Neil Kinnock has attacked Ed Miliband's Labour critics as "cowards" who risk killing off the party's prospects at the next general election.
Lord Kinnock, who endured similar sniping by some party colleagues and the media during his eight years as Labour leader, said the criticism of Mr Miliband is "less justified" than the jibes that were levelled at him.
He praised Mr Miliband for being "courageous" and having " intellectual strength," and called for an end to media attacks based on his supposed "fratricide" in depriving his brother David of the party leadership.
In an intervention that was intended to help Mr Miliband, but may fuel the debate over the Labour leader's performance after his unhappy start to the new year, Lord Kinnock said: "In politics, division carries the death penalty and they [the critics] must learn that because in the end it's their own chests they will stab as well as the back of the leader of the party. And that is true in government and in opposition. It's true on the right and on the left. And if they don't comprehend that, they don't understand anything at all."
Lord Kinnock was speaking to Steve Richards, chief political commentator of The Independent, in an interview for today's The Week in Westminster programme on BBC Radio 4.
Of critics in the media, he said: "If they are going to attack Ed, let it be on issues of substance ... on policy rather than stupid things like: he is ugly, or is he a geek or did he commit fratricide – all of which are entirely irrelevant but constitute the main coverage of Ed Miliband."
He suggested that Mr Miliband was less upset by the criticism than he was when he was Leader of the Opposition. "I have no doubt that he notices the attacks. But he is characteristically so cool and so calm that I am massively impressed by it," he said.
Today Ed Balls will try to end any appearance that he and Mr Miliband are at odds over Labour's economic message. Some Labour figures are worried that the party has put too much emphasis on the shadow Chancellor's five-point plan to boost growth, which includes a temporary cut in VAT and higher short-term borrowing than the Government. Critics say this has helped the Coalition to brand Labour as "deficit-deniers."
In a speech to the Fabian Society in London, Mr Balls will insist that there is no conflict between his growth plan and Labour's commitment to eliminating the deficit. "Action now for growth, jobs and reform does not conflict with the need a credible medium-term plan on the deficit, it reinforces it," he will say.
"However difficult this is for me, for some of my colleagues and for our wider supporters, we cannot make any commitments now that the next Labour government will reverse tax rises or spending cuts. And we will not."
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