Vote Labour for happy dullness

"The problem," says a minister, "is not that the general election is going to change things. No one thinks the Tories are coming back. They are out for years. No, the problem is that the general election may change nothing at all. Same whacking big majority. Same Gordon at the Treasury, with a finger in every pie. Same Robin at the Foreign Office. Same caution on everything a little bit interesting. Maybe the voters are right to be apathetic . . . "

All right. I have stuck together different conversations to produce that thought. But the thought itself is commonplace. The battle over Labour's election manifesto has become a kind of proxy for the bigger question: what is Labour's second term for? And there has been a desperate quality about the scrounging for ideas by the manifesto team - "ideas, please, must look radical but mustn't upset anybody, and mustn't cost anything much" - that tells its own story.

Departments have been told to produce what they can from the bottom drawer in the next few weeks, to keep politics alive before the campaign proper begins. Which suggests that many of the ideas weren't very interesting to start with.

We all wait to be proved wrong, but the signs from Whitehall thus far lead you to conclude that Labour has nothing much new to say or do for the second term - the general election will just be one little, low hurdle that the government barely notices, as it canters gently along an eight-year course.

This is partly because too many of the obvious second-term issues remain controversial inside the government. We might expect the manifesto to commit Labour to regional assemblies for England, a properly reformed House of Lords and a reinvigorated House of Commons, for instance, including much stronger parliamentary committees. But the English regional question is fighting to get to the front of the agenda; there are still plenty of ministers who expect John Prescott to go quietly to the Cabinet Office, with regional government as a kind of retirement hobby.

Nor is there any visible relish for reviving parliament - something that ought to be near the top of the agenda for a radical reforming government of the centre left. It is simply seen as bringing trouble to the incumbent administration, which is mightily relaxed about the decline of the House of Commons. Nor, I hear, is there any urgency to the campaign that needs to be fought for a clearer, more democratic European Union, into which British membership of the euro might slot.

The euro is the big issue that will not be addressed in any serious way in Labour's manifesto, but which most people assume will rescue the 2001-5 Blair administration from terminal tedium. This time, surely, it will have to go for that referendum - or be laughed out of the history books as the all-time example of the administration that blew it?

Maybe, maybe not. Those at the forefront of the fight for Britain to join the euro put the chances of Tony Blair actually calling the referendum at no more than 60 per cent. But if Blair and Gordon Brown do not put a referendum about the abolition of the pound to the people during their next term, what do they do?

There is a boring, and not ignoble, answer, which is that they simply plug away at improving public services, slowly pushing a little more taxpayers' money at the hospitals, railways and schools, slowly applying their growing understanding of the civil service to get better results for that money - and meanwhile doing nothing vicious, brutish or corrupt. Labour could, in short, be dull but decent. This is not stupid, because it may be what people want. There is no God-given rule that says governments must be exciting. For most of us, for most of the time, our lives are interesting enough, thank you, and we would like to get on with them. Perhaps it is the fate of the Blair years to reconcile the British to the happy dullness of modern politics.

Yet this seems complacent and dangerous. A government dedicated only to delivery, without a stirring agenda or a wider vision, might be acceptable during easy times. But it leaves itself horribly vulnerable to becoming a government of drift, at the mercy of any revival on the right - which will come one day, sooner or later.

Is it not the truth that this is still a slovenly country, with pretty low self-esteem, vandalised civic centres, crumbling infrastructure, worryingly low productivity and unacceptably high levels of class division? Yes, greatly improved schools and hospitals would be a real achievement, but it is nowhere near enough. What about democratic reform, a revived Commons, a more open EU? Doesn't the English question need answering? Aren't our farms and countryside in the kind of mess that calls for a truly radical rethink of what we do with our land? Aren't we far behind other European countries on gender and the inclusion of women in positions of power and public life? Above all, isn't the explosion in the numbers of cars on the roads going to choke us all to death unless the government does more than tell us to boycott the trains and drive to work?

Tony Blair's mantra recently has been: "A lot done; a lot still to do." Exactly. But let's focus on the second "lot". It would be a catastrophic misreading of the public mood to think that the electorate is bored by politics and doesn't want an argument. In the end, governments lead, or they are pushed aside by other forces - angry newspapers, rival parties, big business, whatever.

It is time to surprise people a little, to go to the country on a manifesto with real commitments to radical change. A safe manifesto - which is what has been drafted so far - is the first chapter of a period of failure once this election is won.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Blessed are the pure in heart

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.