John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Cooling polls leave Cunliffe at crossroads

David Cunliffe's honeymoon phase is now clearly coming to an early end. Photo / NZ Herald
David Cunliffe's honeymoon phase is now clearly coming to an early end. Photo / NZ Herald

The latest political opinion polls pose a dilemma for David Cunliffe before this weekend's annual Labour Party conference.

Does the Labour leader opt for the much-needed images of Labour re-united as he delivers a tub-thumping, left-leaning speech to please the delegates who helped install him in the party's top job?

Or does he target a more mainstream audience beyond the confines of the conference which he must win over to up his chances of winning next year's election, but which is an audience still more enamoured with John Key and National's more right-leaning stance?

Cunliffe may well try to pitch to both audiences. As he is enjoying a political honeymoon, he can probably get away with it, as people tend to hear what they want to hear from new leaders and shut out everything else.

But only for so long. That honeymoon is now clearly coming to an early end.

It seems the dramatic rise in Labour support coupled with a big drop in backing for National in the immediate aftermath of Cunliffe's elevation which was recorded in the Herald-DigiPoll survey - and, according to the Prime Minister, echoed in National's own polling - has now rgone back to the norm of National enjoying a big lead over its major rival.

In registering Labour at closer to 34 per cent than the 38 per cent following Cunliffe's election, last weekend's One News-Colmar Brunton poll and the Fairfax Media Ipsos poll have provided something of a reality check.

Labour could justifiably take a glass half-full, rather than glass half-empty view. At least the party is now polling consistently around 34 to to 35 per cent, compared to the less than 28 per cent it recorded at the last election.

But even with the Greens hitting double-digits, Labour consistently needs to be at least four to five percentage points above its current level to feel more confident of victory next year.

Cunliffe has recognised Labour cannot ignore the middle ground by telling middle-income earners he is conscious they are are suffering hardship under National's economic regime.

But - as the latest polls show - this line of attack has failed to persuade those voters into switching allegiances. This weekend's conference - which threatens to stifle the party in a miasma of political correctness and impossible-to-meet wish-list - may only accentuate those voters' alienation from Labour.

Cunliffe may well succeed in rising above the party's predilection for self-destructive internal politics - just as David Shearer managed at last year's conference. What is not in doubt is that the easy part of the job is over. It now looks like relentless uphill going for the new Labour leader from here.

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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