Mr Miliband deserves a break

He understands people's problems and has a good grasp of policy detail

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The Independent Online

The voters that Ed Miliband needs to persuade are sympathetic to the Labour Party but feel that it lacks "the vision thing". We have an exclusive report today of focus-group research in swing seats - seats that Labour needs to win from the Conservatives in 18 months' time - that once again suggests that the voters are confused about what Labour is for. One group was asked, "What is Labour's vision for Britain?" There were "10 full seconds of silence".

When reading public opinion, it is hard for the Labour leader to catch a break. A ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday last month found that more than half of all voters could not imagine him as prime minister. If the leader's role is to present a clear idea of what a party stands for, Mr Miliband has so far not been a success. One of the consistent findings of polls is that the Labour Party is more favourably regarded than its leader - and that the opposite applies to the Conservative Party.

Hence one of the common assumptions about Labour's current lead in the opinion polls, which is that, as polling day approaches, the choice for the British people will increasingly become a personal one between Mr Miliband and David Cameron - to the advantage of the latter. It is certainly true that the Labour "brand" is more popular than the Conservative one - even if the Tories are seen as better at "managing the economy", people think Labour would be better at "keeping the cost of living down" - while Mr Miliband trails Mr Cameron on leadership qualities and as "best prime minister".

However, it is worth asking if it is the case that the more the voters get to see of Mr Miliband in the election campaign, the less likely they are to vote Labour. He has, after all, been leader of the opposition for three years, and the predictions made by supporters of his brother that he would be a failure have yet to be fulfilled. The complaints about him over the summer this year were turned round by his party conference speech. Most people who watched it with an open mind say that he exceeded the admittedly low expectations of the moment. More than that, his plan for a gas and electricity price freeze while restructuring the energy market has led the political debate for more than two months now.

When he appeared on BBC1's Watchdog with Anne Robinson to discuss his plan, he came across well as someone who not only understood how hard it was for some people to cope with rising energy bills but who had a policy that would keep downward pressure on retail energy prices.

When he was on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs last weekend, he came across as a reasonable and good-natured person despite his cheesy musical tastes. When an aide says "If only he could meet every voter personally …" it usually means "Yes, he's useless on TV". But when Arnie Graf, the US community organiser who is advising Mr Miliband, said of their first meeting on a train, "If I didn't know anything about him, and just met him then and there, I'd vote for him," this points to a strength that could come through on the small screen.

The presidential nature of the modern British TV election may not be as much to Mr Cameron's advantage as people think. The Prime Minister is seen as a posh, out-of-touch and increasingly heartless Tory, having abandoned much of the compassionate, eco-friendly, sunny optimism of yesteryear. Mr Miliband, on the other hand, once he has overcome initial scepticism, can impress as someone who understands people's problems, and who has a geekish grasp of policy detail.

As we approach the season of giving, let us give Mr Miliband a break.