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In the shadow of Grenfell

The Morning Star's Marcus Barnett speaks to Kensington and Chelsea MP Emma Dent Coad on what tomorrow's local elections may bring

THE Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has been a Conservative stronghold since 1965.

However, these days no observer of any political persuasion can admit to having felt a similar mood in the area before.

Speaking at a rally in the borough several weeks ago, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told a group of 100 enthused Labour activists that “We are going to put the government on notice,” only to be met with several jeers of “and this council!”

Although analysts and commentators are happy to predict all sorts of national and local results to their heart’s content, nobody seems particularly keen to call Kensington and Chelsea.

For casting a shadow over this local election is the charred skeleton of Grenfell Tower, an ever-present reminder of the heartbreaking failures of the Conservative government — and its local representatives in the royal borough — to provide for ordinary people.

Across the whole of the borough, the Tory council faced serious condemnation for its handling of the aftermath of the inferno, which killed 71 people.

Justice looks far away — victims, bereaved families and campaigners are already voicing concerns that there will be a cover-up comparable to the Hillsborough tragedy.

Their public anxieties are not going unheard in the borough. One 86-year-old lifelong resident told the Star that she could “never dream” of voting anyone but Conservative, “especially Labour” — but will abstain from this election in protest at the council’s handling of Grenfell.

Kweku, who was brought up in the area and is a Chelsea season ticket holder, believes that there is a sea change in the borough.

“People who never thought it was worth voting Labour are now just going to do it to get this council out, and people who vote Tory do not want to give consent to this rotten council.

“It’s a disgrace. You see that tower and you see how rotten the people running this Tory council really are, and how they have failed local residents.”

Given this, Kweku’s prediction is that the results will be “very, very interesting”.

“A Labour vote is a vote against the type of administration that failed to protect against Grenfell, and every local resident will be aware of that choice.”

Labour currently hold 11 seats in the borough, as opposed to the Tories’ majority of 37. On paper, this seems an impossible challenge — winning control of the council would mean a 15-seat swing to Labour.

But many firmly believe that change is possible. When local councillor Emma Dent Coad won the constituency for Labour in the 2017 election, many in the Tory Establishment were deeply disturbed.

Dent Coad, an outspoken socialist, could not contrast more with Tory council leader Elizabeth Campbell. While Campbell provoked anger for admitting she had never been in a tower block before, Dent Coad is a longstanding anti-poverty campaigner in the area, and has spent her time as an MP highlighting the shocking social division in her constituency.

She told the Star that the tragedy at Grenfell showed up the “facade” of Tory rule in the area.

“If you don’t look after people, terrible things happen — and sometimes the worst possible things happen. They should hang their heads in shame, but they haven’t. They still don’t get it.”

But she also mentioned that her election was about the broader crisis in British society, and the unpopularity of the local council in dealing with austerity, local crime and the grotesque levels of inequality and differences in life expectancy in the area.

Dent Coad praised campaigners from London Young Labour, Momentum and Owen Jones for running an “incredibly impressive” campaign, pointing out that there have been 25 sessions a week during the election period.

A seasoned Labour activist who did not want to be named told the Morning Star that the buzz in the area for a Labour campaign has “not been the same” since the 1950 general election.

A particular target for Dent Coad and the local party is Chelsea Riverside ward, which she believes is a possible gain due to the constituency’s mass membership that has blossomed under Jeremy Corbyn. Such a wealthy ward would make for “extraordinary symbolism.”

“We don’t have any no-go areas, and so many people who have never voted Labour before are telling us that ‘we want that lot out’.”

As Owen Jones himself has said yesterday, Labour’s biggest obstacle in these local elections is complacency. Like Wandsworth, Westminster and Barnet, taking this council is far from impossible. Labour, Momentum and #Unseat campaigners will be targeting Kensington and Chelsea intensively tonight, in the hope of making the Royal Borough red — and to send a crushing blow to the entire Tory Establishment.

If you want to make history, think about joining them.

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