As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, many are looking to politicians to pull off a 1945 moment. After the war, we didn’t sit around worrying about our debt-to-GDP ratio or trying to snap the rubber band back to the way things were in the past. Instead, we set up the NHS and the welfare state, transforming society for millions of people for generations to come. Today, following the biggest peacetime crisis in centuries and with many existential threats hanging over the entire planet, it’s time to show this level of ambition again.

At the time of writing, the current leader of the opposition is like a restaurant owner so keen to emphasise that the place is under new management that he’s completely forgotten to put anything on the menu. It falls to others to put ideas into this vacuum, and two former Labour leaders have stepped up at the same time. Here are two books setting out what it might mean to transform society once again as we rebuild from this crisis.

Gordon Brown’s Seven Ways to Change the World is a reminder of what a brainy and bookish sort of person Brown is, and it’s hard to imagine another prime minister of the last quarter-century writing something with as much intellectual density as this. The book’s central argument is that global problems need global solutions, and Brown points to seven key areas in which nationalism will come up short against the main challenges of the decades ahead, from climate change to nuclear proliferation. His prescription is usually one of two things, or both: our international institutions must be stronger, and leaders of richer countries must stump up more cash abroad.

While Brown is no teleological liberal waiting for the (next) end of history, there are plenty of signs throughout the book that he shares the common delusion that the last five years were some sort of aberration from which Biden will shake us awake as if from a nightmare. He excitedly quotes past remarks from the US president as if a display of stated ideals will necessarily translate into a real programme of action in power. The world around us tells a different story. If international solidarity will not prosper under the conditions of a global pandemic and the defeat of Trump, you have to ask from where such global cooperation will come.

The vaccination roll-out is a prime practical example of the sort of self-interested global collaboration Brown outlines throughout the book, and the recent G7 meeting in Cornwall was framed as a signal to the global community that a strong Western alliance of liberal democracies was once again ready to lead the world. But what was pledged on vaccines didn’t come close to what Brown suggests in this book as being sufficient. In fact, the very same Gordon Brown took to the pages of The Guardian to say so in an opinion piece.

Other signals on some of Brown’s key areas of concern such as tax and aid are not strong either. Alongside the main G7 summit, finance ministers appeared to make a huge breakthrough in international collaboration on setting a minimum rate of corporation tax. Days later, the UK chancellor Rishi Sunak tried to row the boat back, seeking exceptions for the City of London. Away from the G7, the UK government also recently slashed the aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%.

Maybe it is just the baggage Brown carries from New Labour, but too often he seems to yearn for a period of year-on-year economic growth and uniquely benign social conditions, which cannot simply be wished back into being. By contrast, Ed Miliband gives the impression of having more squarely faced up to the political reality that contributed to the slide towards nationalism and protectionism of recent years. He also knows that vast swathes of the country don’t want to ‘get back to normal’ if the recent past is any benchmark. He writes of speaking with his constituents in Doncaster – where nearly 70% of voters backed Brexit – and describes many people basically living in despair.

Miliband’s Go Big: How to Fix Our World has a title that implies a similar scope to Brown’s offering, but it is in fact a more localised and domestic affair. Rather than taking on themes of globalisation and internationalism head-on, Miliband looks around the world for the most cutting-edge progressive ideas – many of which already have been implemented by other nation-states – and argues the case for their adoption in the UK. While Brown keeps his feet planted in Britain but looks outwards, Miliband has been on the gap year of a lifetime and is excitedly showing us through his photographs, from an Alaskan basic income to Icelandic parental leave.

When you put the two books side by side, the more limited domestic scope of Miliband’s might seem to put it in the shadow of Brown’s lofty ideal of a truly global community. However, Miliband’s ideas hold one obvious concrete advantage over Brown’s, which is that they are policies that can be put in front of the public as a political prospectus and have a demonstrable track record in other domestic settings. You could put them in a manifesto, and you could enact them as a government. You could even imagine a general election in which, packaged and messaged correctly, these ideas could find popular purchase among the electorate.

While Seven Ways to Change the World is a gripping read and an impressive survey of the challenges we face as a globalised civilisation, it is far less clear how Brown’s principles of international collaboration could find a mandate through any actually existing electoral system. I agree with almost all that he writes, but I cannot think of any election in the UK in which a leading candidate foregrounded themes of internationalism or mutual obligation. The closest democratic event I can think of wasn’t an election, but a referendum held in 2016, which looms large over both of these books. Once again, Brown’s ideals did not survive contact with political reality. On 31 January 2020, the UK left the European Union.

For all their differences, what these two books share is a fundamental optimism probably forged from the years in which their authors worked closely together in the final New Labour government. It’s notable that both Brown and Miliband cite the remark attributed to Otto von Bismarck, “Politics is the art of the possible,” specifically to repudiate it. For both of these authors, politics should be about making the seemingly impossible a reality, just as we did in 1945. Despite everything that has happened over the last ten years or so, and the stack of challenges ahead of us, it’s good to read books that still have the courage to imagine a better world.

Russell Warfield is a freelance writer.