LONDON (Reuters) - 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.
“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 percent of those asked thought Cameron had won, compared to 46 percent 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 favorite, 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 demeanor 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.
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.”
As the microphones faded at the end of the interview, Paxman asked Miliband: “Are you okay Ed? Are you alright?”
Miliband replied: “Yeah. Are you?”
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Andrew Osborn