Years of good work undone

The only conclusion any right-minded person can draw is that the Prime Minister thought it was OK fo

I had been looking forward to this particular Sunday. It was the day I was due to go down to the Asian area of my constituency to see an old political friend for the first time in ages. It was a house I had visited often in the past few years; his front room had seen many an election plan hatched and carried out, including part of my own selection battle in Burnley.

Since May 2005 the logistical demands of becoming the town's new MP meant that we had met less often. So when I discovered recently that he was about to go home to Pakistan for a month, I finally made the effort and mangled the diary appropriately.

Three days before he went away, with some sense of achievement - indeed, jubilation - I hurtled into his front room, my toddler daughter in tow, to land once more on the familiar sofa.

What happened next was entirely unexpected. Rather than the smiles and welcomes and cups of tea, I was greeted by a wave of hostility from his family and friends that made me catch my breath. My dismay and disappointment must have been obvious, because they got straight to the point. "Why are you allowing our people to die?"

In the previous week I had already spoken out on the Middle East crisis, explaining on the Simon Mayo show that there was no justification in my mind for civilian casualties. I'd put down a parliamentary question asking the Foreign Secretary to call for an immediate ceasefire of Israeli attacks on Lebanon.

But it was only at this moment, in this family's front room, that it all suddenly became real.

I realised then that - through our inability to call immediately and unequivocally for a ceasefire - all our efforts since Iraq to persuade British Muslims that our Labour government was not using foreign policy to persecute those of their religion had been undone.

Whatever your views on Iraq (and I know in my heart I would have voted against it), there were at least some vaguely plausible reasons to assert that it wasn't a war against Islam for its own sake: the existence of a brutal dictator and the belief, however flawed, in the existence of weapons of mass destruction, for example. These are arguments we have all busily used in our constituencies over the past few years.

But because there are no plausible reasons not to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon, at least none that have been adequately explained to me, the only conclusion any right-minded person can draw by simply looking at the facts is that the Prime Minister thought it was OK for Muslim people to keep dying.

Time to start talking

In times of strife, be it fighting or industrial action, it is the role of third parties to urge that the action should stop and the talking should start. That is what we should have done straight away, because there is no justification for the innocent to die. Instead, we urged Hezbollah to return the Israeli soldiers. Yet Tony Blair said in parliament that we had little influence over these groups.

So what was our urging designed to achieve? It would have been far more sensible to have put immediate public pressure on Israel to stop the attacks and get back to negotiations, because Israel might actually have listened to us for a moment.

Such a response would have had the added political benefit back home of helping British Muslims believe the PM was capable of standing up for their interests on the international stage.

Of course Hezbollah's actions were aggressive, but a proportionate response would have been for Israeli intelligence to work out where the soldiers were being held and mount a highly targeted action to get them back. Either that or negotiate a reciprocal release of some of the vast number of their own political prisoners.

Plans hatched

Back in my friend's front room, the temperature was lowered slightly by my asking his family what they thought I should do. Soon we were back to hatching plans, tea was poured, and we hit the phones to organise an outreach exercise that would at least enable people to talk in a structured way about what was happening.

So it was that seven days, 3,000 leaflets and dozens of phone calls later, I returned to the same part of town to the urgent public meeting I had called to discuss the crisis in the Middle East.

The room was packed with hundreds of people, Asian and white together. The SWP and the Lib Dems, unlikely but increasingly common bedfellows, were both there in force, as were Labour Party members and new faces alike.

The setting and people may have been different, but the question was essentially the same as it had been the previous week: "Why is it that Muslim blood is seen as cheaper than Christian or Jewish blood?" That is the cry that is going up from my constituency.

Kitty Ussher is Labour MP for Burnley.

Martin Bright is away

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Burma Special: A nation in waiting