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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Cunliffe's razzmatazz sets the bar

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David Cunliffe. Photo / Natalie Slade
David Cunliffe. Photo / Natalie Slade

David Cunliffe does not come in half measures. Yesterday's launch of his bid for the Labour leadership was 100 per cent unadulterated Cunliffe - highly theatrical, more than a little over the top and, at times, veering dangerously close to self-parody.

Not that rank-and-file party members casting a vote in the leadership ballot would have noticed had they been watching TVNZ's live feed of the New Lynn MP's speech.

They would have instead been transfixed by an impassioned address rooted in fundamental Labour principles and which relentlessly tugged at the heart-strings with lines like "I am sick and tired of watching hope die in the eyes of our young".

With framed photographs of former Labour prime ministers staring down on him, Cunliffe dared to use words like "equality" where others would have used the more innocuous-sounding "equity".

Handed a congratulatory bunch of roses, he observed they were suitably "socialist" red. When was the last time a senior Labour MP used that word in public?

But the most telling moment was when he was asked if he would make the well-off pay more tax. His response of "you bet" was the kind of direct answer that's been missing from Labour's lexicon for a long time.

But then there was not a lot that was subtle about Cunliffe's confirmation that he was entering the leadership race with Grant Robertson and Shane Jones.

Cunliffe's evangelistic catch-cry of "a new beginning" for Labour under his leadership would have done a southern revivalist preacher proud. The gospel Cunliffe is selling can be summed up in one word - hope. That only he of the three contenders has any hope of turning the tables on John Key in the run-up to next year's election.

The virtuoso routine came on top of a TVNZ poll which shows close to 30 per cent of voters think Cunliffe is the best person to lead Labour after David Shearer's resignation. In contrast, Robertson and Jones struggled to break 10 per cent.

Cunliffe's razzmatazz also stole a march on Robertson, who announced he was entering the race via press statement and Jones, who simply confirmed his intention to stand to a Herald reporter.

It is all designed to give Cunliffe's campaign unstoppable momentum - or at least the impression of it.

The complicated voting system adopted by Labour means Cunliffe must capture the bulk of the votes of the ordinary membership to offset the strong support that Robertson has in the caucus.

To win the ballot, Cunliffe needs to project himself as winning and hope snowballing support will shift enough MPs fearful of ending up on the losing side into his camp. But yesterday was all about reaching out to the wider party outside Parliament. And, on that score, he is so far making all the running.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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