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Young Miliband's victory heralds new era for politics

IT would have taken some leap of imagination a few weeks ago to anticipate that David Miliband, the shining star of the British Labour Party, for long the heir apparent to Gordon Brown (he once had to be dissuaded from challenging the then Prime Minister's leadership) would in the last few days have voluntarily quit front-line politics after the humiliation of losing the Labour leadership contest to his younger brother.

David Miliband had been vigorously touted for the EU foreign affairs supremo post at the end of last year when the big beasts on the European stage, Sarkozy and Merkel, made it clear that Tony Blair -- too big a beast for their liking and too divisive given his messianic commitment to the Iraq war -- was not acceptable. The elder Miliband decided not to take the job as it would have smacked too much of a rat leaving the sinking ship. So he stayed on to prop up a dying Labour government heading for its worst electoral defeat in nearly 30 years. How much he must be regretting that decision now as he looks on the wreck of his career at the hands of his younger sibling. Wormwood and gall.

It still seems incredible in the 21st century that the overwhelming choice of the party MPs and the activists in the constituencies should be cast aside on the fourth ballot by the manipulations of the leaders of the three largest trade unions who used their muscle and cash to pile up the votes for Ed Miliband, including votes by those who were not party members.

The unions are now feeling they have regained a firm grip on the party, a grip they never enjoyed under the Blair/Brown governments. As one of them said to the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, "we've got our party back".

The unions and of course supporters of Ed Miliband are naturally enjoying their triumph. What might or should make them uneasy is the fact that Ed's victory was greeted with whoops of joy in the Conservatives' camp, who saw David as a far more dangerous opponent. And the first polls suggest that David, not Ed, was seen as the leader better qualified in every respect to be a future Prime Minister.

But it's Ed, however young and inexperienced he appears, who the party has now got.

There is no doubt he will take a less rigorous attitude to cutting the deficit than the Tory/Liberal coalition, but it will almost certainly, under his union backers' pressure, prove to be weaker than the package of cuts a Brown-led government would have implemented. He has also distanced himself from the last Labour government's decision to invade Iraq, though many of his future shadow cabinet colleagues voted in favour of it, including his brother. And they were incompetent in regulating the banks, weak on immigration and wrong to announce, as Brown famously did, an end to "boom and bust".

Having judged so much of the last government's efforts a mistake, it was therefore no surprise when he also pronounced the funeral rites of the Blair/Brown/Mandelson creation, New Labour.

Nothing wrong with that, some will say; time to move on. But those most anxious to dance on the grave of New Labour would do well to remember that Old Labour never managed more than about six years in power without electoral failure. New Labour was a qualitative shift: 13 years in power in a row.

So British politics has definitively entered a new era: the unions re-emerging as a real force in the Labour party; a new electoral system to be voted on in a referendum next spring (with Ed Miliband pledged to support the change); and towering over all the parties the huge budget deficit -- to be dealt with through an announcement in three weeks' time of the outcome of the most draconian Comprehensive Spending Review in modern times.

Cuts are expected of Irish dimensions. But will they be seen as too drastic and likely to kill off weak growth and risk a double dip recession? Or will the British economy prove more resilient?

The government coalition will have taken comfort from the endorsement last week of its policies to reduce the deficit by the International Monetary Fund. But voters will judge the new generation of leaders -- Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, all in their 40s -- by the results of their policies.

If Cameron and Clegg can stick together during what are going to be a grisly couple of years, and if the medicine doesn't kill the patient, they may reap the reward.

A collapse of the coalition and/or a return to prolonged recession may give Ed Miliband and what looks likely to be a largely inexperienced team the chance to confound the sceptical majority of public opinion who think the wrong Miliband was elected.

Sir Ivor Roberts is president of Trinity College, Oxford, and a former British ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia

Sunday Independent