Ed Miliband has long been considered the Conservatives' main electoral asset. Certainly, Simon Danczuk touched a nerve when he described his party leader as a liability only a fortnight ago. But as the election nears, is the Labour leader beginning to turn his personal fortunes around?
Polling from YouGov shows a fascinating trend. Voter approval of Miliband’s performance as Labour leader has improved from a dire state in late-November last year, at net -56%, to the most recent level of -26% last week.
With the election campaign underway, a significant chunk of the electorate appear to have given the Labour leader a second look. Indeed, his net approval rating improved by 10 points after the "hell, yes!" interview with Jeremy Paxman, and then by another 3 points after the seven-way leaders’ debate last week. Thursday’s challengers’ clash may be more tricky, but the trajectory of public opinion justifies David Cameron’s hesitancy to sign-up to head-to-head showdowns with his opposite number.
Of course, by no means has Ed Miliband captured the hearts and minds of the British public. His ratings upturn starts from a pitifully low base. To offer a historical comparison, his popularity has improved from Michael Foot levels in November and December last year, towards the kind of personal support that Neil Kinnock and William Hague received when they lost elections in 1987 and 2001 respectively.
Miliband polls fairly well on honesty, ‘sticking to what he believes in’, and being ‘in touch with ordinary people’. But - compared to David Cameron at the same stage of previous general election - he is 13 points behind on being ‘strong’, 6 points behind on being ‘good in a crisis’, 12 points behind on decisiveness, 17 points behind on looking like ‘a natural leader’, and a 34 points behind on being ‘charismatic’.
As things stand, Ed Miliband is the most unpopular politician to stand a chance of becoming prime minister since Ipsos MORI began polling leader approval back in 1977.
But even a slight improvement in his personal numbers will be encouraging to Labour. The debates may not have helped them much in the overall polls, but something seems to be persuading voters that Miliband is not quite so bad as his caricature. Given the weight the Tories have attached to Miliband's low ratings, this will be seen as a rather alarming trend.