The David Cunliffe experiment has failed. Eight months into his leadership Labour is polling below what it was under Phil Goff and David Shearer.
The election is less than four months away.
The danger for Labour is that its poor polling will collapse its vote, as happened to National in 2002. Its low polling became a self-fulfilling and accelerating prophecy. Polls matter.
Labour's unimpressive showing may well cause even more votes to drain across to the Greens and New Zealand First.
That prospect will now be occupying the minds of Labour MPs and activists.
Cunliffe will soldier on. He has no choice. I know what it's like.
You can't give up.
Every day you have to find your smiley, positive face. It's tough. Lonely. Hard.
Cunliffe has an added burden. His caucus didn't want him. He was thrust on it by party members and the unions. That wouldn't matter if he were succeeding. But he isn't. There will be a lot of "I told you so" going on. The lack of caucus support makes a lonely job even lonelier.
And yet it remains a tight race. Labour could poll badly but still put a government together, with considerable concessions.
The Green's Metiria Turei and Russel Norman would be deputy prime ministers and would dominate policy-making.
Winston Peters would be kingmaker and would demand his pound of flesh.
Hone Harawira would be Minister of Maori Affairs. The Internet Party would be in government being dictated to by Kim Dotcom.
It's not a pretty prospect. And that's Labour's other problem. Its polling puts other parties into the box seat, a prospect that turns off middle voters.
And then there's policy. Cunliffe will be asked about every nutty policy put up by the Greens, New Zealand First, Mana and the Internet Party. Does he support it?
Cunliffe can't dodge the policy bullet. That would add to the uncertainty of voting Labour. If he accepts the policy, he's not in charge. If he dismisses it, he risks a spat with a potential partner.
John Key escapes these problems. National is polling high. Plus he has incumbency. People know what they are getting with National. They can't be so sure with Labour.
It comes back to the polls. They put Cunliffe on the back foot and Key on the front. Cunliffe is now desperate. He needs a lift.
"I just need to push the polls up a bit. I need to change the story ... hmmm. Immigration. That always works for Winston. I'll give that a shot. I will dress it up as housing policy. The party's woolly woofters will be upset. But what the hell? I've got nothing to lose." It's called dog-whistle politics. Sadly for Cunliffe, the only ones who heard it were Labour activists.
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