Miliband must win over doubters
LONDON (Reuters) - Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, must convince doubters of his leadership ability at his party's annual conference next week and persuade voters he has a strategy to tackle the serious economic problems.
Miliband, 41, was elected leader of the centre-left Labour Party at last year's party conference, a stunning defeat of his elder brother David, an intellectual former foreign minister who had long been favourite to win.
The younger Miliband took on the difficult job of revitalising the Labour Party, worn down by 13 years of power which ended in a devastating economic and banking collapse.
Labour lost power to the rival Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who took over after a May 2010 election, forming Britain's first coalition government since World War Two.
Miliband has had a rough ride from Britain's press in his year as party leader.
Cartoonists have depicted "Red Ed" as a panda because of the bags under his eyes. Nasal surgery this summer -- to help cure a sleep disorder -- was seen as an effort to correct a "bunged up" adenoidal speaking style that grates with some voters.
Labour Member of Parliament Mike Gapes conceded that Labour's new leadership team "has not really had an impact with the public yet" and said the conference, opening in the northwestern city of Liverpool on Sunday, was a chance to get its image across.
"The problem we've got is the media is completely obsessed with the mechanism of the coalition and therefore it has been hard for any opposition to set the agenda," he told Reuters.
Labour, like many left-leaning parties in Europe, has struggled to respond to the economic crisis which has forced cuts to public services and the welfare state.
Despite painful public spending cuts, high inflation, rising unemployment, anaemic economic growth and a summer of inner-city riots, Labour has pulled only a few points ahead of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives in the polls.
Miliband has struggled to transmit an inspiring new message or to convince many voters that he has the qualities to lead the country, leading some commentators to conclude that the party picked "the wrong Miliband."
This month's Reuters/Ipsos MORI poll found voters viewed Miliband more negatively than they did Cameron, and rated the Conservatives' economic policies more highly than Labour's.
A Populus poll for The Times last week found that nearly two thirds of all voters, and nearly half of Labour supporters, found it hard to imagine the intense and sometimes awkward Miliband running the country.
Mark Wickham-Jones, politics professor at Bristol University, said Miliband needed to "consolidate his leadership of the party" at the conference.
"He had a difficult (first) six months, struggling to establish himself, struggling to project an image. In the last few months, he has done a lot better," Wickham-Jones said.
The left-leaning Miliband, who owes his position to union support, has distanced himself from the "New Labour" brand of centrist politics that brought former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair three successive election victories.
He has also tried to avoid looking too close to the unions, the party's traditional paymasters.
Miliband must try to end Labour's reputation for feuding. Since Labour left office, former ministers have produced a stream of memoirs documenting bitter disputes between Blair and Gordon Brown, who succeeded him as prime minister.
The power struggle between the Miliband brothers became a new distraction. David Miliband will speak at an event on the conference fringe on Sunday but says he will stay away from the main event to avoid becoming a "media focus for soap opera."
Ed Miliband, a former energy secretary, often emerges second-best from his tussles with Cameron in parliament. But he performed strongly when a scandal erupted over phone-hacking at the British arm of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp in July.
Miliband has commissioned a series of lengthy policy reviews aimed at setting a new course for the Labour Party. But the delay has left him looking bereft of new ideas.
The clearest faultline in politics -- over how to tackle the huge budget deficit -- has scarcely changed since last year's election.
The coalition, combining centre-right Conservatives and centre-left Liberal Democrats, has set out plans to virtually eradicate the deficit in one term, saying that to do otherwise would be to invite a Greece-style loss of confidence.
Labour proposes halving the budget deficit in four years, arguing that the coalition risks growth by cutting too quickly. Labour leaders, mocked by the coalition as "deficit deniers," are under pressure to say where they would cut spending.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft)
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