Britain’s opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband rejected criticism that his image as “a geek” made him an electoral liability for his party, saying he didn’t care what the country’s mostly right-leaning press said about him.
Opinion polls indicate neither Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives nor Labour will win an overall majority on May 7 as millions of voters turn to Nigel Farage’s anti-EU UKIP party and the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP).
With most of the British press set against him, Thursday’s TV appearance — which covered everything from immigration to economic policy — was a rare opportunity for Miliband to talk to voters directly.
Cameron and Miliband were interviewed separately but back-to-back and subjected to question and answer sessions from a studio audience on Sky News and Channel 4.
In at times heated and personal exchanges, Miliband was repeatedly asked by veteran journalist Jeremy Paxman whether the former Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had borrowed too much.
Prime Minister David Cameron is introduced by Jeremy Paxman ahead of the live televised interview. (Stefan Rousseau/Pool/The Associated Press)
“The figure was too high as a result of the global financial crisis,” said Miliband, who occasionally grinned and at times jabbed his fingers at Paxman over his questioning.
When asked about overall spending if he became prime minister, Miliband said: “It is likely to fall.”
Cameron, who was interviewed first, won the TV encounter, a snap Guardian/ICM poll showed: 54 per cent of those asked thought Cameron had won, compared to 46 per cent who judged Miliband had triumphed.
The son of a Belgian Marxist intellectual of Polish origin, Miliband won the Labour leadership in 2010 after defeating his brother David, a former foreign secretary and the early favourite, in what Miliband said was a bruising contest.
He told the audience the relationship was still healing from the contest.
When asked about the perception that he was weak, Miliband said he stood up to U.S. President Barack Obama and Cameron by opposing military action in Syria in 2013.
“Am I tough enough? Am I tough enough? Hell yes I am tough enough,” Miliband said, leaning forward. Some members of the audience were shown laughing at his comments on national television.
Derided by most of the domestic press as a socially awkward nerd, Miliband, an Oxford-educated career politician with the demeanour of an academic, is seen by some in and around his party as an electoral liability rather than an asset.
He has tried to counter the criticism by saying that his policies — rather than his physical appearance or the sometimes clumsy way he eats — should be the subject of debate.
“The thing is they see you as a North London geek,” Paxman, his interviewer, said.
“Who cares? Who does?” Miliband said.
“A lot of people, when they look at your candidacy for the most powerful job in the land, they look at you and think: What a shame its not his brother,” Paxman said.
Labour leader thinks he can win majority
Miliband, 45, said he had been underestimated before.
“People have thrown a lot at me over four-and-a-half years, but I’m a pretty resilient guy and I’ve been underestimated at every turn. People said I wouldn’t become leader and I did. People said four years ago he can’t become prime minister, I think I can.”
“You’re saying I can’t win a majority, I think I can. People underestimate me but what I care about is what’s happening to British people in their lives, and I think I can change it. I know I am the right man for the job.”
Cameron conceded he’d made mistakes during his five years in power during a special pre-election interview, but implored voters to give him a second term to finish the job of rebuilding the economy.
He appeared uncharacteristically unsettled and conceded he’d broken a pledge to cut immigration and hadn’t cut the deficit fast enough.
At times hesitating, Cameron was questioned about free food for the poor, his wealthy friends, the government’s foreign policy record, and Europe.
Deflecting sometimes tough criticism, Cameron sought to refocus the conversation on the economy, warning voters that Labour would tax voters more and borrow more.
“If you’re saying we haven’t gone fast enough to cut the deficit, I would agree. We need to complete the job,” said Cameron, who was unable to give precise borrowing figures for the government.
“All my political opponents have been saying that we should borrow more we should spend more, we should tax more. That’s the alternative that you face with Ed Miliband.”
Miliband will be interviewed second.
When asked about his pledge to offer voters an in-out referendum on European Union membership by the end of 2017 if he is re-elected in May, Cameron said he would only argue for membership if it was in Britain’s interest.
“If I didn’t think it was in Britain’s interests to stay in the European Union I wouldn’t argue for our membership,” he said.
“The situation today is that what we need is a reform of the European Union and then a referendum where the British people not me, but the British people watching at home, they have the choice in an in-out referendum by the end of 2017.”