We may have to wait for the memoirs, or even the expiration of the thirty-year rule, to establish exactly what has gone so badly wrong for Labour over the past twelve months. But the general outlines seem clear enough.
There was already a growing awareness, and not only on the left of the party, that the socio-economic model that for a few years had seemed to serve New Labour's limited social democratic ends was beginning to reach its limits (in addition to Lent, Turner, and Houghton in this issue, see especially Elliott and Atkinson, 2007)--though few can claim to have foreseen that external shocks would blow it apart quite so suddenly and spectacularly. And it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this has combined with a dismaying lack of political will--or tragic loss of political nerve--at just the moment when Labour needed to clarify its purpose and priorities, not only in the 'values' that it communicated, but also by the decisions that it took.
But we should not allow the distorting prism of the Westminster game to deflect attention from the extent to which this was a collective failure, a generalised loss of ideological confidence and strategic determination that seems to have afflicted the entire government and to a significant extent the wider Labour Party and labour movement.
Those of us who hoped that Gordon Brown's accession offered an opportunity to shift British politics onto a fresh path can only hope that the government can regain some sense of direction and authority. As this journal goes to press there is talk of a new 'fairness' agenda that might demonstrate some resolution to respond to the economic crisis in a way that puts those in greatest need first. But unless Labour is willing to take on the new pinnacles of privilege and power that have grown up unchallenged over the past decade (see Peston, 2008), this is likely to be little more than a pale shadow of the populist economic agenda that is underpinning the US Democrats' momentum today (see Jackson in this issue, and Obama 2008), or even the egalitarian commitments of Christian Democrats on the continent (see Wilson in this issue, and Thornhill et al, 2008), let alone the New Deal of the 1930s.
The point here is not to compare Labour's prescriptions with more ambitious programmes born of different times and places, but to measure them against the scale of the challenges that face our own society today. If we really do think that inequality matters, or believe in a...