We've forgotten how to oppose

Ministers haven't sold out; their old activist friends, who keep their mouths shut, have

At lunch on the Saturday after Labour's 1997 election victory, four of us ate fish and chips in a cafe on Brighton seafront to celebrate our chance. I first voted in 1979. I learnt all my politics in that seemingly endless period of opposition. I used to wonder whether there would ever be a time in my life when I would be able to achieve an erection under a Labour government.

For 20 years I and a generation of politicos lived and activated in civil society. Remember? Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt ran the National Council for Civil Liberties, Fiona Mactaggart was director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, John Denham was campaigns manager at War on Want. Paul Boateng was one of the great black hopes of civil liberties advocacy, and Steve Bassam was a housing activist.

The new ideas and arguments came from the NGOs and voluntary organisations, the think-tanks and single-issue movements - CND, Chile Solidarity, the National Abortion Campaign, Gingerbread and latterly Stonewall. Civil society, which the London School of Economics' Centre for Civil Society defines as "the set of organisations located between the market, the state and household institutions", thrived then.

Currently, we have lost the ability to argue with government. We knew how to do it with the Tories. We knew that we outside parliament had a job to do. We knew, and we said, that anything government could do we could do cheaper, faster and more efficiently. Whether arguing to invest foreign aid in grass-roots organisations in the developing world, or debating the delivery of neighbourhood services in the UK, we criticised government and argued for alternatives.

We understood how to work with the establishment, who in turn petted and rather loved us as slightly wild puppies. It made them feel that they were democrats to have such naughty children in their midst. But we had no compunction about taking them on, at every turn if need be.

Then, in 1997, civil society, almost wholesale, went into government. Remember 1990, when Harman and Hewitt, with only their brains, their clogs and their dungarees as weapons, threw the European Court of Human Rights at Willie Whitelaw? Harman was under suspicion as a "commie" because of her "red" husband, Jack Dromey. But now, when Harman's not breaking the speed limit, she's happily tapping people's phones as Solicitor General. Hewitt, meanwhile, at the Department of Trade and Industry, is merrily enhancing the civil liberties of people in Indonesia and Zimbabwe by agreeing arms sales to their respective regimes.

Once, when I was a local community worker I invaded the Brighton social security office with a brown paper bag over my head to protest the victimisation of claimants by the Department of Health and Social Security. My accomplice? Steve Bassam, now a government whip in the Lords. Even Angela Mason of Stonewall, whom I admire greatly, has quit the voluntary sector and gone into government as head of the Women and Equality Unit at the DTI.

They're not sell-outs, these people. And it would be facile not to recognise the constraints of government. But they are wholehearted converts to government. They may all have addresses in their constituencies but they actually live on the road to Damascus.

This is not to criticise them but rather the rest of us. Over 20 years we learnt the habit of opposition and now we've forgotten it. When Labour got into power we parked too many of our activists and most of our brains in government. In a welter of historical insecurity, we shut our mouths in public in case we never won an election again. And those who went into ministries, and even some on the back benches, shut their ears. Those who argued so vocally when they were outside Westminster now made it perfectly clear to those of us who still were that they did not want to hear any debate. And, broadly speaking, we collaborated. Until now, the only ones who have got stroppy in Westminster are old warhorses, such as Gwyneth Dunwoody, whose parliamentary career spanned a time when Labour was never going to be in government; parliamentary no-hopers, such as George Galloway friend to the Iraqis, and general secretary of War on Want when I was its chair; and recidivist backbenchers, such as Dennis Skinner and Tony Banks.

Even in the Lords the government gets tetchy about those who argue. A peer recently said to me that the two most unpopular people with the Labour front bench in the upper house are Roy Hattersley and Helena Kennedy. The former is an articulate, regular critic of the generation who showed him how to triumph in the national elections he proved so consistently unable to win. Kennedy's sin is simply to argue from points of principle, derived from a lifetime in the law, about issues such as jury trial and double jeopardy. The peer, referring to her chairing of the British Council, commented resentfully: "We gave her a job and she's never voted with us once."

There are signs that this is changing. The appointment of Trevor Phillips as head of the Commission for Racial Equality is significant. Despite the efforts of the Telegraph and Mail to highlight a "crony row", there was no row and he is no crony.

We should treat the government as grown-up enough for us to regard it as the enemy. Our generation needs to remember our political upbringing. When you're not in government your job is to be the alternative, to be the challenge. If the student leader William Straw can lay into the government of which his dad is a central member, then so can the rest of us.