Ed Miliband's unpopular, Ken Livingstone may be trounced – but Labour should still win big on Thursday

Party could claim hundreds of council seats as voters vent their anger on Coalition
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Ed Miliband yesterday shrugged off his poor personal ratings as Labour colleagues insisted he is gradually winning over an initially sceptical public.

Click here to see the 'How Labour could gain' graphic

Some Labour MPs fear privately that Mr Miliband will act as a "drag" on his party in Thursday's local elections in England, Scotland and Wales, when 4,800 seats on 181 councils will be up for grabs. Labour, which won a disastrous 24 per cent of the national vote in 2008 when the same seats were last fought, is hoping for about 350 gains in England and 120 in Wales, but academics say the party needs about 700 to show it is on course to win the next general election.

Some senior Labour figures are worried that gains across Britain could be eclipsed by Ken Livingstone losing the high-profile contest for London Mayor against Boris Johnson, which would be interpreted as a setback for Mr Miliband.

On the campaign trail in London yesterday, the Labour leader responded to a ComRes poll for The Independent, published on Saturday, which revealed an alarming gap between his own and his party's popularity. While 45 per cent of the public said they liked Labour, only 21 per cent liked Mr Miliband. Even a majority of current Labour supporters (54 per cent) liked the party but not its leader, while 41 per cent liked both. In contrast, 37 per cent of people liked the Conservatives and 38 per cent David Cameron. Some 37 per cent of the public liked the Liberal Democrats, while 30 per cent liked Mr Clegg, a much smaller gap than Mr Miliband's. Mr Miliband said: "Polls can go up and down. You have to do the right thing and keep going on the things that matter to you, the things you believe in. The central challenge facing our country is that we have an economy working for a few people at the top but not for most people. The challenge... is to show you can make a difference to people's lives."

The Labour leader said it was depressing when people said all the parties were the same and made promises they did not keep. He insisted Labour would make "credible, realistic promises rather than promising the earth".

Ed Balls, appearing with Mr Miliband at a question and answer session at the Coin Street neighbourhood centre near Waterloo, London, insisted the poll gap was closing. "David Cameron is on a trend; he is going down. Step by step, week by week, we are winning back the public's trust on the economy and more widely," the shadow Chancellor said. "People said of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair when they were in opposition 'can they do the job?'. They are going to say the same thing about me and Ed when we are in opposition. I believe that Ed as leader of the Labour Party can win that public trust."

Miliband aides pointed to other surveys which show him closing the poll gap with Mr Cameron on their performance ratings. According to Ipsos MORI, Mr Miliband's net approval rating is higher than Mr Cameron's for the first time since August, a big turnaround since January, when he trailed the Prime Minister by 25 points. YouGov reported that Mr Miliband had narrowed the gap between him and Mr Cameron from 23 to seven points in the past week.

Yesterday, Mr Miliband unveiled Labour's five-point alternative programme, which includes a pledge to reverse the cut in the 50p top rate of tax, before the Coalition sets out its plans in the Queen's Speech next week.