Save for a few Liberal Party dalliances in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Conservative Party reigned supreme for the better part of a century in South Kensington and Chelsea. North Kensington, conversely, pinballed around the political spectrum until it was abolished as a constituency in 1974. Thereafter, Kensington denizens were placed under the joint custody of North and South when the two constituencies merged for the first time in the Borough’s history. In the nine succeeding general elections, Kensington, aided by the recent inclusion of Chelsea in the 1997, 1998 and 2005 elections, emerged as a steadfast outpost for the Conservative Party. Election after election, victories were won by the landslide, and when Tory MP Victoria Borwick won by 7,361 votes over her Labour counterpart, there was little to suggest that the tide may be turning.
Perhaps the Conservative Party fell afoul of their own hubris. Perhaps it was Borwick’s outspoken support for Brexit in a Borough that heavily voted Remain. Or perhaps it was the arrival of Labour candidate Emma Dent Coad, described by her peers as a tireless champion of the underprivileged, on the ballot box. Regardless as to whether it was a combination or collection of all of the above, June 9th 2017 proved a historic day. Following a 24-hour delay and three recounts, Emma Dent Coad was elected as Kensington’s first Labour MP by a margin of 20 votes. The celebrations, however, were short-lived: five days later, a huge blaze consumed Grenfell Tower.
In a blog post published by ‘LabourList’ last March, Dent Coad unleashed a scathing broadside on the government’s leaden response to the Grenfell disaster, lambasting Theresa May’s ‘shattered’ promises to the victims and families of the Grenfell fire. The post attracted thousands of page hits and it was characteristic of Dent Coad’s iconoclastic style. In conversation with KCW Today, her parlance bears a striking resemblance to her prose: “They have been treated like second-class citizens,” says Dent Coad. “I’ve seen that for many years in Chelsea… anyone who lives in social housing is regarded as a second-class citizen. In my world, everyone is first class…everybody is as important as everybody else”.
Speaking on the first floor of Portcullis House, where oak-panelled walls are lined with looming portraits of yesteryear’s prime ministers, Dent Coad is discernibly unruffled by the building’s prestige. Rather than succumbing to any kind of idolatry, she is forceful in her remonstrations over the problems of social housing in London: “The search for profit margins has decimated any idea of decent quality architecture in the new generation of social housing,” says Dent Coad. “There are actually buildings that are being taken down and demolished after three years because they were such poor quality”.
Born in Chelsea and a resident of North Kensington for over 30 years, Dent Coad witnessed this deterioration first-hand. “One of my tenants who is not very well and has a disability was in an old flat that was warm and dry,” says Dent Coad. “In the new flat, there is black mould, a collapsed floor, a leaking ceiling whenever it rains and there is damp coming through the walls because they didn’t put a membrane in the walls”. Grenfell, by contrast, was “built to last” and harked from a generation of architects that “focused on how people lived in their day-to-day life”. By focusing on micro-living (designing the kitchen to overlook the communal area, having a window with two angles to trap more light, having a garden or outdoor space etc.), Nigel Whitbread, Grenfell’s chief architect, turned the tower into a “pleasant little village”, Dent Coad notes. Now, the 63-year-old laments that “tenants are shoved into a warehouse… [where] the quality of space inside them is appalling”. Such Dickensian conditions may have been permissible in London homes 200 years ago, but it is a sobering reflection of today’s ongoing crisis that housing has regressed to the point that ‘warm’ and ‘dry’ have become the new baseline for an acceptable flat.
Dent Coad has long been drawn to the intersectionality of architecture, politics and socio-economics in her career. During her time as a fledgling journalist, the Kensington MP worked for several design architecture magazines before completing an MA in design architecture where she wrote her first book. Importantly, Dent Coad never lost sight of what mattered to her: “It has always been political for me,” she says, “I can’t just write about lovely buildings. I have to look behind: how they look, how they function, who uses them, how are they funded… and all those other issues around them. That has put me in very good stead as a councillor”.
Dent Coad was elected to the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council in 2006, representing Golborne Ward, which she still represents today. As councillor, the problems that Dent Coad encountered in Golborne were emblematic of the problems that she faces as an MP today. For nearly a decade, Kensington and Chelsea has held the dubious title of the Capital’s most unequal Borough; mean income as a proportion of median income for residents (the figure reached by adding up all of the incomes in the Borough and dividing that by the number of households in the Borough) is 209%, over 40% higher than Westminster, London’s second most unequal Borough. Inside Kensington, the country’s wealthiest constituency, the disparity between residents is even starker: in 2014, overcrowding in Dent Coad’s ward, Golborne, for instance, was three times higher than in the more affluent wards in South Kensington, according to the Mayor’s Office. In the same ward, child poverty rose to 43% in 2015; a far cry from the demonstrably lower 7% in Queen’s Gate. Dent Coad, undoubtedly the choir to this preacher, nods along politely: “When I go to visit people of all walks of life,” says Dent Coad, “not everyone realises that”.
Saddled with a seat in Parliament, Dent Coad now returns to her home in Kensington with the weight of Westminster on her shoulders. It is unlikely, however, that this will hamper the pugnacious MP. For over thirty years, Dent Coad has lived as an ardent socialist in a Tory heartland and won an election in the process. During the election and throughout her political career, she never sought to soften her message to broaden her appeal. Rather, they came to her. Thus, to modify George Bernard Shaw’s 124th maxim for the 21st Century revolutionists: ‘The reasonable woman adapts herself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to herself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable woman.’