Mark Steel: The pathetic spinelessness of Labour MPs

Labour was once home for people who opposed the bullying of the rich and powerful
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The Independent Online

Oo, it turns out there might be a rebellion in the Labour Party. Apparently some ministers are uneasy over the uncritical support for Israel's bombing of Lebanon. Obviously they have to guard their comments in diplomatic language, so you get reports along the lines of: "One senior member of the Cabinet suggested that in certain circumstances the decapitation of civilian children not in any way connected to terrorism could be described, in certain circumstances, if they're completely and utterly blown up, to be within the realms of that which could be considered disproportionate."

There are now said to be between one third and one half of the cabinet who have hinted they may object to the killing of a thousand civilians. They can't dissent in public of course, but even so they're a beacon of inspiration. Hearing that Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett are "possibly concerned" is like reading the speeches of Braveheart. How much more powerful that film would have been, if instead of yelling about freedom as he was being executed, Braveheart had screamed: "There may be legitimate concerns regarding the proportionality of my dismemberment that will in time require careful scrutiny."

But politicians can't just go round opposing blowing up blocks of flats like normal people, so they have to choose their words with extreme delicacy. But why can't they just come out and say it's terrible? When they're pondering whether to speak out or not they must think "It was relatively easy for dissidents in Stalin's Russia. They'd just get their fingernails pulled out or be locked in a gulag until eaten away by frostbite. I could have my ministerial car taken away." The perplexing thing is, these Labour politicians can't have started out their careers this pathetic. Presumably they didn't go into politics because they thought: "When you see atrocities taking places it's not good enough just to moan about them. So I'm going to get into a position where I can actively support them."

And there probably won't be a visible rebellion from the ranks of the ordinary Labour members. Lots will complain in writing, and some branches will submit resolutions to conference, but the only one to go forward will, "Advise the National Executive to investigate alternatives to bombing hospitals if possible." Then even that will be withdrawn the night before the conference starts, when the National Union of Acupuncturists and Allied Needle-Related Trades removes its support, in return for a committment that Blair will think very hard about what he's done.

The result is, if you try to explain to anyone under the age of 30 that the Labour Party was once the natural home for people who opposed the bullying ways of the rich and powerful, they look as if you've said something truly surreal, as if you'd suggested the Sikh religion started out as an aquarium. To the young, who oppose the current fad for war and globalisation, it must seem unbelievable that for many years, most people who joined the Labour Party did so in order to organise trade unions and tenants' associations, and campaign against armies that blew up civilians. You'd make more sense if you told them that back in the 1950s, if you wanted to make society more equal you used to join the Royal Family. And in every area representatives of the working-class community would meet at the local palace to pledge support for striking miners.

Now a poll has revealed that even two-thirds of Conservative voters think Tony Blair has tied us too closely to George Bush. In other words, Conservatives object to Labour for being too conservative. Blair probably loves this, just as his perfect day would be if the board of Balfour Beatty said, "Oh, come on Tony, tax us a bit more than that."

No one with any youth in them would join the modern Labour Party, unless it was as a career move. Soon, it will become like a public school. Prospective members will sit with their parents, studying the prospectus and league tables, making comments such as, "It's so hard to decide. Labour offer a wider variety of opportunities in the media but with the Conservatives there's more chance of owning a castle."

Many of the old members - who joined back in the old-fashioned days of principles - battle on in their local areas, telling themselves things like: "The party may have helped set fire to the Middle East, but at least we got an agreement on a cycle lane round the back of Somerfield."

And somehow the leadership finds ways of continually surprising all of us. When Blair finally goes, his entire reign will be summed up by the late Linda Smith, who said of him: "I had no expectations in Blair whatsoever. Absolutely none - not one. And even I'm disappointed."