LONDON, UK — On paper, things should be good for Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party and head of the official opposition to Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.
He’s largely managed to hold together the center-left party, which has a history of collapsing into vicious infighting after defeats as bad as the one it suffered in 2010, which produced the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
He’s widely praised as sympathetic, a public figure with a knack for making people feel he understands their concerns. And there’s a lot to be concerned about in the UK these days.
Living standards have fallen nearly every month since Cameron took office in 2010, a fact Miliband raises at every opportunity.
For the last three years, Labour has held a consistent lead over the Conservatives in polls.
British voters cast ballots for a party, not a candidate. The leader of the party that wins a majority in the House of Commons typically becomes prime minister.
If the next election — currently set for May 2015 — were held tomorrow, Ed Miliband would be the country’s next leader.
Or would he? Although a plurality of people say they’d vote Labour in the next election, even more say they can’t see Miliband standing in front of the black door at No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence.
The Labour opposition should be able to sink its teeth into a lot of problems under the current government: stagnant wages, rising living costs, housing shortages and cuts to benefits.
But Miliband’s critics, and even some of his supporters, say he’s yet to effectively harness the public’s dissatisfaction.
He needs to get control of his message, they say. He needs to overcome his image as a policy wonk. He needs a voice coach. He needs some oomph.
“People do think he’s in touch, he’s got a lot of empathy. He’s really somebody who understands the crisis and the place Britain is in,” says Olaf Cramme, director of the center-left think tank Policy Network.
“But do they believe he can take the country forward? I think that’s where people haven’t made up their minds.”
Others were more blunt.
“He’s not a love-or-hate-him character,” says a longtime Labour Party member and former lobbyist. Miliband, she says, is more a “glaze-over-with-slight-boredom character.”
Born Christmas Eve 1969, Miliband is the second son of Marxist scholar Ralph Miliband and human rights campaigner Marion Kozak, Jewish émigrés who fled Europe during the Holocaust.
He graduated from Oxford University and was working in the government by the age of 23, eventually serving as an adviser to then-Chancellor Gordon Brown before his election to parliament in 2005.
In 2008, Brown — by then prime minister — named his former adviser minister for climate change.
But he wasn’t the only Miliband in the room. Ed’s elder brother David was foreign secretary, making them the first brothers to serve together in a British cabinet since World War II.
When Brown resigned from No. 10 after Labour lost the election in May 2010, both brothers announced their intention to run for the party’s leadership.
Older and more experienced, David was widely perceived as the favorite.
However, Ed ran a shrewd campaign. He courted party members and trade unions, painting himself as a clean break with the past and his brother as a relic of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s outdated New Labour policies.
His narrow win came as a surprise. The party soon recovered; by most accounts, the family hasn’t yet.
David Miliband refused to serve under his brother and left parliament in April for a job in New York. Ed told a BBC interviewer in November that the relationship was still “healing.”
As leader, Miliband has tried to take Labour back to its leftist roots after New Labour’s celebration of big business and the free market.
When asked in September when the party would “bring back socialism,” Miliband replied, “That’s what we are doing, sir.”
He’s promised a Labour government would freeze gas and energy prices for 20 months and split up the big energy firms to give consumers a better deal.
It would build 200,000 new homes to address the country’s housing shortage and repeal the bedroom tax, one of the most despised benefits changes under Cameron.
An atheist, Miliband married his longtime partner, lawyer Justine Thornton, in 2011 after the birth of their second son. Although such personal details in an American candidate would doubtless send Fox News into hysterics, they matter little to Brits.
With less than 18 months to go before the next election, however, many Labour supporters are worried that sympathy for the party’s leader may not be enough.
“He wants to be a great moral reformer,” the New Statesman columnist Rafael Behr wrote, “but he is running out of time to inspire people with more than just a feeling that he has noticed how expensive life has become.”
Then there’s his image problem.
Britain’s political classes can be an awkward bunch. Miliband somehow often manages to come across as even more awkward than most.
His voice sounds like a cross between an Oxford don’s and The Simpsons character Professor Frink's. In certain photographs, he’s been said to bear a striking resemblance to the human half of Wallace and Gromit, the British claymation comedy duo.
Regularly photographed in goofy positions and expressions — a website, Awkward Ed Miliband Moments, archives the best of them — he seems to lack the modern politician’s obsession with image control.
In short, he doesn’t always look the part of a prime minister, and “that is very important,” says David Seymour, former political editor of the Mirror Group newspapers. “I can’t overemphasize how important it is that people see a leader as a potential prime minister.”
Only 21 percent of the British public says it can see Miliband in the position, according to a poll this month by the firm ComRes. That’s down from 31 percent in May.
But that may be only part of the explanation.
The ugliest criticisms of Miliband hint at something darker —prejudices that Britain’s class-obsessed elite may not be ready to surrender.
This son of immigrant Holocaust survivors is too foreign, critics say in hushed tones. He’s too Jewish. He’s too different.
“A lot of the attacks on Ed Miliband are down to his nasal problem, which is genuine, and to his shift to the left, which is also true,” says David Gow, a former Guardian journalist and local Labour activist. “But some at least is due to overt or, more often, covert anti-Semitism. Much of the vicious criticism that he's ‘weak’ is made up.”
What does that mean for Labour’s future?
“The most balanced criticism of him is that he’s focused too much on party management and not enough on the world outside the Labour Party,” says Patrick Diamond, a vice chair of Policy Network who worked in both the Blair and Brown governments.
“The question people are asking is whether he’s going to do well enough to get a majority.”
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A Dec. 15 poll put Labour seven points ahead of the Conservatives.
No opposition leader with so thin a lead two years before an election has become prime minister, Cramme says.
At the same time, it’s highly unusual for a sitting party to increase its majority in a subsequent election, multiple observers point out. The Conservatives couldn’t manage to gather a real majority in the last election, and the rising right-wing UK Independence Party could peel away even more voters in 2015.
The only prediction political watchers agree about is that the next election’s results are still anyone’s guess.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation professionally, at dinner parties and in the pub,” Seymour says.
“You can’t see Cameron winning the election, but you can’t see Ed Miliband winning it either.”