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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Cunliffe had better fix image fast

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Labour MPs need to back their boss and start talking policies before voters stop listening

Labour needs to give Cunliffe the ammunition to make voters sit up and take notice of him. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Labour needs to give Cunliffe the ammunition to make voters sit up and take notice of him. Photo / Brett Phibbs

As David Cunliffe licks his wounds after his week from hell, one obvious question lingers: can Labour's leader climb out of the deep, dark hole he has dug for himself and revive both his leadership and freshen Labour's electoral appeal.

The scale of that challenge was underlined by a blistering critique of Cunliffe by Paul Henry on his show on Wednesday night.

No doubt Labour would note Henry's past links to the National Party. But that would miss the point. Noting the hypocrisy inherent in attacking National for using trusts tohide donations only to then use one yourself, Henry drew a simple conclusion: Cunliffe could not be trusted.

It is a devastating verdict - and once such a verdict takes hold within the "commentariat", it can be extremely difficult to eradicate.

There is already public doubt and confusion as to what Cunliffe really believes and whether he is genuine or - as his new chief of staff Matt McCarten put it - whether he is the "real thing".

The danger is that this week's revelations have voters stop listening to Labour before they have even started.

To avoid that happening and lift Cunliffe's performance generally, Labour needs to consider doing the following:

Rebuild Cunliffe's image as a credible and competent leader - and quickly.

Much easier said than done. Yet the qualities which won him the Labour leadership have not deserted him. He has one advantage that John Key lacks - the ability to articulate a vision of where he wants to take New Zealand. He needs to build trust with voters. One way might be to issue a number of pledges covering what Labour would and would not do in office - and repeat them ad nauseam.

Give Cunliffe the ammunition to make voters sit up and take notice of him.

Borrow Helen Clark's maxim that in Opposition any colleague uncovering any half-decent Government-related scandal, blunder or embarrassment hand it to the leader to exploit in order to ensure he is seen as an effective, hardworking politician and retains a strong profile in the media.

Talk the economy up - not down.

After years of low or no growth, people now want to believe the economy is on the road to permanent recovery. Labour should applaud the positive economic indicators - and then market its more co-operative approach to economic development as the best way of making the economy grow even faster.

Start talking solutions - not problems.

Cunliffe can deliver a tear-jerker of a speech on the suffering of the poor and downtrodden at the drop of a food parcel. Labour's "baby bonus" notwithstanding, voters want to hear more from Labour about what the party would do to remedy things. Labour is not short of policy. What is lacking is the big picture narrative which weaves it all together and explains in simple language how it would all significantly improve the lives of ordinary people.

Up the work rate.

Cunliffe should be making at least three speeches every week hammering home Labour's message to any audience that will listen - not one speech every three weeks. Maybe he is already. But you would not know.

Send out a search party to find David Parker.

He won't agree, but Labour's finance spokesman has been pretty invisible lately. He and Cunliffe need to be pictured together much more often to help Labour present an image of a government-in-waiting.

Leave the personal attacks on John Key for someone else.

Labour has tried to dirty Key's image ever since he became National's leader in 2006. Cunliffe should stand well clear so that he does not get splattered with mud if his colleagues miss their target yet again.

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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