Will Cunliffe move Labour to the Centre?

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Last updated 07:13 07/11/2013

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OPINION: Will the man lampooned by the blog "Cats that look like David Cunliffe" swallow some dead rats?

Certainly the Labour leader can do a tough-guy look. Think Russell Crowe.

His favourite is a sort of slopey-smiled gunslinger squinting through the smoke at the saloon.

There is also Happy Cunliffe, Serious Cunliffe, and Evangelical Cunliffe, not to mention Kiwi Kid Cunliffe, swiping Anzac biscuits in the kitchen, eeling in the local creek and going pig hunting with his father.

They were all on display at Labour's annual conference last weekend.

No sign yet, though, of Dead Rat Munching Cunliffe.

John Key and National did it by adopting Labour's anti-nuclear ships policy, endorsing Working for Families, accepting interest- free student loans, Kiwibank, and even a diluted form of KiwiSaver, as all too popular to dump.

In an interview after the annual conference closed, Cunliffe was eyeing the rodents on offer.

"We haven't gone out and swallowed a whole lot of dead rats, yet," he said, with a pause that gave emphasis before that "yet".

"I wouldn't preclude that before the election . . . I think you'll see some changes."

Top of the list are some of the tax policies of former-leader-plus-one Phil Goff from 2011.

Lovers of irony will note that some are ideas David Shearer wanted to squash, but trod warily for fear of antagonising the Left - the very group that hoisted Cunliffe into the top job.

"There may be some things on the tax front that we would want to have a look at and reformulate . . . some of our straight revenue policies that might need another look," he said.

They would include proposals that were either dead or breathing their last under Shearer; the plan to take GST off fresh fruit and vegetables and a tax-free band on income up to $5000.

The proposed new personal tax rate of 39c on income above $150,000 is being thought through and the rate and thresholds may change, although not significantly.

The really unpalatable option for the Left - and one Cunliffe has not specifically addressed - is whether to extend the in-work tax credit to beneficiaries.

It has become a favourite target of Labour's conservative Right, editorial writers and political opponents. For now, though, Cunliffe stops well short of conceding "reform" will involve a step to the centre.

"The key message from this weekend has been this is a party that's true to its Labour values. It is not going to be shy about saying it's different from National in the sense its a Centre-Left party and proud of it. This is not a me-too strategy - that we want to be just like National, but less so. Not at all."

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This year is all about reassuring the base that brought him to power, and that was a central theme of his speech. He is not yet ready to disappoint his online cheerleaders, some of whom were there peddling their St David hagiography - typically devoting as much energy to critiquing mainstream media "bias" as on the substance of the conference.

But the debate is still live within broader Labour (and the commentariat) as to whether it can win by getting out the 800,000 non-vote from 2011, by presenting a cogent Left policy, or if it needs to draw centrist voters away from National.

If there is going to be a tack to the Centre, it will be after the Christmas break.

Cunliffe, though, refuses to accept the "binary nature of the framing" between going Left and shifting into the Centre. It is, he says, like asking if you can walk and chew gum.

Pushed again, he switches into conference speech mode, becoming much more definitive.

"'We are not going to the Centre. We are going to the base. I've made a bet. We are going to the base.

"We are going to the Labour heartland. We're a Left-of-Centre political party and we are going to own those values and we are going to be proud of them. I've made a choice."

The party has clearly done a lot of research on the non-vote.

Some sit "nowhere" - they habitually don't vote.

Another group voted Labour twice out of the past three elections, but not in 2011, and they are spread around the country, including in the regions.

A third group voted Labour once out of the past three times and are more concentrated in low socio-economic city seats - core Labour areas.

That suggests to Cunliffe and his team a two-pronged approach; a hard campaign and good organisation in the urban areas, and a push into regional seats.

It is not for nothing that he took responsibility for regional development.

For now, though, the conference chose unity over sectional interests - what Cunliffe called "restraint" - by putting off some controversial decisions, such as an unequivocal stance on the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade deal and leaving the door ajar for a rise in the state pension age.

It is a door Cunliffe and his deputy, David Parker, went through in double time.

"A gradual rise to something like 67 . . . is an essential part of that package. That's certainly David Parker's view and I am going to back him on that," Cunliffe said.

On that score at least - and probably on the TPP too - it will be some activists seasoning dead rats, not Cunliffe and Parker.

- The Dominion Post

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