Miliband's Labour - the man must match the party

Something is going on here, and it can be resolved only by Mr Miliband himself. People want to vote Labour

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Ed Miliband travels to Washington tomorrow to speak to Barack Obama. Be in no doubt: this is an important moment for the Labour leader. He leads a party that is more popular than he is. Our ComRes opinion poll today confirms that more people still intend to vote Labour than Conservative next year, and that more people think that their "personal finances would improve" under Mr Miliband than if David Cameron were returned for a second term.

But the poll also finds that only 21 per cent agree that Mr Miliband is "likely to be prime minister" next year and that 44 per cent disagree. In America, such poll questions, designed to discover the "wisdom of crowds", have proved to be better predictors of election outcomes than traditional polls simply asking people how they intend to vote.

Something is going on here, and it can be resolved only by Mr Miliband himself. People want to vote for his party, and they like many of its policies. On the "quality of public services, such as education and the NHS", for example, Labour has a nine-point advantage. More broadly, people prefer Labour values and regard the Conservative Party's motives with suspicion. Indeed, our poll confirms that Mr Cameron's problem is the mirror image of Mr Miliband's: his party is a drag on his popularity. On most subjects – except, intriguingly, "I would pay more tax" – Mr Cameron does better compared with Mr Miliband than the Conservatives do compared with Labour.

Unless Mr Miliband can recover some of his leadership deficit, however, the presidential nature of post-war British politics is going to count against him. One of the difficulties that people have in imagining him as prime minister is that he has appeared so little on the world stage and has said so little of note about world events.

His main contribution of note has been to defeat the Government, apparently by mistake, in the Syria vote last August. Since then, he has tried to take the credit for having stopped the "rush to war", while at the time he argued in favour of the principle of a punitive strike against the Assad regime to try to deter the use of chemical weapons. If he can explain his position to President Obama, who was presumably irritated with Mr Miliband for forcing him to concede a veto to Congress over Syrian strikes, he would prove his mettle.

As Jane Merrick argues today, opposition leaders need to give a voice to people's concerns about world crises. It is harder for leaders out of government to gain people's attention, as they are not actors and do not speak with the authority of chairing Cobra meetings or issuing instructions. That means that Mr Miliband has to try harder to speak up for people's anxieties at a time when developments in Ukraine and the Middle East are menacing.

The Labour leader made a reasonable fist of it in his speech yesterday. His remarks about the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane in Ukraine were platitudinous, but on Gaza he supported "Israel's right to defend itself against rocket attacks", and added: "But I cannot explain, justify or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians." This was conspicuously more even-handed than Downing Street's account of the Prime Minister's conversation with President Obama on Friday night, which failed to mention Palestinian casualties.

Tomorrow is Mr Miliband's chance, then, to speak clearly on the international stage. He does not have to say something different from Mr Cameron for the sake of it, but if he could use this opportunity to speak well for a nation and an international community looking for clarity and leadership, more of his fellow citizens might come to see him as a more plausible prime minister.

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