It is a bitter pill for the community in Kensington North to swallow. This morning, almost 30 months since the fatal fire at that killed 54 adults and 18 children, the general election returned a Conservative MP, Felicity Buchan, by just 150 votes. Buchan beat the incumbent, Emma Dent-Coad (who was herself elected with only a slim margin of 20 votes back in 2017, just days before the Grenfell Tower fire).
The residents of Kensington, whose council is still under investigation for corporate manslaughter, now have an MP from the party that rejected the recommendations that could have prevented Grenfell. That same party has also failed to get to grips with the scale of the cladding scandal since the fire. If anything, progress is going backwards: thousands remain in unsafe homes, and new figures released today show an increase in the number of tower blocks with Grenfell-style cladding.
Sam Gyimah was parachuted in but ran a tone-deaf campaign, delivering generic leaflets to still traumatised people
It is hard to see how such a candidate could be returned in a borough where 72 people died so recently, after their concerns about the building were repeatedly ignored. Blame for today’s result was levelled at an aggressive campaign by the Liberal Democrats, fielding newly converted Sam Gyimah, who had little to do with either Grenfell or Kensington before the election was called. Gyimah was parachuted in but ran a tone-deaf campaign, delivering generic leaflets to homes in north Kensington still traumatised by the fire and its aftermath.
His campaign literature did not reference Grenfell or the long-term recovery plan, leading to strong criticism from residents. Instead, the campaign stuck to issues the Lib Dems thought would appeal to remain voters: Brexit, schools, the NHS. This was not so much an oversight as a catastrophic slap in the face for a community still working to rebuild. Gyimah himself repeated unfounded accusations about Dent-Coad’s role in the refurbishment at Grenfell, leading to an official complaint, and failed to understand the lived experience of the constituents he was trying to win over.
A swing of 9% to the Lib Dems in this strongly remain borough gave Gyimah more than 9,000 votes, splitting the vote. There were cries of “shame” as the results were announced early this morning – a far cry from the jubilant scenes that greeted Dent-Coad’s election in early June 2017, two weeks before the fire. With a Conservative MP now elected, there is significant concern about whether promised change in the borough will be delivered. This is a grave disservice to a community who has worked day and night to rebuild.
Outside of the north of Kensington, Buchan’s election is a devastating blow for families like mine, who rely on local services and have never felt represented in this borough. Overcrowding, lack of truly affordable housing, poor repairs, and cuts to schools, mental health facilities and other services have made many residents feel as though the change promised after Grenfell has not come.
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In the summer of 2019, the government’s own Grenfell Independent Taskforce delivered its fourth report into the extent of changes happening at the council. It stated: “There is a strategic failure to present a coherent narrative on recovery and the progress and outcomes that have or will be delivered. This means that it is difficult for us, never mind the bereaved, survivors and wider community, to see whether the council is really delivering or not.” It also commented that some behaviours in public meetings from elected members were “unedifying”. This is the council, this is the culture.
If Buchan wants to last in Kensington, she will need to quickly familiarise herself with the commitments already given by council leaders, study the work set out in the Independent Taskforce reports, and deliver on promised change. The government itself has immediate work to do: it needs to get a grip on the remediation programme, make homes safe, and deliver on the recommendations in the Grenfell Inquiry Phase 1 report. Otherwise, the odds seem stacked against a community that has poured so much energy into the rebuild effort.
The residents of north Kensington need justice for their community. The bereaved and survivors continue to campaign for better services. They were ignored before the fire, and no matter what party their MP belongs to, their voices must be heard now. They have been promised change: that change must come.
• Seraphima Kennedy is a writer and academic researcher