Matthew Norman: Not quite Smokin' Ed, but he's landing punches

As we enter the middle rounds of this parliament, it strikes me that too many of us, me included, wrote off Miliband too soon
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The Independent Online

With Joe Frazier yet to be laid to rest, it will seem tastelessly previous to reappropriate his fighting sobriquet. Needs must, however, and what Ed Miliband could certainly use right now is a dead cool nickname. So today, on his behalf, I ask you henceforth to think him of as Smokin' Ed.

In truth, the sole precedent for an attempt to rebrand an opposition leader derided for his wussiness as a macho man through the medium of martial art is not encouraging. You may remember the rampant sneering that greeted Sebastian Coe's emergence from a judo session with William Hague with his arm in a sling. No one bought Hague as Bruce Lee then, and Little Ed as Joe Frazier looks a tougher challenge now.

Superficially, it must be confessed, the two have little in common. Yet glance beneath the surface, and they might be twins. "When I go out there, I have no pity on my brother," said Frazier. "I'm out there to win." Remind you of anyone?

Baby Ed was asleep in his cot during the "Fight of the Century" 40 years ago. Frazier was an underdog against Muhammad Ali that night in Madison Square Garden, most experts assuming that Ali's speed and flair would overwhelm an unshowy, unpolished opponent. For the first few rounds, so it proved. But in the middle rounds, Frazier found his range and form as Ali visibly tired, and eventually knocked him down with that fabled left hook to cement a win on points.

Could it be that Smokin' Ed is on course to replicate Frazier's form that night, by coming from behind to wear down a more fancied opponent? Six weeks ago, after his poorly reviewed conference speech, the notion would have enticed a mirthless snort, and perhaps still does. Miliband will never have David Cameron's slickness. He, like Joe Frazier, will always be on non-speakers with Mr Charisma.

Yet in these most interesting of times, slickness and charisma start to feel insultingly banal, and better regarded as historic curios from the phoney boom era of Mr Tony Blair. The week's other notable death certainly has a symbolic fin de siècle feel. When David Miliband blogs that the late Philip Gould "brought a dose of reality to Labour's other-worldly musings about the state and future of the country", he means to bitch-slap his brother for his musings. All he actually and unwittingly does is remind us that we are indeed in another world.

Using focus groups to second-guess and then echo public thinking may have worked then, but a time of grave crisis demands leadership on ideas. In his unflashy, deceptively brave way, Ed Miliband attempts to preempt the public mood rather than trail obediently in its wake. New Labour was obsessed with taking vox pops. Ed is at least trying to be the vox populi himself.

Whatever current polling reveals about the lukewarm support for Occupy London, that movement is closer to expressing the public mood than the Government would wish. Its popularity will increase as the economic outlook worsens, as it has in the United States. Occupy Wall Street now has higher approval ratings than the Tea Party, while this week Bill Clinton expressed his doubt that Americans will continue to tolerate current levels of income inequality.

In allying himself with the 99 per cent, Ed Miliband took an apparent risk from which his focus groupie brother would have recoiled in terror. David as leader would never have attacked Cameron for being genetically pre-programmed to entrench privilege rather than spread it, and free from any urge to create what Ed on Monday called "a more responsible, fairer capitalism". Being labelled as a class warrior by the right-wing tabloids has always been the uber-Blairites' Room 101 nightmare.

Yet this, as Ed understands, is an excellent, potentially game-changing line of attack. Mr Cameron's most unguarded spot is his luminescent inability to empathise with the struggles of the middle earner, hence the child benefit fiasco of 14 months ago. Never in a million years will he sound credible in claiming to share anyone's pain. Ed, on the other hand, sounds more credible by the week. The problem of getting anyone to listen persists, though rising approval ratings among Labour voters hint at progress. He leads an unexpectedly united if talent-light frontbench against a PM in deepening strife with his backbenches.

As we enter the middle rounds of this parliament. it strikes me that too many of us, me included, wrote off Ed Miliband too soon on presentational grounds. He looked dead on his feet in the spring, and a bit scrambled in the early autumn. But this boy can take a punch, and while he may not be a big clunking fist (terrible thing) or have Frazier's haymaker left hook, he is blessed with a sharp, accurate left jab capable of doing serious cumulative damage to a PM visibly running out of puff. Ed Miliband may not be quite on fire yet, but he may be gently beginning to smoke.