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Leader: Who has the vision to replace the discredited Brown?

Labour must decide who should lead the party - a discredited and unpopular Gordon Brown, or someone

As we went to press, a letter was being circulated among Labour MPs calling for a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership. Labour backbenchers, fearful of losing their jobs, have been plotting and scheming for too long. Those behind the putsch are former cabinet ministers, but, as James Macintyre writes on page 12, it is not clear that this latest plot is any more likely to succeed than previous attempts to unseat the Prime Minister.

There was a chance to do just that, last summer, but it was fumbled. On the night of the European elections in June, James Purnell left the trenches of high office and went over the top into open conflict. That was when others could have followed him and brought down Mr Brown. No one did, and Mr Purnell was shot down in no-man's-land.

All this latest imbroglio does is underline the appalling disarray within the Parliamentary Labour Party. It takes place just as the first shots in the phoney war of a long general election campaign have been fired. The early skirmishes have been dispiriting, to say the least. Against the backdrop of the worst recession since the 1930s, a broken financial system and rising unemployment, our politicians indulged in little more than the usual nit-picking over "black holes" in proposed spending plans and bickering about which party could be trusted to cut our alarming Budget deficit most quickly. The deficit, for the record, is 12 per cent of GDP.

But where are the ideas? Where is the vision? Where are the policies to create a fairer and more democratic society? Where is the discussion about our eroded civil liberties? Where are the moves towards a new constitutional settlement? So far, it is only the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, and thinkers such as Richard Reeves, Anthony Barnett, the Compass group and Phillip Blond, who are attempting to address these fundamental questions directly.

And so the Conservatives prepare for power. David Cameron is right to make the need for change the defining slogan of the campaign and to put himself at the very centre of it, as Tony Blair did in the run-up to the 1997 election. After all, he is much more popular than his party, which remains unloved beyond its core constituencies and largely unreformed. For all his inconsistencies on policy and his failure definitively to modernise his party, Mr Cameron is impressive: articulate, courageous and, above all, ruthless. However, his party is only superficially united behind him. David Davis and Alan Duncan are just two among many senior Tories, not forgetting the "Turnip Taliban" multitudes in the shires, who are unhappy about the way the Tory high command has centralised control. Power now resides with a chosen few. No doubt there is trouble ahead for Mr Cameron.

The Labour Party also mutters about the need for change. But change to what? For all Mr Brown's presentational failures, his equivocations and paranoia, his greatest problem is that he has done nothing as Prime Minister to challenge the neoliberal orthodoxies of the past 30 years - nor did he as chancellor. Instead, he entered into a Faustian pact with the forces of finance. Through the long boom, that pact seemed to be working. The Labour Party may have sold its soul but it could tell itself that its motives were pure. These were to redistribute by stealth and to spend the proceeds of growth wisely, in the interests of the many, not the few. Mr Brown believed he could run capitalism more effectively than the Tories and that he could bend the market to his will: "I have abolished boom and bust." That hubristic boast may become his political epitaph.

Mr Brown knows in his heart that he has presided over a calamity, at a time that should have been propitious for the centre left, as it has been in the United States. After all, we have witnessed the near-complete collapse of the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and a credit crisis that has impoverished nations and will create great social pain and hardship over the next decade. The Conservatives are implicated in this crisis just as much as Labour, which is why they cannot offer real change. They want only a return to the status quo.

If this campaign is not to become the most depressing in modern times the central issues, apart from sovereign debt, should be these: urgent reform of the City; the need to build a more balanced economy; youth unemployment; poverty in an era of spending cuts and pay freezes; electoral reform and a new constitutional settlement; the European Union and Britain's place within it; withdrawal from Afghanistan and a multilateral foreign policy. But first, Labour must decide who should lead the party - a discredited and unpopular Gordon Brown, or someone capable of renewal, if indeed there is such a figure of authority and vision in the party.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously