Ed Miliband must keep his nerve after yet more discouraging polls

You don't have to be a founder member of the Ed Miliband Fan Club to know what the Labour leader must do in the face of the latest discouraging polling data and other recent mishaps.

He must keep his nerve. Oh yes, and another thing, he must also keep it simple.

Does Miliband's new plan to demonstrate his reformist credentials by trimming benefits for the unskilled young pass that test? Probably, though Rachel Reeves, his capable social security spokesman, got a bit details-bound on her tour of the studios at breakfast time.

The details matter less than the core message, which I take to be that a Miliband government would make youth unemployment a priority, but one in which the carrot of training support will be accompanied by the stick of more conditional and less generous access to benefits for those who have not paid five years of contributory national insurance payments.

That formula seems to blend original thinking on welfare and skills in the age of austerity – read the IPPR thinktank's Nick Pearce here – with poll data that shows 78% of voters feel the welfare system does not sufficiently reward those who have contributed from their pay packets to its maintenance.

OK, if you say so, Ed. As with immigration, human rights and other sensitive, divisive issues, it's difficult to strike the right balance on welfare between being generous and decent to those in need and being seen as a soft touch for the resolutely feckless (and I don't just mean investment bankers here).

His other pressing problem is that the Tory press, already on a full election footing, is busy throwing stones at him and paying pollsters to throw bricks by getting them to ask voters "when did Miliband stop beating his wife" questions designed to generate hostile headlines.

Thus, YouGov reports for the small-circulation magazine Progress that 60% of voters think young Ed is "not up to the job" of becoming PM next May, though the figures are not as bad as bullying headlines – try today's Times front page (paywall) – suggest. About 23% think he would be the best PM against 33% for the man who has actually had the job for four years. There is also a suggestion from YouGov that more people would vote Labour if Miliband's big brother, David – narrowly rejected in 2010 and now in New York exile – were to become Labour leader.

Get with the programme, voters! Geeky David Miliband isn't a Labour MP, and he's not going to become one, let alone leader, between now and next May. Geeky Ed Miliband will be Labour leader on election day – 7 May – and if he's lucky in several important ways he may even emerge as prime minister in a minority Labour government. Who knows, that awkward manner may then become endearing.

Pollsters and the editors who fund some of their activities know all this. They flatter and delude voters by asking them questions that invite mere posturing. No wonder voters get hacked off. It's a bit like a bogus hospital closure consultation, announced in late July, closed in early September after a couple of desultory public meetings held in disused libraries far from a bus stop.

The Guardian's Patrick Wintour – who rightly makes only passing use of the polls in his report on Miliband's welfare plans – also notes an Ipsos Mori poll suggesting that 43% of Labour voters agree (49% of all voters) that Miliband should be replaced. But by whom? The pollsters don't seem to have asked that essential question, which serves to underline how fatuous these exercises usually are.

The Miliband camp can't ignore such findings – like the Guardian-ICM poll from Tuesday, which found that the Labour leader's popularity had dropped to its lowest level ever recorded – but they should ponder whatever real meaning the polling soothsayers may have found in the entrails of public opinion. And they must spend more time psyching themselves up to work even harder for the victory they crave. That's what Miliband should do: he's the leader, he volunteered for the job when he didn't have to, and he must lead.

As for the well-meaning ex-ministers and slighted Labour "insiders" who snipe at Miliband – the newspapers round them up like refugees to give spurious authority to whatever the editor wants the polling story to say – they should reflect on their own role. Alan Johnson, a real good guy, is sounding off pointlessly ("we're 100% behind Ed, but … ") in the New Statesman. Peter Mandelson is making characteristically ambiguous remarks about Ed having to raise his game.

And so on. But it's Miliband's lonely task to win or lose this election. He is the nearest thing Labour has to a match-winning Wayne Rooney (pre-match irony intended) in the quasi-presidential system we have ended up with. There was apparently a blame game among his staff after he was photographed holding a copy of the Sun – as offensive to many voters as being seen attending an opera.

No leader worth the job needs an adviser to tell him not to be photographed holding the old tax dodger's favourite tabloid (let alone apologise later) or for that matter not to try to eat a juicy bacon sarnie with dignity on camera. But these are like dodgy polls, just pebbles on a rocky path. A leader kicks them aside, smiles for the cameras and marches confidently towards what he hopes will be broad sunlit uplands.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Thursday 19th June 2014 11.13 Europe/London

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