When the history of the first hung parliament in a generation is written up, Ed Miliband may well be remembered as the party leader who understood better than most the terrible disconnect that set in between voters and the political elite after the financial crash.
As he speaks to crowds in town centres across the country, the Labour leader displays a natural empathy with disaffected voters as he responds to them by name and he gives detailed and personal answers.
Supporters of Miliband say he took an important step in embracing the new world this week when he threw his weight behind the hefty Condition of Britain report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank. In the words of IPPR director Nick Pearce, the report addressed the challenge for centre-left parties that can no longer spend their "way to greater equality".
Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, who supported Miliband for the Labour leadership within weeks of her election to parliament in 2010, believes he is well placed to introduce ambitious changes. "I supported Ed when he stood for the leadership from the beginning because I thought he was the only politician who really understood the big changes that we needed to see in the country," Reeves told the Guardian.
"It is all well and good to have manufactured politicians always looking for a soundbite and a photo opportunity. Ed doesn't just want to be leader of the Labour party or prime minister. He wants to change the country."
But the strong support for Miliband, echoed by fellow shadow cabinet ministers, such as Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna, comes amid fears at all levels of the party that the Labour leader is hampered by some fundamental weaknesses. These concerns, voiced by Peter Mandelson on Newsnight this week, go far deeper than the unfortunate picture of Miliband as he struggled to eat a bacon sandwich during the local election campaign or his decision to pose with a copy of the Sun newspaper.
One former minister said: "People used to say Ed Miliband was Neil Kinnock. But people are increasingly thinking he is Iain Duncan Smith. Kinnock improved Labour's standing."
The unfavourable comparison with Kinnock, who lost two consecutive general elections for Labour, is prompting warnings that Miliband could not stay on as leader after an election defeat, as Kinnock did in 1987. "There is no possibility of him being able to stay on," one MP said.
Frontbenchers and backbenchers have been reading with care a piece in the July issue of Prospect magazine by Peter Kellner, the president of the YouGov polling company, which says that "few voters think he fits the bill". Kellner, a respected figure in Labour circles as the partner of the former cabinet minister and EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton of Upholland, says that Miliband has struggled to connect with voters in his four years as Labour leader and is seen as a less credible prime minister than his brother.
In his essay, based on fresh YouGov polling, Kellner debunks the Tory claim that Miliband is too leftwing. He argues that his problems are "more personal" because voters see him as weak rather than strong by a margin of four to one. Voters also appear not to have bought Miliband's argument that he is dramatically more in touch with voters than the Etonian in No 10. He is seen as in touch by 25% of voters, marginally ahead of the 20% of voters who believe David Cameron is in touch.
The most worrying figures for Labour are on the economy where Cameron and George Osborne are ahead of Miliband and Ed Balls on who is more trusted to run the economy – by 36% to 25%.
The findings confirm the fears among Labour figures, both on the front and backbenches, that Miliband is struggling. One shadow minister said the IPPR report "is exactly where we need to be" but the party should have been talking about how reform can be delivered without spending money years ago. "Our best hope, probably our only hope, is sticking absolutely to that approach and trying to win back economic credibility as part of that," the frontbencher said. "Wind back four years and the approach, as cuts were being made, should have been different. The 'too far, too fast' criticism of the coalition was fine. But we then appeared to be against everything. Now Ed and Ed are saying all the right things in terms of fiscal credibility but we are playing catch up.
"None of us feels that comfortable talking about things we would cut. It is partly a DNA thing. But there is also an element of an easy life aspect to it. When you do say stuff that is a bit harder edged you get a bit of flak. But if you keep on doing it, and say it clear and loud, it starts to provide a counter to the problems we have had on economic credibility."
The concerns about Labour's approach to the economy highlight a key area that is alarming many in the party – the troubled relationship between Miliband and Ed Balls. There has been a rekindling of relations between the shadow chancellor and Mandelson as they find common ground in the belief that the Labour leader has adopted an overly aggressive approach to business.
Others believe that Balls has boxed himself in with his doom-laden predictions about the state of the economy and has failed to offer a reckoning with past mistakes. One former minister says: "The truth is what you have to do is work out why people don't trust you and you've got to neutralise that. Then you've got to have a big positive argument about the future. If you don't persuade people that you can be trusted with the economy they won't listen to you on anything else."
Concerns over such fundamentals as the economy are compounded by fears that Miliband is guilty of one mishap too many and a feeling that his operation takes an eternity to make decisions because it adopts an overly academic approach. "It is like a common room where they have discussions that go round in circles," one frontbencher said of the Miliband team. The remarks echo the criticisms in a blog by Damian McBride who wrote: "Labour currently has no generals."
These concerns would probably not matter were Labour enjoying the sort of decisive poll lead to indicate that Miliband was on course for victory in next May's general election. But in this week's Guardian/ICM poll, Labour enjoyed a mere one-point lead over the Tories (32% to 31%), raising alarm among MPs who believe the Conservatives will benefit from the growing economy as the election approaches.
One frontbencher has a simple explanation. "Ed just doesn't connect on the doorstep. People cannot see him as prime minister. It really does not look like we are going to win. The whole team around him are very academic – they really don't seem to have practical ideas on how to reform public services."
One former minister says that the central Miliband proposition – that he is a figure of change – simply does not wash. "It is very difficult for someone from Ed's background to present himself as an insurgent figure. When in the last four years has the Labour party said anything that made people sit up and think: bloody hell I wouldn't have expected to hear that from the Labour party?"
But Reeves believes Miliband will succeed. "When we lost the general election four years ago it was the second worst defeat in our electoral history. If I had said to you then we are going to bounce back from that and in 2015 we are going to have a Labour government you would have told me to lie down and take an aspirin. The reality is the next election is absolutely winnable for Labour.
"We will win because of what Ed has done as our leader. We've come an incredibly long way – I think we are going to defy the odds and be a one-term opposition."
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