She won the traditionally Tory seat just days before the fire. She talks about her powerlessness on that terrible night – and her battle to reform the council
Emma Dent Coad greets me in the civic reception of Kensington town hall. It is where she has been making herself a thorn in the Conservative council’s side since her election as a Labour councillor in 2006. At the time, she had been an architecture journalist for 30 years (she is now 67), and she is passionate about this 70s building, showing off the debating chamber before leading me to her office. Her enthusiasm is contagious; by the time we are done, I too am awed by the space, which looks like a mini UN – even the chunky door handles are lovely.
This is a point Dent Coad stresses in her forthcoming book, One Kensington (subtitled Food Halls, Food Banks and Grenfell: Inside the Most Unequal Borough in Britain) – that there is nothing contradictory about fighting for social justice and having a passion for aesthetics. One of the tacit precepts of Labour rhetoric is that only elitists care about architecture, while authentic people care about putting roofs over heads. That has enabled a parallel narrative – that social tenants don’t deserve beautiful housing, let alone in affluent areas. This is the attitude she fights the council on constantly, whether it is trying to relocate sheltered-housing tenants from Holland Park to East Molesey in Surrey, or expecting Grenfell survivors to be grateful that they have 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 reminds me of the way Labour people used to speak in the very early Blair years (“I was a fan of Tony Blair at the beginning”), when everyone from architects to anarchists had swung behind the party, when things could only get better. But she also sounds very new-generation left: radical, modern, determined to smash the system. She hasn’t changed, she says, it is just that leftwing politics is all over the place. “I’ve always been this person. A lifelong socialist,” she says.
Her book is just one of the ways in which she is marking five years since Grenfell. Her recollection of that time is as visceral as if it had happened yesterday. That week in 2017, she had been elected as the Labour MP for Kensington by the unbelievably slim margin of 20 votes. Of all the hammer blows to Theresa May in that election, this must have been the most alarming, a psephologically impossible coalition of Labour supporters, hardcore remainers and affluent residents’ associations swinging behind this completely unabashed … well, if not Corbynite, certainly 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 likely, at least 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 in the area for decades, raised three children and been a councillor for 11 years, she was already a well-known figure. She had been going to political meetings since her school days, at Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in nearby Hammersmith that was very buttoned up until a free-thinking headteacher took over in the 70s and turned Dent and her four sisters (she is the youngest of six) into curious proto-activists.
So Dent Coad was used to the optimism of the Labour grassroots when things were going their way, but June 2017 was something else. “We had four glorious days,” she remembers. “People were dancing on Portobello Road when I won.” Then, on the fourth night, she was woken by the sound of a helicopter. Her eyes fill with tears, but 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, where the fire had already been raging for two hours. “It was horrific. People saw me, and said: ‘Oh, thank God you’re here.’ As if I could do anything.” She has a lot of blanks in her memory from the day, but she remembers the feeling of impotence keenly. She has had treatment three times for post-traumatic stress; at least one of her volunteers was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from hearing survivors’ stories. “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 until Grenfell that there was such scant support for people facing a disaster. Immediately, there were “vulture journalists literally poking cameras into people’s faces and waiting for them to cry”, she says. Police arrived in riot gear, as though the victims were a threat. To this day, the council will stop a meeting if people are speaking 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 commitment to social change, but about a fresh and scarring atrocity; using volunteers for months because she didn’t have time to staff her office; talking 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 also had to change gear repeatedly to try to get justice for Grenfell while parliament could think only about Brexit. She had always been an ardent remainer – “that was the first time I ever voted – in 1975, to join the EU” – and took seriously the fact that it was part of the reason she had been elected. She was arguing for a soft Brexit, rather than a second referendum – “I knew it couldn’t happen; I knew that it was too late” – but felt duty-bound, after People’s Vote did a petition and analysed the results constituency by constituency, to shift towards a second-vote position. “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 common refrain. “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 classic political compliment, maybe a bit backhanded, to call someone a “good constituency MP”, signifying a worker bee, a diligent public servant without grand schemes or big ideas or political allies. It is not quite true of Dent Coad, who was a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, the Corbyn-loyal wing of the parliamentary Labour party. Also, with her resolute views on inequality, I expect she would struggle to sincerely pursue the interests of constituents such as David Cameron and George Osborne.
Nonetheless, her years in local politics have given her a practical, solutions-driven attitude, a focus on the granular business of people’s lives. In this sense, she was out of sync with the parliamentary age; the debates of 2017-19 were mainly abstract and performative. That didn’t stop her fighting the next election, but she didn’t win it, for a number of reasons. Scarcely anyone was united around 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 split a previously united anti-Brexit vote by promising a second referendum.
The campaign was incredibly ugly, although she says that is always 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 because she “poked fun at Prince Harry”; the third time was in 2019.)
She was diagnosed with breast cancer halfway through the electoral period 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 again since, she says: “I haven’t finished the job.” But Westminster did not dim her commitment to local politics. She is driven by what she sees as a fundamental snobbery, allied with racism, that leaves the Conservative-run council blind to the needs of the people who live 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.”
While nearly half of the Labour group of councillors are people of colour, Dent Coad says a hierarchy persists on the council as a whole. “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 diversity working groups that produce reports based on no research, just to tick boxes; there is “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 expected to conclude in October 2023, after which a police investigation will take place. “That’s when arrests will be made. What a lot of people are hoping for is corporate manslaughter charges.” There is a question mark over who would face those charges, between councillors and the senior officers of the council, who have now mostly left. It would be seismic for local politics, indeed politics as a whole, I suggest, if you could face criminal charges on the basis 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 fashion for progressive nonfiction is to have a very positive, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all work together?” vibe. Her book is nothing like that; there is a lot of controlled fury in it, an absolute refusal to let go of the principles that you don’t often hear. So much of the rhetoric around 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 a reasonable question with vast consequences.