was also responsible for the fire because I’d sat on all these committees. And that was a lie. I had hundreds of death threats. I’ve had to have police protection, which I’ve now had to have three times.” (The second time was as a result of she “poked fun at Prince Harry”; the third time was in 2019.)

She was recognized with breast most cancers midway by the electoral interval in 2019. “I knew I was going to be OK – they said: ‘We’re going to fix this and you’re going to be fine.’ But I had an operation the Monday before and I did the count with 70 stitches. My kids were all there, around me, to make sure nobody bumped into me.”

None of this has put her off standing once more since, she says: “I haven’t finished the job.” But Westminster didn’t dim her dedication to native politics. She is pushed by what she sees as a elementary snobbery, allied with racism, that leaves the Conservative-run council blind to the wants of the individuals who stay there.

“Two weeks ago, the leader of the council stood up and her speech sounded like a sales brochure. It was just selling the borough as a wonderful place to live, work and whatever. Every day, we see people struggling and it’s getting worse and worse and worse. A lot of people are in an awful, awful state. They’re not living in a goddam sales brochure for [the upmarket estate agency] Knight Frank.”

One Kensington by Emma Dent Coad

While almost half of the Labour group of councillors are individuals of color, Dent Coad says a hierarchy persists on the council as an entire. “Part of it is class snobbery and part of it is blatant racism. One of our new councillors who is African-Caribbean got shooed out of the room recently.” There are equality and variety working teams that produce experiences primarily based on no analysis, simply to tick bins; there’s “policy as a proxy for action. They’ve got the most beautiful policies you can imagine, beautifully written. Their environment policy would make you weep, but they don’t actually do anything.”

Five years on, “nothing has changed since Grenfell – nothing. In the north of the borough, [developers are] proposing buildings up to 31 storeys with one staircase. In their pathetic little gazebo in the car park of Sainsbury’s, where they were presenting to us, people ripped them to shreds. ‘Do you think people will want to buy a flat in a 31-storey building with one staircase when they can actually see Grenfell from here?’ There is this juggernaut of development, and the only thing that will slow them down is economic collapse. Because they genuinely do not care about anything other than profit.”

The Grenfell inquiry is predicted to conclude in October 2023, after which a police investigation will happen. “That’s when arrests will be made. What a lot of people are hoping for is corporate manslaughter charges.” There is a query mark over who would face these fees, between councillors and the senior officers of the council, who’ve now principally left. It can be seismic for native politics, certainly politics as an entire, I counsel, in case you might face felony fees on the idea of your manifesto. “The councillors will probably get off because they were ‘ill advised’,” she says. “How dare they? It was their manifesto. It was they who made the decisions. The leader and deputy leader – their loathing for social tenants was blatant.”

The vogue for progressive nonfiction is to have a really constructive, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all work together?” vibe. Her guide is nothing like that; there’s a number of managed fury in it, an absolute refusal to let go of the ideas that you simply don’t usually hear. So a lot of the rhetoric round housing is “just a way of importing richer people and exporting poorer people. It’s so low. It’s so depressing. How on earth can you run a borough that’s unaffordable for the people who do the actual work?” she says. It is an inexpensive query with huge penalties.



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