I was barely eight when Britain elected its first Labour government in 18 years but, with a thoroughly English paternal side and a mother who managed to pry a university degree from the crumbling edifice of the UK’s public education system during the bleakest days of the Thatcher era, some memory lingers. Though my thoroughly apolitical eight-year-old self had only the most serene and uncomplicated vision of things, I still recall the vague impression that “something big was afoot.” The grownups, of course, had a much more nuanced sense of things.

The success of Tony Blair’s Labour Party in the 1997 general election was not unusual given the cyclical orbit of most two-party democracies: one governing dynasty replaces another, and after some time in power, is itself supplanted by a new one. Every so often, the mood of voters toward the outgoing party is so especially venomous that the newcomer is ascribed an almost mythic status by the electorate, albeit briefly. And so it was for Blair’s neo-socialist project in the twilight years of the twentieth century. As with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, there was talk of some “historic realignment,” a “new consensus” that would forever change politics in Britain and inevitably spread to other western democracies.

This was New Labour: a grand compromise which rejected the impossible choice between markets and socialism and carved out a new and majestic “radical centre” for global politics. Like President Obama, Blair was welcomed into office like a conquering messiah, winning the largest Labour majority since Clement Atlee’s postwar landslide of 1945. Rather like Thatcher herself, the charismatic prime minister had both the bourgeois sensibilities and the photogenic nature required to seduce the middle-class. He spoke using all of the old socialist buzzwords (“equality,” “fairness,” etc.) but garnished them with Thatcherite adornments about “innovation,” “competition,” and “responsibility.” Capitalism itself was going to be radically humanized and markets, rather than being brought under direct control by the state as socialism had always aimed to do, were going to tamed and regulated.

Putting aside his self-appointed role as puppetmaster-in-chief for the Bush/Cheney/Rove axis in 2003, Blair’s project to reform British capitalism was a spectacular failure. Thirteen years later, Britain, like most countries in the developed world, remains a very unequal society rife with social division. Vast concentrations of wealth have percolated to the highest echelons of the British gentry, with the 1,000 richest people in the country now three times wealthier than they were when New Labour came to power. London has also become the most unequal major city in the developed world. So much for the “radical centre.”

Forced out by his own party in 2007 and replaced by the shaky Gordon Brown, Blair remains unapologetic on both counts and will probably never repent for his contemptible embrace of George W. Bush, or his disastrous record on social and economic equality. Last May British voters finally handed New Labour — and the hapless Brown — the defeat it so justly deserved. It remains to be seen if anything survives of the British left, which inspired Canada’s CCF and its successor the NDP, and provided a model for progressive political movements around the world.

Yet election defeats can provide valuable moments of clarity for political parties, and Labour’s campaign for a new leader quickly became a fraternal struggle (quite literally) between the rightward and leftward visions of its future exemplified by David and Ed Miliband. The former quickly received endorsements from the elder doctrinarians of the Blair era, while the latter built his campaign on the party’s historic bases of support among the educated middle class, youth, and organized labour. Just over a week ago, after several rounds of balloting, Ed was elected leader over his brother, 50.65 to 49.35 per cent.

Like Tony Blair so many years ago, Ed Miliband becomes Leader of the Opposition in the face of a Tory-led government bent on gutting social programs and allowing the most corrosive elements of the market to further erode the apparatus of the welfare state. As did the architect of the elusive “radical centre,” Miliband will have a unique opportunity to articulate a different view of the state: one that conceives of the government as a healthy bulwark against the merciless forces of the market, understanding that social and economic inequalities are more than mere irritants to be addressed when finances permit, but collective problems which endanger and threaten an entire society.