LONDON — For the opposition Labor Party, this should be a shining moment. Under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, unemployment is up, budget cuts are biting British wallets and the government’s veto of a new European Union economic treaty has left the country increasingly isolated from its neighbors.
And yet rather than Cameron, it is Labor’s chief, Ed Miliband, who is confronting a profound crisis of popularity. Only 16 months after he defeated his brother to win the crown of opposition leader, Miliband’s approval ratings have sunk to record lows. Suddenly, not only his rivals on the other side of the aisle but also influential power brokers within his own party are openly questioning his leadership.
Miliband confronted his critics this week, outlining a new direction for the Labor Party in an effort to revitalize his tenure and hold on long enough to challenge Cameron in elections still three years away. He hit some points familiar to Labor’s platform — calling for fairer distribution of wealth and a kinder breed of capitalism. But seemingly parroting Cameron, he is also questioning whether deeply indebted Britain can still afford the old days of big government.
Saying his party would support spending restraint to tackle the deficit, Miliband vowed to “demonstrate once and for all that Labor is a party for all times, not only a party for good times."
Yet the problem, analysts say, is not Labor’s message, but the messenger. Miliband, fairly or not, is being pelted with criticism for everything from his failure to come off as a credible leader to harsh, highly personal attacks in the British news media suggesting he might be “too ugly” to hold Britain’s top job (a nose job to cure his deviated septum apparently did little to help).
More than anything, though, Miliband has seemed a round short in the intellectual blood sport of British politics, played out weekly on the floor of Parliament where Cameron and Miliband set their wits against each other in terse, often-biting oral combat.
“I think the simplest way of saying it is that most people don’t see him as a prime minister,” said Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, one of Britain’s largest polling firms. “It’s to do with his manner, his lack of experience, the fact that people don’t see a toughness of character in him. People on some level think being prime minister is a man’s job, and in Ed Miliband, they see a boy.”
The son of the noted Marxist academic and Holocaust survivor Ralph Miliband, Ed Miliband, 42, was elected to Parliament just seven years ago, rising fast to the rank of energy and climate-change chief under former Labor prime minister Gordon Brown. In the 2010 contest for the party leadership, Miliband defeated his more seasoned older brother, David Miliband — Brown’s former foreign minister — in large part by currying the support of labor unions.
Now many in the Labor Party appear to be wondering whether they picked the right Miliband. On Ed Miliband’s side is that Labor, unlike its Conservative rivals, has a history of holding on even to unpopular leaders. But internal party criticism about his inability to connect with voters is already coming to the forefront.
Writing this month about Labor’s plight under Miliband, party insider Maurice Glasman said: “There seems to be no strategy, no narrative and little energy.” This week in the Daily Mirror, senior Labor lawmaker Alan Johnson wrote: “At the moment, Labor is like a pearl stuck firmly inside an oyster. Inside there is a gem but the public can only see the shell.”
Miliband’s situation looks worse when compared with Cameron’s success. In many ways, the prime minister has defied the odds, maintaining a relatively buoyant approval rating despite his relentless and, according to the polls, largely unpopular crusade against government spending. Cameron even got a bump after he vetoed a new treaty in Brussels to shore up the euro, with the notoriously euro-skeptic British public resoundingly backing his decision.
In a recent ICM poll for the Guardian newspaper, Cameron enjoyed a 48 percent personal approval rating, compared with 21 percent support for his Conservative Party. By comparison, Miliband had a personal approval rating of 32 percent, while the Labor Party overall is polling at 23 percent. For the first time in 16 months, Miliband is also being rated lower by the public than Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and head of the Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in the ruling coalition, who has bled support and been pilloried by the public since taking office.
In Miliband’s favor, though, is the lack of an obvious successor if he was to step aside. Among the names being bandied about are Labor lawmakers and former cabinet ministers Yvette Cooper and Alistair Darling. For now, however, the Labor faithful appear to be betting that Miliband will somehow up his game.
“Cameron himself is one of Miliband’s biggest problems,” said Tony Travers, political analyst with the London School of Economics. “The prime minister is a dominant figure, with an extraordinarily capacity to speak confidently on all points. A Labor leader needs to be able to puncture through that, and for the time being, Ed Miliband has been unable to do it.”