Can Cunliffe turn things around?

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 12:49 18/03/2014

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OPINION: You could probably have cut the air with a knife at this morning's Labour caucus after another poll showing the party on a slide toward defeat in September's election.

The Herald-Digipoll has Labour on 29.5 per cent which simply confirms what every other poll has been telling the party since the start of the year.

Blame National leader John Key's extraordinary popularity, blame the surge in economic confidence and belief that the country is on the right track, blame Labour leader David Cunliffe's stumbles over trusts and party policy, blame the carry-over of mistrust toward Cunliffe from within his own caucus, or blame the fact that there is clearly an internal struggle within Labour over direction and strategy.

What it all adds up to is a party that is yet to put up a convincing case to voters that it is ready to govern or that there is any reason for a change from National.

Can David Cunliffe turn things around?

That would be a tall order for any leader, but even more so for one who does not have the trust and backing of all his MPs - something Cunliffe hasn't had from day one.

The party's rules, however, would seem to preclude the caucus "doing a Kevin Rudd" and installing a new leader just weeks out from an election as the Australian Labor Party did - though, as Rudd showed, never say never when it comes to politicians and their instinct for self preservation.

While it would only take a vote of 51 per cent of the caucus to force a contest, that would then set the party on a leadership primary process that would last several weeks.

That would only succeed in making Labour look focused on its own internal power struggles rather than the economy or the interests of the country.

Cunliffe's one-time rival, Shane Jones, is clearly positioning himself to be the natural alternative though he would be divisive both within the caucus and the wider party.

Cunliffe's other rival Grant Robertson is also in the running. But the fact that both are clearly still breathing down Cunliffe's neck probably says more about what will happen after the election than before it.

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