It is an exaggeration to say that Matt McCarten is someone who has devoted much of his political life to destroying the Labour Party, only suddenly and surprisingly to heed the call to save it. But not that much of an exaggeration.

McCarten's shock appointment as David Cunliffe's chief of staff is likely to be viewed by not a few MPs in the Labour caucus as less the return of the Prodigal Son - who wandered into the wilderness with Jim Anderton's NewLabour Party and subsequently the Alliance - and more a case of inviting the fox into the henhouse and according him red-carpet treatment in the process.

For all the rapprochement between Labour and Anderton in recent years, placing the other most prominent figure in the latter's former ranks into a role that will effectively make him the power behind the Labour leader's throne has left those MPs as gobsmacked as everyone else.

The biggest risk is that hiring McCarten is viewed by voters - especially those in the centre - as confirmation that Labour is shifting markedly and permanently to the left under Cunliffe's leadership.

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McCarten has enough of a longstanding and dazzling public profile as a trade union official, left-leaning political strategist and all-round activist to create such a perception.

He has been brought on board to inject much-needed pre-election urgency, fresh thinking and attention-grabbing strategic audacity into a party whose political reflexes and energy - with the exception of Shane Jones - are on a par with a sloth on tranquillisers.

One question is on everyone's lips: is this move a "game-changer" for Labour?

McCarten's campaign skills should help draw voters back to Labour in its metropolitan strongholds. The real test is whether his input can break National's stranglehold on provincial New Zealand, as well as broaden Labour's appeal among lower middle, middle and upper middle income earners.

Given the country's present conservative disposition, the initial impact may be the reverse. Regardless, winning over those voters to Labour's cause is likely to require him to compromise personal beliefs, something that has not been part of the McCarten fabric.

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