In politics expectations are everything. Keep them low enough, and everyone stays happy. Raise them too high, and everyone's disappointed. That's why teasing the public with the promise of an exciting battle, and then cancelling, was bound to leave people angry. A leader who understood better than most how much trust and integrity matter in modern politics, how long they take to build up and how quickly they can evaporate, has begun his premiership with a nasty jolt.
Yet this could be one of the rare moments in politics when the official explanation - that Gordon Brown needed time to set out his vision - could turn out to be the right one. Elections should be moments when the music stops, and when, for a few seconds, millions of people make a rough judgement about what direction they want their society to go in. Good elections offer people real choices as the parties crystallise their policies and arguments into vivid primary colours.
Yet in October 2007 the parties weren't ready. A dozen years of new Labour, and a much briefer period of Tory strategy modelled on new Labour, have left the parties with fuzzy identities. They are cunning at making forays into enemy territory and adept at eliminating their "negatives", but cor respondingly poorer at articulating their positive vision of what a good society might look like. Brown is a man of strong convictions and has defined his premiership around the virtues of strength and trust. But at times it has looked as if both parties were following Elias Canetti's comment that the man with power "must be more reticent than anyone; no one must know his opinions or intentions".
Some governments are re-elected for being competent administrations, so long as their oppositions are sufficiently implausible. But centre-left governments have to do more: to persuade people there is a task for government, something that needs to be done. Here Brown's government is still struggling to define which compelling tasks will give it purpose. There is no shortage of policies. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts and Labour's candidates complained that they would have had no ready answer to the question why an election was necessary, or what mandate was being asked for.
Labour's lack of a clear argument for government action matters because the role of government remains the most profound dividing line in British politics. The best account of this was provided 20 years ago by the American social theorist Albert Hirschman, in a brilliant book on what he called "the rhetoric of reaction". He argued that only three types of ar gument lay behind the thousands of speeches, pamphlets and books that had fuelled the Thatcherite and Reaganite revolutions, and that these had been largely constant since the left/right division first took shape at the time of the French revolution. The "rhetoric of futility" claimed that any government actions to ameliorate society would not work. So efforts to raise social mobility were doomed, because some people are clever and others are stupid. The "rhetoric of jeopardy" claimed that government action would jeopardise valuable things such as the family. The "rhetoric of perversity" argued that if government action did have any effects, these would not be the ones intended. So wars on poverty would end up with more welfare dependants. A good society, it followed, was one where governments attempted relatively little, and left people to get on with their lives.
Hirschman didn't do a similar analysis of progressive arguments; but they turn out to be equally consistent. First comes the "rhetoric of justice" - the argument for righting wrongs and meeting needs, whether these be pensions or affordable housing. All centre-left parties draw their energy from this basic moral sense of fairness. Next comes the "rhetoric of progress", the idea that change is cumulative and dynamic: new reforms are needed to reinforce old ones, or to prevent backsliding. So, for example, new rights to maternity leave are essential to make a reality of past laws outlawing gender discrimination. Then, in a mirror to the rhetorics of reaction, comes the "rhetoric of tractability": the claim that government action works, and that whether the problem is unemployment or climate change, the right mix of what the current jargon calls action plans and delivery targets, levers and interventions, rolling out and scaling up, will do the trick.
In the political DNA
The three reactionary arguments and their three progressive counterparts pepper the speeches of Labour and Conservative politicians. They are written into the political DNA of most party members and MPs. Members at Blackpool and Bourne mouth may have learned to applaud dutifully as very different messages are sent over their heads to floating voters, and their heads tell them this is the price that has to be paid for power.
But their hearts beat to different rhythms. It doesn't take long at the bars or on the fringe circuit to see the persistence of the ancient division between a conservative sensibility - distrustful of change, ideas and radicalism - and a progressive one, eager for reform; or the equally persistent division between a party which sees inequality as natural and one which sees it as abhorrent.
The parties have worked hard to hide their true feelings; they distrust their instincts. No contemporary leader could say, as Richard Nixon once did of the American public: "They want to believe - that is the point, isn't it?" If anything, the public wants to doubt. Yet the public does seem to trust leaders who have the courage to lead, and having consistent beliefs is one of the markers that leaders are trustworthy. It is surely no coincidence that when governments have acted boldly on issues as varied as congestion charges or smoking bans, public support has quickly crystallised behind them.
Outside politics, most truly successful organisations work with their feelings, not against them, and my guess is that both the major parties will need to shape their programmes in ways that animate their values, rather than burying them. After all, even the big-government conservatives who rule in America, Australia, Germany or France remain very much conservatives, just as the centre-left parties that most ostentatiously flirted with right-wing ideas - such as New Zealand Labour - are now once again recognisably parties of the left.
For Labour here, too, the best prospects of sustained success lie less in self-denial, and not in defending the status quo of a highly unequal Britain, but rather in campaigning against ugly realities and showing why these warrant state action. That approach, too, offers the best chance of retaining the sensibility of the outsider (something that was visibly missing from the spin on this month's election discussions, which looked like a throwback to the most self-satisfied and manipulative excesses of new Labour's past). This isn't an argument for more taxes or spending - the sharp rises of recent years need to be translated into unambiguous results before the public will be ready for that - but it is an argument for showing where change is needed and governments can make a difference.
