John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Rank-and-file make pragmatic choice for party's future

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Armstrong says, Cunliffe's second priority is to define Labour's message in clear and concise terms. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Armstrong says, Cunliffe's second priority is to define Labour's message in clear and concise terms. Photo / Steven McNicholl

The long-suffering Labour Party faithful have given those MPs in the Labour caucus who cannot stomach David Cunliffe a collective bloody nose.

Through sheer weight of numbers, the rank-and-file have installed Cunliffe in the party's top job for a mixture of reasons - from revenge on the parliamentary party for trying to block moves to make Labour's internal politics more democratic, to Cunliffe being the only senior MP articulating the view of the Labour left.

However, the prime reason for Cunliffe's victory is that he is potentially the difference between Labour running a very good election campaign or a very ordinary one.

That is the bottom line politically. The caucus, however, has been blinded by Cunliffe's faults. There will be considerable trepidation among MPs that the man who once prompted mirth and astonishment in Parliament by pompously declaring "I'm running this show" is now, in fact, actually running the show.

With only 11 MPs out of Labour's total of 34 backing him in the leadership vote, Cunliffe's first priority is to pour some oil on the troubled waters of the caucus.

He has apparently made it clear there will be no favouritism; no inner circle of fawning supporters; and that he will be running a "meritocracy" where ability determines who does what - not who voted for whom.

The party has given Cunliffe a mandate which - outside of winning an election in a landslide - is second to none. But to exercise that mandate requires the co-operation of the caucus and he has to rebuild MPs' confidence in him.

His second priority is to define Labour's message in clear and concise terms. Under David Shearer, Labour was in danger of having a mish-mash of policy positions which made it difficult to be sure about what the party actually stood for.

Cunliffe will fix that. The immediate target audience is the roughly 800,000 people who did not vote at the 2011 election. If Labour can get even 200,000 of those to vote for the party, it then takes the pressure off having to move to the centre to recapture former Labour voters currently inclined to John Key's view.

The Christchurch East byelection in November will be a critical test of Cunliffe's ability to inspire Labour's core vote to make it to the ballot box in what is one of the poorest seats in the country, but where National won the party vote in 2011.

The third priority is to restore Labour as the leading Opposition Party. Shearer was too often overshadowed by Russel Norman and Winston Peters.

Labour needs to get the Opposition parties' pecking order back to its traditional state. The party is being punished by being seen as too close to the Greens. It falls on Cunliffe to show he's the boss - and what Labour will and will not swallow should the two parties end up in a coalition Government .

- 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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