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