There’s one aspect of the Grenfell catastrophe that is perhaps under-appreciated – that it should finally kill off what is perhaps the dominant conception of politics in the media.
I’m thinking here of the idea that politics is an Oxford Union-style game. There’s jockeying for position, gossip and backbiting in which (over)-confidence, fluency and a particular conception of “credibility” are prized above all, but the game is mostly among jolly good chaps. And it’s a low-stakes one. The worst crime is to conduct a “car crash” interview, and the losers retire to spend more time with their trust funds and sinecures.
We see this idea of politics in the matey undertow between presenters such as John Pienaar and Andrew Neil and their narrow roster of guests; the idea that politics is something that only happens in Westminster; the ostracism and patronizing of those whose class, gender or ethnicity excludes them from the game, such as John Prescott, Angela Rayner and Diane Abbott; and the popularity of Boris Johnson, the epitome of Oxford Union politics. One reason why John McDonnell is so hated is that he sees that politics is not just a debating game.
This idea of politics is, though, a lie. The truth is that politics has always been a matter of life and death – especially (though not only) for the worst off.
For me, one of the most memorable political exchanges of the 1980s was when a heckler shouted to Neil Kinnock that Thatcher had “showed guts”, to which Kinnock replied: "It's a pity others had to leave theirs on the ground at Goose Green to prove it." That retort caused outrage because it reminded the political class of the nasty fact that political decisions, rightly or wrongly, have lethal consequences.
And not just on battlefields. There’s a line through the countless deaths in, mines, factories and building sites through Aberfan and Hillsborough to the suicides caused by benefit cuts. That line has led to the smouldering remains of Grenfell tower. David Lammy's righteous anger is the latest reminder of the fact the political class would rather forget.
The lie that politics is just a cosy game has been perpetuated in recent years by hiding the real effects of austerity behind dry statistics and by effacing ground truth by the “he says, he says” claim and counter-claim of “impartial” reporting.
More than that, though, it is sustained by excluding the worst off from the cosy game. For centuries the poor have been, in C.B Macpherson’s words “in but not of civil society”: they have been a problem to be managed and silenced, not agents deserving of power. (New Labour was perhaps as guilty of this as the Tories).
In this context, the right’s attempts to blame the disaster upon state rather than market failure misses the point. Not only does privatization and contracting out blur the distinction between state and market, but also state and market have long been two mechanisms with similar effects*: they suppress, exploit and marginalize the poor.
It’s in this sense that the contrast between those images of May and Corbyn is so powerful. May’s avoiding the Grenfell tenants confirmed the traditional hierarchical view that the poor have no place in politics: Corbyn’s comforting them rejected this and showed that politicians and the poor should be equals.
Herein lies my hope. Grenfell might – just might - be a turning point. It shows that politics can no longer be seen as a debating game from which the poor are excluded. It must instead become a serious matter which has life and death consequences, in which the interests and voices of the worst off are finally given full value, and in which there's no place for childish games.
* This is of course not to say these are their only effects.