David Cunliffe's long, hard leadership challenge

David Cunliffe has just under six months to build the sort of credibility for a Labour-Greens coalition that pulls some voters across from National’s side and some non-voters in from the cold.

In his six months as leader Cunliffe, first, got only a short-lived bump in opinion polls and then in February-early March took Labour back to its David Shearer low. His biggest publicity recently has been for leadership stumbles.

First, Cunliffe chose to run Labour’s innovative children policy as a cash handout when its real value is a focus on children’s physical experience in the womb and nutritional, emotional and cognitive experiences in the early years of life. That is, he highlighted the palliative of a dole to parents over investment in children to give even the disadvantaged a close-to-equal opportunity to be full citizens as adults. And he did not say the palliative would be discounted for parental leave cash.

National got two free hits. It could say, first, Labour was sneaky and, second, would be old-style tax-and-spend when an edgy global economy mandates fiscal caution.

One down. Second, he ran a line about super-rich Key being out of touch because he lives in a leafy suburb. A more self-aware Cunliffe would have remembered attacks in the leadership contest that he lives in a nice house in a leafy suburb while promoting a “red” Labour. Another free hit for National.

Two down. Then he had to own up to an anonymous trust to (lavishly) fund his leadership campaign, thereby undermining Labour’s criticism of National’s anonymous election funders and John Banks’ troubles with contributions to his 2010 mayoral campaign. Insiders say Cunliffe had to be persuaded to be open about the trust so that it wouldn’t fester all the way to election day.

Three down. There have also been mishits in Parliament. And he has yet to build strong relationships with the Greens leadership and Winston Peters in anticipation of post-election deals.

The old left which championed Cunliffe’s leadership bid has laid part of the blame for Labour’s poll woes on the leadership losers for loose talk, which National MPs and bosses in turn claim also to have heard. And, indeed, loose talk costs political lives.

Actually Cunliffe is not under threat before the election.

For one, even if a coup could convincingly be justified under the new leadership contest rules, a replacement leader promoted in panic telegraphs that panic to voters. Such a leader often has a tenuous hold. Examples are Mike Moore here in 1990 and the two Australian Labor Prime Ministers who knifed each other shortly before the 2010 and 2013 elections.

Second, who would it be? Airhead talk of bloke-friendly Shane Jones ignored strong opposition in the caucus and the party, not to mention the Greens, whose Gareth Hughes he scorned as a mollyhawk. The Grant Robertson B team has generally been head down: Jacinda Ardern toed the loyalty line in public on the children policy.

Then there is Cunliffe’s indecision, insiders say. A stack of policy position papers were completed by November, among them jobs and employment (Robertson), public services (Maryan Street), housing (Phil Twyford) and education (Chris Hipkins). Only the children policy, part of the ICT paper and forestry have come out as policy statements so far.

Without the foundations of policy repetitiously pounded into voters’ heads long before the campaign proper, potential election-winning come-ons will come out of the blue. “Vision” talk doesn’t usually cut much mustard.

That is where Matt McCarten fits. As a many-times-paid-up member of the old left, he is another free hit for National which can claim he is evidence Labour is going far left. But McCarten is good at organising — the Alliance and the Unite Union — so should get some of the paper off Cunliffe’s desk and inject some energy into the MPs. He understands that Labour must be near-centrist to win. And he will be a bridge to the old left so might calm it down.

But policy plus McCarten doesn’t equal a win in September unless Cunliffe can at least match Key.

Key does connect with ordinary folk because for all his dosh he has an easy camaraderie that frustrates the elite but is real newzild. That keeps voters from the crossing the line to Labour or coming out of non-voting to oust National.

At a first meeting Cunliffe has attractive charm: intelligent, personable and not bad with the gab. Many will meet him for the first time in the first leaders debate and elsewhere on the campaign trail. That could make up some percentage points. Add in 1 or 2 per cent from a campaign targeted at 2008 and 2011 non-voters. At his best, Cunliffe could get Labour-Greens there.

But note that “at his best”. For most of his six months so far Cunliffe has not been at the sort of best required of a modern leader. If the next six months are no better and he condemns Labour to “nine long years” in opposition, he is unlikely to be leader for long after September.