This is not much short of a total disaster for Federal Labor, which less than a year ago was contemplating a 100-seat representation in the House of Representatives. Rarely has a party so comprehensively and swiftly obliterated a huge electoral advantage. The switch to Julia Gillard has failed to secure victory, and there’s a real chance Labor will, as Daryl Melham predicted to Bob Hawke months ago, have burnt through two leaders in a short space of time.

There is much blame to go around, and go around it will. The powerbrokers who replaced Rudd with Gillard must now face the consequences of their actions; the best that Mark Arbib, Karl Bitar, Bill Shorten, Don Farrell and David Feeney – and extra-parliamentary figures like Paul Howes – can say is that they didn’t lose outright, which they believed they were sure to under Kevin Rudd. But the thoroughly inept conduct of the Labor campaign suggests that if Rudd was the problem, he wasn’t the whole story, not by a long stretch. Labor kicked off the campaign with a 10-point lead, according to some polls.

Gillard’s own performance, noticeably lacking in the “cut-through” which has hitherto been the most significant characteristic of her political persona, must bear some responsibility. The perception — partly fed by her confected “real Julia” break-out, and partly by her own demeanour — is that she allowed her campaign managers to impose on her a formulaic presidential campaign style that cut her off from voters.

If true, this played directly against Gillard’s strength, which is direct engagement with voters and a feisty political persona that had proven extraordinarily popular with voters until her elevation.

And Kevin Rudd, who spurned the opportunity to inflict a double dissolution election on the Coalition on climate change in favour of, ultimately, refusing to face the great moral challenge of our time, must carry the can for a disastrous inability to work out how to respond to Tony Abbott’s relentless negativity.

But this loss – and it can surely be described in no other way – is also a last victory from beyond the political grave for John Howard. Howard so damaged Labor during his years in power, inflicted such psychological damage on Labor, that they have given the impression for most of the last three years of having a sort of collegial Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, characterized by nervousness, a tendency to jump at their own shadow, and second-guess how their opponents could outsmart them.

Labor never outgrew the mindset of opposition, never realized what was needed to lead the nation, because it remained – and remains – deeply scarred by its experience during the Howard years. Labor is a timid, lackluster version of the party of old, and even if it had been returned to power – as it might yet be by the Independents – it appears too timid to be able to exercise genuine leadership, preoccupied as it is with how its opponents might exploit it.

The best long-term result for Labor would be defeat. If it clings to power, the purge of apparatchiks and inept political operators that is necessary for a competent, purposeful political entity to re-emerge will not take place. The same outfit that lost this election will go to the next, and there is no reason that voters will like it any more than they did yesterday. It’s not certain that defeat will result in such a purge either — the main perpetrators are safe in their Senate eyrie. But it will drive home to the Labor Caucus just how badly they have been led.