David Cunliffe is well into repositioning himself as the candidate from Party Centrist — not Party Left Wing.

Labour leader David Cunliffe says the party will fund an extra 2000 teachers under its policy to reduce primary class sizes to 26 students by 2016, if elected. Video / Mark Mitchell

The naked "feint left" drive which persuaded Labour activists to parachute him into the party's leadership over the top of more obvious centrist candidates like Shane Jones has been quietly jettisoned.

Even at the party conference there was more of an obligatory nod to the "comrades" than the kind of policies that would have enabled his National opponents to ramp up the fear factor.

Smaller class sizes and electronic learning paraphernalia are not going to get the juices of so-called blue collar workers boiling.


But such policies will appeal to middle classes — irrespective of how the additional 2,000 teachers are paid for.

The Cunliffe move is the upshot of a strategic rethink behind scenes within Labour's war room.

The party still needs to drive hard to get the vote out among its own constituency.

But if Labour is to have any real legitimacy as the lead player in an alternative — where the players are at this stage more united by their desire to "get John Key out" than common policy platforms — it needs to gather sufficient support from the swinging middle ground to offset the reality that National is still likely to win many more votes on the day.

Cunliffe — like Key — is giving himself a break from the phony campaign war before the electioneering begins in earnest.

It's easy to understand why Key needs a bit of time off to recharge. As Prime Minister he runs a gruelling schedule.

Taking 10 days out is not going to derail National's run-up while Cabinet Ministers — particularly Steven Joyce, Paula Bennett and Nikki Kaye — roll up to events each day.

National's campaign will inevitably be presidential with much of the focus on the leader. But with ministers out around the country on a daily basis it is obvious that "TeamKey" is not simply the one-man band that National's opponents like to allege, but a team whose members have visibility and depth.


Cunliffe doesn't have the advantages that come with incumbency. Labour's campaign will also focus on its leader.

But it will also focus on policy — the sweeping changes that a Labour-led government would introduce on taxation, monetary policy and the re-emergence of the state in markets like electricity and insurance.

Cunliffe is not yet particularly well-known to New Zealanders.

He hasn't enjoyed the visibility that Key had before he was selected as National's leader. Voters do not yet know a great deal about Cunliffe or his family.

The Weekend Herald's two-part unauthorised biography will go some way to rectifying that attention deficit.

The reports underpin why it makes sense for Cunliffe to reposition himself back towards the centre. Doing otherwise is simply out of sync with his own background and leads to the impression that he lacks authenticity.

It also makes it more likely he could lead a successful Government.

Experienced players like Phil Goff and David Shearer — who has been performing well in the shadow foreign affairs portfolio — have restrained themselves from turning the central issue of New Zealand's place in the world into a theatre for bipartisan blood sport. Both politicians could easily pick up the baton from their National counterparts and perform well to New Zealand's advantage.

Labour's finance spokesman David Parker is having some successes as he crafts policies that front up to some of the major issues — particularly inter-generational equity.

There are some caveats.

Particularly Parker's proposal to use the savings in the Superannuation Fund (aka the Cullen Fund) to offset Government debt.

This is rather unnecessary sleight-of-hand.

By moving back towards the centre it is more likely that Cunliffe can usefully harness the talents of Goff, Shearer and Parker in the election campaign. If he can portray a more unified front he will be more likely to take the battle directly to Key than find himself undermined from within.