LONDON – If you listen to the opinion polls, Ed Miliband could well be Britain's next prime minister. If you listen to some of his Labour Party colleagues, he could soon be out of a job.
With six months to go until the May 7 national election, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party is fighting on two fronts. He's trying to persuade voters to return Labour to power after kicking them out in 2010 in favor of a Conservative-led coalition. And he's trying to convince Labour lawmakers they didn't make a big mistake when they chose him over his more telegenic older brother, former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, to lead the party in 2010.
Cerebral, geeky and sometimes awkward, the 44-year-old is not a media natural — and that is stoking fears he can't get elected in an image-obsessed age.
"For a long time he was quite evidently learning on the job. It was painful," said Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. "He clearly doesn't match up to the slick performance of (Conservative Prime Minister David) Cameron."
Miliband has an additional problem: He was elected leader without the support of a majority of Labour lawmakers. They backed his brother, but Labour's trade-union members swung the vote for Ed. Ever since, among Labour lawmakers in Parliament, "there was always that sense of 'We could have done better,'" Fielding said.
Those festering doubts hit British newspapers, political blogs and television shows in the last week, reaching a climax in Sunday's front page headlines: "Miliband in new crisis"; "Labour voters say Miliband unfit to be PM"; senior colleague "plunges in the dagger."
Several Labour lawmakers went on television and offered less-than-glowing assessments of their leader.
"The numbers show us that he's not popular with the electorate, that's the reality of it," legislator Simon Danczuk told BBC television.
Like many other politicians of his generation, Miliband is open to a charge of lacking real-world experience. The son of left-wing historian Ralph Miliband, he has worked in politics almost non-stop since graduating from Oxford University.
Miliband has a slightly nasal voice and often looks awkward in photos. He forgot a chunk of his keynote speech at the party's annual conference — the section about the deficit, a gaffe that bolstered critics who say Labour can't manage the economy.
"Red Ed" is associated more with the party's left-wing roots than the centrist New Labour policies of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. That makes Miliband a ripe target for British newspapers, many of which lean to the right editorially.
Most of Miliband's predecessors also received rough media treatment — though not Blair, whose skill at spin and press management helped secure consecutive election victories for Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005.
What's new, and helped bring Miliband's troubles to a head, is the UKIP factor.
The right-wing U.K. Independence Party is led by Nigel Farage, whose beer-drinking "ordinary bloke" image is the antithesis of Miliband's. Its calls to restrict immigration and leave the 28-nation European Union have won over voters fed up with Britain's mainstream parties.
"There's a kind of populist sentiment out there that in the old days Labour would have just hoovered up," Fielding said.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Nationalist Party, which lost September's independence referendum but emerged politically emboldened, is taking votes from Labour in Scotland that could cost Miliband's party crucial seats in Parliament.
For now, Miliband's immediate crisis appears to have passed. A Twitter campaign using the hashtag WeBackEd rallied the party troops and the most likely Labour leadership challengers declared their allegiance to him. Asked if there was a crisis of confidence in his leadership, Miliband simply replied: "No."
Still, the May 7 vote is shaping up to be the most unpredictable British election in years. Most polls suggest Labour is ahead but by a margin too small to guarantee a parliamentary majority. The party's jitters are likely to continue as long as the polls stay tight.
City University journalism professor Roy Greenslade summed up the situation in The Guardian newspaper: "Editors now scent six months of blood."
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