John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: No place for lolly scrambles if Cunliffe is to broaden his appeal

Labour's David Cunliffe. Photo / APN
Labour's David Cunliffe. Photo / APN

One passionate and stirring message for the workers; one politically sanitised version of the same message for everyone else.

It seemed as if two David Cunliffes had turned up at the Council of Trade Unions conference in Wellington yesterday. There was the one who delivered a rousing speech which promised an immediate hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour; the introduction of a "living wage" for low-paid staff working in the core public sector; the scrapping of youth rates; an extension of paid parental leave; further progress towards pay equity; and the speedy repeal of National's labour relations law changes now before Parliament. This agenda was lapped up by the delegates who gave the new Labour leader a standing ovation.

It was a rather more restrained Cunliffe who fronted to the media after the speech. His language was suddenly peppered with conditional sub-clauses and stipulations as to when some of these things would happen. Provisos such as "subject to the provisions of fiscal responsibility".

Or "once we have seen the financials". Or "depending upon exactly what shape the books will be in".

While seeking to restore Labour's traditional dominance on the centre-left by not being airy-fairy about what the party will do in Government, Cunliffe needs to blunt National's inevitable response.

National's Bill English this week sought to persuade the public to stick with National because it was the only party that could be trusted not to undermine the hard work involved in getting the country back into surplus. Given the need to reduce New Zealand's debt mountain, there was no place for government-initiated lolly scrambles.

Yesterday's promises by Cunliffe were more like a lolly scramblette. Nevertheless, he needs to keep mouthing the "if fiscal circumstances apply" mantra.

Cunliffe repeatedly talks of a "truly red" Labour Party under his leadership, not a pale blue one. But he cannot ignore the vote-rich, but more conservative middle ground over which the two major parties traditionally fight the hardest.

Cunliffe made a pitch for that vote yesterday by arguing that even middle-income earners were now struggling to pay the weekly bills and could no longer afford to move up the housing chain.

His strategy is to try to persuade this group that National no longer cares about them and is only concerned with making corporate conditions easier for its big business mates who fund National.

Whether or not middle-income earners buy this line, polls show the public's confidence in Labour displaying fiscal rectitude is not high. Cunliffe has to walk a careful line that ensures his revitalisation of Labour as the party of big new ideas is not used by enemies to label Labour as being the party of big new spend-ups.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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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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