Under Bevan, we stayed up all night to end the means test; now, we stay up all night to reintroduce it

Next year I shall be celebrating the 50th anniversary of my election to the House of Commons, but recently it has been hard not to draw the contrast between the Labour government of then and the one that is now in office.

Polling day for my by-election was 30 November 1950, and while the people of Bristol South East were voting, President Truman threatened to use an atom bomb in the Korean war. Clem Attlee decided to fly to Washington at once to make clear to the president his total opposition to this threat; Truman never carried out the bombing.

Now it is our Prime Minister who seems to be urging President Clinton to extend the war against Yugoslavia by agreeing to send in ground troops. In 1950 the Korean war had the backing of the General Assembly of the United Nations, but this time the UN has been side-tracked and ignored, its charter torn up. As for the House of Commons, it has been denied the opportunity to vote on the war, on the grounds that if we did, "it might cast doubt on our support for our troops in the field".


When I got to Westminster, Aneurin Bevan was still minister of health, having created an NHS that was absolutely free of any charges for teeth, spectacles or prescriptions. The welfare state, then still in its early days, was based on the total rejection of the hated means test, as well as the acceptance of the national insurance principle: we paid when we were at work and we enjoyed the benefits when we were old, sick or unemployed. Labour MPs in the Commons stayed up night after night, fighting off attacks from the Tories, confident that we were engaged in a great venture in social reform. It should be remembered that at that time Britain was virtually bankrupt after years of war; yet our first decision in 1945 was virtually to treble the widow's pension. This month we had an all-night sitting to reintroduce the means test for some of those who are on incapacity benefit. All the savings made - plus a great deal more money - are now being spent on the weapons we are using against the Serbs.


We are being told that the economy is booming so hard that the Bank of England has to keep interest rates high to damp it all down. That decision has been handed over to the governor of the bank, who operates outside all political control. How different from the days when Hugh Dalton, as chancellor of the exchequer, actually nationalised the bank to bring it under democratic control.


I admit that, during the long hours of waiting for the division bells to ring, I remembered all this and wondered what was going on with the present Labour Party. Still to come are the asylum bill, the proposal to limit jury trials and the curtailment of legal aid. Those of us who express our opposition to the war and these other measures are depicted in the media as isolated rebels.


Despite these changes, people don't seem to have grown disenchanted with our parliament - their support is very evident for those MPs who still hold regular surgeries and actually read the letters that pour in. And the overwhelming majority of those who come for advice or write in with their views want to see peace and social justice, and are really anxious about the policies I have described.

This new Labour Party has to worry about disappointment and depoliticisation, rather than outright opposition to the government, which most people desperately wanted to see in power after the Tory years. It is this disappointment that leads to the apathy betrayed by the low turnout in the local elections; and it is this disappointment that must be reversed if we are to get a second term with a large working majority.

Indeed the combined effect of apathy and proportional representation has already led to a coalition with the Liberals in Scotland and a minority Labour administration in Wales, and if the electoral system were to change for Westminster it would have the same effect here. I simply do not understand why Jim Wallace of the Liberal Democrats should be seen as a more suitable ally than Dennis Canavan, who has 25 years of distinguished service as a Labour MP behind him.


The government has very many achievements to its credit since May 1997. The minimum wage, better funding for the public services, the welfare-to-work scheme, the restoration of some trade-union rights and a real attempt to build a peaceful future for Northern Ireland. Those who, in despair, have split off to form a clutch of socialist parties were wrong to do so. They have weakened us and themselves; history has proved time and again that unity on the left around the Labour movement is the only way to progress. It is also the surest defence against nationalism and racism, which spring from despair.

This is why I remain optimistic, despite the setbacks: we all know that there is a great deal more to be done and that the problems that face people, and the hopes that they have for the future, require us to work together around a common programme.

Everyone recognises the professionalism of new Labour and knows that the speed of technological change, in a much smaller world, calls for a new approach and new ideas. And yet, as the power of global capital becomes more of a threat to democracy, most people would prefer to plan the world's resources to meet our needs, rather than leave us at the mercy of market forces.