Leader has to be careful not to cut himself off from the issues and risk being marginalised

It hardly needs saying that these are difficult days for David Cunliffe. Nothing seems to be working for him. And when the Labour Party does do something right - such as holding a successful conference this month - along comes another Cunliffe mishap followed by a further drop in Labour's poll rating.

Cunliffe seems doomed - like the Sisyphus of Greek mythology - to be forever pushing a large rock up a hill only for it to roll back down again, running him over in the process to compound his misery.

Yesterday he vowed to turn over a new leaf. He acknowledged that his Queenstown skiing holiday had been a mistake. He accepted his "sorry for being a man" clanger had not been helpful.

He announced he would focus on Labour's core election priorities - jobs, homes and families. He would stick to Labour's knitting and narrow the range of messages he delivered.

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Easier said than done for a leader. If a leader avoids commenting on something, he or she can find themselves behind the eight-ball if the issue at hand catches fire. You either play catch-up or risk finding yourself marginalised.

What Cunliffe needs is to run a big issue which provides a connection between Labour's policy and the average person's everyday life. Something like Shane Jones' battle with Countdown. But nothing of that sort has so far come Cunliffe's way. And there is precious little time for it to happen before the formal election campaign begins.

The exercise in mea culpa and the strategic rethink was no doubt cathartic - not just for Cunliffe, but for a Labour caucus that has been tearing its hair out at the manner in which Cunliffe has performed in the 10 months since becoming leader.

In that period, Labour has shed up to nine percentage points, going from around 34 per cent to under 26 per cent.

The new emphasis on core Labour issues looks very much like trying to hold the line in the hope that the party can get back to at least 30 per cent by election day.

Winning has taken a back seat to survival. Cunliffe will likely remain leader until the election because dumping him would look like panic as well as provoking revolt in the wider Labour Party.

But if even more voters peel off Labour in coming weeks, there will be real panic. And all bets will be off.

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