That will be a necessary condition for a more clearly defined political landscape. But it won't be a sufficient one. The parties also need to sharpen up their thinking and break free from their habits of fudge and spin. Take culture. Is a good society one that upholds values of duty, family, hard work and obedience, or one that allows people the maximum freedom to shape their own lives? Cultural conservatism helped Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan win over millions of supporters from the other side, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have been brilliant at winning some of them back, matching lib eralising moves with moves to uphold old values, even as David Cameron has gone in the opposite direction - matching tax breaks for marriage with socially liberal rhetoric on everything from drugs to hoodies. The result is that any clear water has soon disappeared.
Letting traditional images go
Or take the argument over whether a good society should be essentially homogeneous or diverse. Britain remains 90 per cent white, and uncomfortable with migration, but it is also becoming more diverse. So both main parties want to defend their flank by being tough on migration, but both also have to avoid cleaving too hard to a traditional image of Britain or England. Once again, there is little clear water to be found.
Then there is the question of whether a good society is one where work consumes all of our ambitions and energies. Both Thatcher and Brown were brought up to value the redemptive power of hard work. Yet it is an irony of 21st-century politics that the same forces of consumerist individualism that helped drive postwar economic growth are also now leading many to question it. Twenty years ago, Daniel Bell predicted that hedonistic individualism would eat away the foundations of a capitalism that really depends on old-fashioned duty, because people would choose pleasure over work, stimulation now over saving for the future. Focus groups show just how much people want a better balance between work and life, and that quite a few just want to have fun. Other European countries have taken some of their growth dividend in the form of more time off (like France, with its six-week holidays). In Australia, the Labor leader, Kevin Rudd (who looks poised to be elected prime minister in a few weeks' time), has made much of the damage that the market has done to family life. Yet here, once again, there is no clear point of division.
And what about localism: is our vision of a good society one where a thousand flowers of localism bloom, or where we have guaranteed national services policed by armies of regulators? Quite a few cabinet ministers have become deeply sceptical about Whitehall's ability to deliver local services well, and the parties now share a rhetorical commitment to devolution, but neither party dares establish clear water here, either.
The Liberal Democrats should find these issues easier, given that many are essentially about how liberal a society we want. Yet they, too, have felt impelled to muddy the waters. The result is a feeling of transition, a period when tactical manoeuvring has obscured the big strategic choices. We know, for example, that care for the elderly could absorb as much as 5 per cent of GDP within a generation, and a more grown-up debate is beginning, which recognises that governments will have to find more money and that people will have to forfeit their homes (and inheritances) to pay for care. But the debate is still sotto voce (who was willing to say that George Osborne's promises were not just mathematically dubious, but also likely to become beside the point for so many families?). We know that hard choices are coming on climate change, but neither of the big parties wants to be exposed as too far ahead of public opinion. We know, too, that class remains as vital a factor in British society as ever, and that too many things are going wrong with what can loosely be called the traditional white working class. Yet every party wants to be the party of aspiration, of a classless, meritocratic Britain.
Challenged by hard science
Any serious vision of a good society will need to grasp these issues and jump ahead of today's debates. But what could make the next few years unusually interesting is that the ideological arguments about what constitutes a good society will also be illuminated, and challenged, by some hard science. This summer the OECD held one of its biggest events, attended by presidents, prime ministers and professors, on the question of happiness. Its plenaries and seminars aired the voluminous evidence coming in on what makes people happy. For the left, it is reassuring to learn how important it is to provide people with jobs, health care, mutual trust and reasonably equal incomes. For the right, the heartening news is that it helps to have a stable family and weekly visits to church.
The precise policy implications of the new knowledge about happiness are still being worked out, and will be for many years. My own organisation, the Young Foundation, is engaged in a unique experiment testing a clutch of policies to improve public happiness with councils in three areas of England, along with several government departments, the local government agency IDeA and the London School of Economics. The sorts of issues coming to the fore - about cultivating resilience, recognition and relationships for people of all ages, and especially for those most on the margins - are still somewhat distant from the daily currency of Westminster politics, but they are fast moving towards the mainstream. Nor is it hard to see how the parties might meld their underlying instincts with a steady flow of new knowledge. For the left, a plausible position may be taking shape that is not far from what Brown hinted at over the summer: a position that values social order, the family and community, as well as an activist and redistributive welfare state that is tolerant of private behaviour but intolerant of behaviour with visible external harms (such as gambling, drugs and drunk). For the right, a plausible alternative might put more of a premium on personal freedoms and tax cuts and, perhaps, a stronger stance against migration.
Many other permutations are possible and may make sense for parties trying to assemble broad coalitions. But now that the election has been postponed, the leaders have time to define and articulate their visions for Britain - in ways that will lead public opinion, one hopes, rather than follow it. That will require fewer tactics and more strategy, fewer efforts to push every button and win over every interest, and more clarity about a few, simple things that really matter. After all, as any camper knows, tents that spread their base too wide risk collapsing at the first gust of wind.
Geoff Mulgan is director of the Young Foundation and author of "Good and Bad Power: the Ideals and Betrayals of Government", out now in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)