Ed Miliband
Ed Miliband Reuters

Despite an awkward public image and the dark story of his rise to power, British opposition leader Ed Miliband is confounding critics ahead of an election that could make him prime minister.

The 45-year-old, long seen as a drag on the Labor party's chances and the target of leadership coup rumors just a few months ago, has matched up surprisingly well against Conservative leader David Cameron in the campaign, reports AFP.

"I've been underestimated at every turn," he said in a fiery exchange with a fearsome interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, during a TV grilling alongside Cameron last month.

"Hell yes I'm tough enough!" he added in response to another Paxman question in a session that one poll showed him winning by 25% to the prime minister's 24%.

Miliband still has no shortage of critics.

The right-wing press presents him as "Red Ed," a leftist radical, while Cameron and others have upbraided him for the banking deregulation that occurred while he was working at the Treasury in the years before the financial crash of 2008.

Much has also been made of the fact that his house in London's well-off Dartmouth Park neighborhood is big enough to have two kitchens, and of his much-mocked struggle to eat a man-of-the-people bacon sandwich in front of photographers.

For a man with a nasal voice who used to wear Harry Potter-style glasses and who is portrayed by The Guardian's cartoonist as a grinning "Wallace" from "Wallace & Gromit," the geek image is hard to shake off.

Family back-stabbing

Perhaps most damaging, however, is the family rift that the fiercely ambitious Miliband created by taking on and beating his older brother David, a protege of former prime minister Tony Blair, for the Labor party leadership in 2010.

Miliband himself said recently that the divisions are now "healing," although his brother - who left Britain for the United States shortly after - has been conspicuously absent during the campaign.

His biographers Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre said it was seen by some "as an almost biblical act of fratricide."

Miliband has admitted the contest was "bruising" for both brothers but has portrayed it as a break with Blair's "New Labor" politics and has sought to return the party closer to its left-wing roots.

The course set by Miliband and his lack of experience outside Westminster politics have many businesses concerned about the prospect of a Labor government - as reflected in an open letter signed by 100 executives during the campaign.

Miliband has defended himself as standing up to big business and the rich on behalf of the millions of Britons left struggling after years of austerity.

His opposition to a referendum on European Union membership, however, has support in the business community, as do his pledges to help smaller companies.

When Labor were in power before 2010, Miliband worked for finance minister Gordon Brown, who had a famously prickly relationship with Blair and was seen as more left-wing than the prime minister.

During his time at Oxford University, Miliband was also active in student politics and, after a brief stint as a political journalist, he rose quickly through the Labor's ranks. He is married to a successful environmental lawyer, Justine Thornton, and they have two young sons.

"Despite the setbacks he has suffered, he never despairs. He is steely," said Iain Begg, a politics professor at the London School of Economics (LSE). "After all, he stabbed his brother in the back to take over the leadership of the Labor party. Not everyone could do that."

Jewish Communists

His family background has prepared him well for the ideological sparring that often occurs in a clannish Labor party.

The son of a prominent Marxist academic father and a campaigning activist mother, Miliband grew up in a highly politicized household where he and David were encouraged to take part from an early age in dinner parties attended by left-wing intellectuals from around the world.

His immigrant parents, both Jewish, lost 60 family members in the Holocaust, reports The Telegraph. They met at the London School of Economics (LSE) - a hotbed of British leftist thinking - in the early 1960s.

Speaking about his Jewish heritage despite having been raised in an atheist home, Miliband recently said he hopes to become the UK's "first Jewish prime minister."

Benjamin Disraeli, who was prime minister twice during the Victorian era in the late 1800s, was also Jewish. However, he had converted to Anglican Christianity at a young age.

In a recent visit to Jerusalem, Miliband said "someone asked me if I thought it was a disadvantage, that people would be less likely to vote for me because I’m Jewish, and I said absolutely not."

"That’s one of the great things about Britain. There are elements of anti-Semitism, (and) it is really, really important to tackle those and have no truck with them. I have said I hope that I’ll be the first Jewish prime minister if we win the election, but it is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage."

Speaking about his own status, Miliband said "I have a particular faith, I describe myself as a Jewish atheist. I’m Jewish by birth origin and it’s part of who I am."

"I don’t believe in God, but I think faith is a really important thing for a lot of people. It provides nourishment, a faith about how you change the world," he added.