Ed Miliband
Ed Miliband has faced repeated questions over his leadership of the Labour party amid poor pollingReuters

We're almost at the end of an entire parliament of Tory austerity. Billions of pounds shaved off public spending, a cost of living crisis, rising inequality. The Labour party couldn't ask for a better platform from which to make its case at the 2015 general election.

Yet Ed Miliband, the Labour party leader, is down in the poll dumps. His approval ratings are terrible and some pollsters even have the Conservatives slightly ahead of Labour. But are things as bad as they appear?

A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times found that just 34% of those who supported Labour at the 2010 general election think Miliband is capable of being prime minister, down from 51% the previous month. A separate YouGov poll for LBC radio station found 49% of voters believe Miliband should quit. It follows a disastrous Labour conference speech in which Miliband forgot key passages.

Miliband is being beasted in the media. Awkward, weak, out-of-touch, failing to connect with voters. In both the right and left-wing press. And what makes it particularly painful is some of that beasting comes from his own party's anonymous briefing against him.

MPs are looking at the poll ratings nervously, with reports that some are choosing to focus on protecting their own seats rather than campaign nationally for a Labour government. Most had wanted his brother, David, as leader, but lost out because the party's trade union voting bloc secured Ed the victory in 2010.

There has been talk of a leadership crisis, but no credible successor has surfaced. In fact, no potential successor has surfaced at all. It appears to be a desperate wobble by a handful of disgruntled Labour politicians trying their luck in a last-ditch attempt to rock Miliband out of the boat. Unless something drastic happens soon, it looks like they've failed. That boat is about to sink or float with Miliband as its captain.

Likeability

But we might be reading too much into the wrong poll results argues Professor Paul Whiteley, a psephologist from the University of Essex. Instead, the likeability of a leader is more indicative of voting intentions.

"It turns out that likeability is closely associated with other desirable traits that a successful leader needs, such as being seen as competent, decisive, in touch with ordinary people and honest," Whiteley wrote in an article for The Conversation.

"More to the point, it is a powerful predictor of voting intentions and therefore a good guide to what people might do in the general election."

His analysis of the likeability ratings still shows Miliband trailing Cameron. But not by much. Miliband's average rating since June 2010, after the last election is 3.9. Cameron's is 4.2 and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg's is 3.3.

"In judging these scores it is important to remember that Miliband will be judged against Cameron and Clegg in the general election, not some ideal leader with a perfect score," Whiteley wrote.

"It is the difference between leaders which counts, not the absolute scores on the scale.

"The findings suggest Miliband's unpopularity has been exaggerated in comparison with Cameron and clearly some Labour backbenchers are getting very anxious about what are relatively small differences, given that political leaders in general are none too popular."

Mike Smithson, a political analyst and editor of the Political Betting blog, wrote on his website that "there's a lot in Whiteley's analysis".

"The key thing is, of course, to find the ratings that are the best predictor of how people will vote. Mrs. Thatcher, it will be recalled, was 21% behind James Callaghan as 'best PM' three days before she led the Tories to victory in the 1979 general election."

Second most successful leader?

Not all the polls are bad for Labour. A Survation poll of 1,000 people for the Mail of Sunday found Labour to have a five point lead over the Conservatives, at 34% to 29%. The Lib Dems only mustered 6% support, while Ukip – the populist eurosceptics – hit 25%.

Analysis of the results by IBTimes UK political reporter Ian Silvera concludes that Miliband "could become Labour's second most successful leader in modern times" because the poll implies Labour would gain 99 seats.

The most successful Labour leader so far was Clement Attlee, who gained 224 seats in the House of Commons, and second was JR Clynes at 85. Tony Blair was third with 84.

However, YouGov's latest survey shows the Conservatives and Labour at level-pegging on 33% approval a piece. Ukip are third with 16% and Lib Dems fourth at 7%. Laurence Janta-Lipinski, a senior political researcher at YouGov, told IBTimes UK that Miliband's polling is "pretty bad".

"I was having a look around satisfaction ratings over the last 30 years and his poll ratings are just about as bad as anybody else," Janta-Lipinski said.

"The only person who actually comes close to him on poor ratings, and is a bit worse, is [Gordon] Brown. And that was in the immediate aftermath of recession and financial crisis. So Miliband's figures are down towards that level."

All is not lost

Though the polling suggests a broad anti-Westminster sentiment, which has rendered all of the leaders unpopular, there are particularly alarming signs for Miliband from his own party.

"I think what's probably most troubling for Miliband is the fact that among Tories, Cameron scores quite well; even among some Lib Dems, Clegg scores quite well; but there's a large group of current Labour voters who don't think Miliband is performing," Janta-Lipinski said.

"And I think that concerns him more than his overall poll ratings ... the fact is that there are so many people who are Labour voters who don't think he's up to it that those are the people he really needs to bring on side in the next few months."

Janta-Lipinski said that Miliband needs to go out around the UK with several "big set pieces", like major speeches and policy announcements, to seize back the narrative around his leadership and convince the public that he is not how the media portrays him.

"Whether or not he can do that is another question," he said. "But I think that certainly should be his aim. I wouldn't like to guess where his ratings will be in six months' time. All is not lost.

"I think the biggest problem he's got at the moment [are] all these anonymous briefings and press stories. They contribute towards his personal standing. So it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more he's attacked in the press and is losing control of the party, the less prime ministerial he's looking.

"The problem that the briefers have is that if they don't remove him, they've still got a perceived weak leader of a divided party. And I think the two together could be disastrous for the Labour party.

"The mess that Labour are in at the moment is mostly of their own making and I think that Miliband really needs to get them in line and quickly, otherwise this will drag on and both of those other things are going to get worse."