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Enough of these hazy, vacuous and contradictory attacks on Miliband, writes Mehdi Hasan

Being the leader of the opposition is the hardest job in British politics.

Give it a rest. Please. The speeches, columns, blog posts and tweets. Has any man, or woman, ever had to put up with as much unsolicited advice as the current leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband? Much of it is hazy, vacuous, clichéd and contradictory. He shouldn't disown the record by apologising for Iraq; he should disown the record by apologising for overspending. He has to pick a fight with, and take on, his party; he has to unite and inspire his party. He needs to be bold and take risks; he needn't have gone to the Trades Union Congress rally.

Being leader of the opposition is one of the toughest jobs in British politics and being a Labour leader of the opposition is tougher still. The right-wing press is powerful and hostile. The abuse is as personal as it is relentless. Remember Michael Foot and his "donkey jacket"? Neil Kinnock's head inside a light bulb? Even Tony Blair, Labour's most successful and media-friendly leader, was caricatured as "Bambi" towards the start of his leadership.

But Westminster is the home of amnesiacs and much of the criticism aimed at the Labour leader is context-free. Dare I jog the collective memory? Miliband inherited a fatigued, divided and defeated party, in opposition for the first time in 13 years. The 2010 general election saw Labour suffer its worst result since 1918, bar 1983. Between May 1997 and May 2010, under Blair and then Gordon Brown, Labour lost five million votes. By September 2010, despite the announcement of the biggest cuts to public spending in living memory, the Tories enjoyed a 7-point lead in the polls.

Double-digit leads

This is the context in which Miliband has begun the arduous job of turning the Labour supertanker around. But he is being held – by the press pack, the governing Tories and some of his own colleagues – to near-impossible standards.

Take the opinion polls. William Hague became leader of the opposition in June 1997; it wasn't until September 2000 and the fuel protests – more than three years into Blair's first term – that the Hague-led Conservative Party took the lead in the polls (and it had been lost again by November that year). Yet Labour overtook the Tories in the polls within 48 hours of the younger Miliband's election as leader on 25 September 2010 – just four months after the formation of the Tory-led coalition government. Under his leadership, Labour has enjoyed several double-digit leads over David Cameron's Conservatives.

Miliband's critics roll their eyes. Kinnock, they counter, also enjoyed double-digit poll leads but lost two elections in a row to the Tories. True. But what other metric do we have for judging his party's performance? Would these critics rather Labour be behind in the polls?

Others point to the Labour leader's poor personal poll ratings, which have lagged far behind his party's. Again, this is unfair. He has been leader for less than a year – and an under-reported Ipsos MORI poll in April revealed that "satisfaction" with Miliband was in line with Cameron at the same point in the latter's five-year stint as leader of the opposition.

Meanwhile, Miliband has enjoyed electoral success. Labour has won two by-elections – Oldham East and Saddleworth and Barnsley Central – with ease. In the local elections on 5 May, Labour gained 26 councils and more than 800 seats – the third highest number of Labour gains since 1979.

Were Miliband's critics silenced? Not quite. The headline on the former Blair speechwriter Philip Collins's column in the Times on 13 May read: "Labour gained 800 seats. It was a disaster". Defeat in Scotland was, indeed, a disaster for Miliband and the loss of the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum a disappointment. But it is hard to believe that a different Labour leader in Westminster would have stopped a resurgent Alex Salmond and cancelled out the Nick Clegg factor on AV.

Listen to the wise words of the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Angela Eagle, a prominent supporter of David Miliband's failed leadership bid, defending the younger Miliband: "There is a rhythm to opposition. The public isn't inclined to listen to you immediately after you have lost a general election. Blair did not win a leadership election six months after an election defeat." Eagle was speaking at a conference organised by the impeccably Blairite think tank Progress on 21 May, at which, in a dig at those in her party who continue to long for the elder Miliband brother, she noted: "Nostalgia for a lost leader is no substitute for the hard graft of renewal."

In the cross-hairs

Ed Miliband has highlighted three distinct challenges to which the next Labour government must be the answer: tackling generational decline where there are fewer opportunities for young people; strengthening communities and historical institutions; and reducing the "new inequality" between the "squeezed middle" and a wealthy elite.

Not so long ago, journalists such as the BBC's John Humphrys were mocking him for his use of the phrase "squeezed middle" – today, those journalists, Humphrys included, regularly use the phrase themselves. It was a theme that Miliband raised with the US president, Barack Obama, in Buckingham Palace on 24 May – the importance of "shared growth" among the middle and working classes, as Britain and the US emerge from the economic crisis. (One of the side benefits of the president's trip for Miliband was a chance to meet David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager during the 2008 election. Plouffe's The Audacity to Win is one of the Labour leader's favourite books).

Opposition is hard work. It is also a team effort. It was said of Hague's front bench that it was more a cabinet of shadows than a shadow cabinet. Some might argue that the same could apply to Labour's front bench in 2011.

But it is Miliband who remains firmly in the cross-hairs. He will never become prime minister, those same pundits and pollsters who predicted that he would never become Labour leader now proclaim.

In his own speech to the Progress conference earlier this month, Miliband referred to Labour's historic election victories of 1945, 1964 and 1997. Those wins came after 14, 13 and 18 years in opposition. Miliband is trying to pull off a Labour comeback, against a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in the space of just five years. Give him a chance.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools