Cunliffe needs us to like, trust him

ROCKY RESULTS: Labour leader David Cunliffe is still floundering in the polls.
ROCKY RESULTS: Labour leader David Cunliffe is still floundering in the polls.

Labour leadership is a brutal job. If Helen Clark had been made of different stuff she never would have survived Opposition.

Her colleagues tried to roll her just months out from the 1996 election and with good reason.

Labour's polling under Clark was disastrous. Support for her as preferred prime minister was laughable. Voters thought she was arrogant, aloof and out of touch.

Everything about Clark - her hair, her teeth, her mannish voice - was picked over and dissected as another reason for voters to reject Labour. They were the worst years of Clark's life. But when a delegation of Clark's colleagues knocked on her door asking her to resign she stared them down.

There is said to be a desk somewhere around Parliament that still bears the scars from Koro Wetere digging his fingernails into its surface during their faceoff.

The story even had an (almost) happy ending when Clark took Labour close to winning the 1996 election - though perhaps not as close as her supporters believed on the night.

It was largely thanks to Winston Peters and MMP that she was able to keep Labour's hopes alive before Peters opted to do a deal with National. But it was enough to secure Clark's leadership. Three years later she led Labour to a sweeping victory and nine years in power.

Is Clark protege David Cunliffe made of the same stuff?

Labour's poll ratings have sunk like the Titanic under Cunliffe's leadership. The latest political poll has Labour marooned in the mid-20s.

Forget about winning - avoiding an old-fashioned drubbing has become the priority. Only MPs with seats in Labour bastions like Manukau seem safe.

It is not at all far-fetched to imagine Labour sinking to National's low point in 2002 - 21 per cent.

Under that scenario the damage to Labour could be immense. Unthinkably, even finance spokesman and number two on Labour's list, David Parker, could be at risk. So too would stars like Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little.

The only difference between now and 1996 is the election date. When Clark's colleagues knocked on her door in May 1996 the election was still five months away. Even if Labour wanted to change its leader now, it probably couldn't. Voters would punish such a visible display of panic and disarray just two months out from an election. Many in Labour's activist base would revolt.

Cunliffe was their man, their nuclear option against a caucus that did not reflect their world view. A change of leader now would bring to the surface all the things voters reject - panic, a party in disarray and disunity.

And who would want the job anyway? Whoever replaced Cunliffe would have as many enemies at his or her back as friends. Only one Labour MP had the chutzpah and sufficient reserves of self-belief to take on such a suicide mission, and that was Shane Jones - who has now left.

Cunliffe wanted the leadership badly enough that colleagues believed he would have climbed over their dead bodies without a backward look to secure it.

That is why there was so much ill-will toward him in the caucus. If it had been up to a majority of his colleagues, Cunliffe would not be leader now. He was foisted on them by Labour activists grown increasingly distant from their MPs.

But winners are grinners, as they say. Especially in politics. Private enmity rarely trumps personal ambition. If Cunliffe had delivered on the promise of a more sure-footed leadership, a more organised Opposition, and a clearer direction, the doubters would have become converts.

But Cunliffe has often been his own worst enemy. He has been too loose with details too often and he has tried to style his leadership around American and British-style political oratory. In the New Zealand context, where we are used to our politicians being of the plain Jane variety, there is a fine line between soaring oratory and coming across as fake.

Can Cunliffe use the final few weeks to turn things around? He has to use them to embark on a massive charm offensive with the New Zealand public.

Policy is not the problem. Labour has released a wealth of policy which shows it has a credible alternative plan for government. But voters either don't know or don't like David Cunliffe.

Winning now comes down to one simple recipe. Cunliffe has to show them that he is someone they can like and trust.

It is time to stop practising his speeches in front of the mirror and start talking direct to voters. And it is time to work harder than he has ever worked before in his life.

Key took the last 10 days off for a holiday in Hawaii. At 30 points ahead, he could afford to. Cunliffe took time off for a holiday in Queenstown. That was a luxury he didn't have.

Clark was so determined to turn around her public image that she made it her mission to meet as many voters as possible. Cunliffe should have been doing the same thing while Key was on the golf course in Hawaii. At the very least, seeing the leader campaigning hard would have motivated the troops to do the same.

On the latest polls, the only Labour MPs with a reason to get up in the morning right now are those who have winnable electorates on which their future livelihood depends. They will be fighting tooth and nail to hang on.

Cunliffe's biggest test of leadership may be right now, motivating the rest of his troops to get up in the morning as well.