Leader: Labour must seize this opportunity for change

If the party does not make the most of this progressive moment it will drift to ignominious defeat

In an exclusive interview this week (see page viii of our special Labour party conference pull-out), Gordon Brown tells the New Statesman that this is a "pro­gressive" moment. We agree with the Prime Minister. Indeed, we have argued consistently that the global financial crisis, as well as the scandal over MPs' expenses, should be seized by the centre left as a chance to reassert its fundamental values and to make the case for, in Mr Brown's own words, "a fairer, [more] responsible society". As President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, so memorably put it, you must "never let a crisis go to waste".

Unfortunately, Labour under Mr Brown's leadership has shown every sign of doing just that. There has been a lamentable mismatch between his heroically decisive action in the early stages of the crisis last autumn and his apparent refusal to countenance lasting and far-reaching structural reform of the financial sector.

On the one hand, Mr Brown hymns the "progressive instincts" of the British people, acknowledging popular anger at the "irresponsibility" and "unfairness of the banks" and public disquiet over some MPs' abuse of their housing allowances. On the other hand, he refuses to accept that the regime of light-touch regulation of the City of London that he oversaw as chancellor has served to make the crisis more severe in this country than it has been in other economies of similar size.

This is not just about Mr Brown, however. As Steve Richards points out on page iii of the pull-out, the Prime Minister's political timidity is the symptom of a deep dysfunction afflicting the Labour Party as a whole. "Labour has been in crisis for some time," he writes.

Senior members of the government ought to be wary, therefore, of transferring their collective despair on to the shoulders of Mr Brown alone.

Labour's apparent inability to grasp the few opportunities that remain available to it between now and the next general election reflects a party that has been fatally hollowed out. It has been haemorrhaging members at an unprecedented rate, and its conference has long since shrivelled into a dismal charade, where once it was a raucously democratic symphony of ideas, factions and conflicting opinions.

Mr Brown says in our interview that voters face a "big choice" at the next election. And he is bracingly dismissive of the Conservatives as "people who want to call themselves progressives" but also want "to cut inheritance tax for millionaires". Before he goes to the country, the Prime Minister needs to make it clear just how big that choice is, and why - when he finds it so hard to connect with the electorate and seems stilted and awkward before the camera - he should be the chosen one.

First, he must resist the forces of conservatism in his own ranks and commit Lab­our to electoral reform. This would mark a historic rupture with the tradition of reactionary "Labourism" that has wedded the party to the first-past-the-post system - in defiance of its original statement of aims and values, Labour and the New Social Order (1918), which urged a wholesale transformation of the way things are arranged at Westminster.

Second, Mr Brown should not only heed the growing clamour for public spending cuts, some of which are necessary; he must also limit the excesses of the City, among them the stratospheric levels of executive pay and extravagant bonuses that have enraged so many. Third, we need an exit strategy from the catastrophe that is the war in Afghanistan.

For better or worse, the Labour Party remains the principal vehicle for progressive politics in Britain. If it does not make the most of this progressive moment, it will drift, directionless and sickened by self-loathing, to ignominious defeat.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter