By Rebecca Evans and Dan Drillsma-Milgrom, news editor and finance reporter
Three-quarters of senior officers say the former communities and local government minister would be better for councils than the chancellor Gordon Brown, who is odds-on favourite to be the next prime minister.
In the survey, Mr Miliband was backed by 74% of chief executives and deputy chiefs of English councils, compared with 26% for Mr Brown.
Mr Miliband has not thrown his hat into the ring for the Labour leadership although he has been urged to stand against Mr Brown by fellow Labour MPs and has not ruled himself out.
But, less than a month before the local elections, faith in the Labour Party is in short supply. Of the 62 top officers who shared their views, just 15% feel it is the political party most likely to have the courage to reform local government finance, compared with 47% who picked the Liberal Democrats and 39% who chose the Conservatives.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, described the overwhelming support for Mr Miliband as an indication that officers saw Mr Brown as a centralist.
'They would rather have Trotsky than Stalin,' he said. He warned that if the chancellor does become the next prime minister, he would not start with a 'fund of goodwill' from chiefs 'unless he creates some sort of enhanced version of the Department for Communities & Local Government with David Miliband at the helm'.
Margaret Eaton, the Local Government Association Conservative group leader, said: 'Gordon Brown would clearly need to have the iron fist of control, whereas David Miliband has demonstrated more understanding of the relationship between local government and the electorate and I think they [the respondents] probably got that bit right.'
The survey also shows chief executives are pessimistic about the chances of councils being given powers to raise more of their own revenue.
In the wake of the government's whip-crack rejection of the main findings of the Lyons Inquiry, 76% believed the chance of meaningful financial devolution had now disappeared.
'It seems unlikely that a Gordon Brown-led government, or indeed one led by any of the current Labour ministers, would be prepared to trust local government and give it extra powers,' one officer said.
'The fact the government has already rejected any meaningful change means Lyons will make little or no difference to local government,' another said.
But some were more upbeat. One officer, expressing faith in both Mr Brown and future financial devolution, said: 'I would not rule out the issue being revisited after a new prime minister is installed.
'I suspect Gordon Brown may see value in strengthening his localist credentials despite his reputation as a centraliser.'
Richard Kemp, Liberal Democrat group leader at the LGA, said the results backed his party's decision to stick with a local income tax but questioned the localist credentials of the Conservative Party.
'The Tories have shown no sign of a commitment to financial devolution,' he said.
Jeremy Beecham, LGA Labour Group leader, said: 'I like David Miliband a lot and I see him as a potential future Labour leader and prime minister. But at this stage I believe Gordon Brown deserves to and will become prime minister and I believe he's been a good support for local government as a whole.'