When it comes to commenting on opinion polls, there is a
simple rule that all politicians should follow. Don't do it. It
is a mug's game.
When the polls are flattering to you or your party, you are
in danger of sounding self-congratulatory.
When your ratings are plunging through the floor, you just
Best to let the polls speak for themselves - as David
Cunliffe did when asked for his reaction to this week's
surprise-filled Herald-DigiPoll survey.
He would not be human if he was not cock-a-hoop at Labour's
seven-point surge in support.
Wisely, he did not let it show.
Predicting the polls would ''bounce around'' in the months
ahead, Labour's new leader simply noted that if the poll
result was replicated at next year's election, then his party
would be able to form a Government. He left it at that.
He did not need to state the obvious that the poll is
significant as a huge morale-booster for the centre-left in
two respects: first, in intimating (though not proving) that
Mr Cunliffe's becoming Labour's leader is already making a
very marked difference to the party's fortunes; and, second,
persuading wavering Labour supporters toying with switching
to the Greens or New Zealand First that a vote for Labour in
2014 now has much more value.
Of more immediate use to Mr Cunliffe is that the
Herald poll has provided him with an unexpected source
of the one thing he prizes right now - momentum.
From when he put his name forward for the party-wide election
of the new leader, Mr Cunliffe has sought to jolt domestic
politics out of the National-controlled status quo by
blitzkrieging his way into the public's consciousness. He is
hellbent on getting the public to start listening to Labour
To that end, Mr Cunliffe has a schedule which should keep him
almost constantly in the public eye this side of Christmas as
he heralds a ''new beginning'' for Labour, a phrase which
implicitly acknowledges the public got it right, while
self-consumed, introspective Labour got it wrong.
The first step in transforming the party's tired, lacklustre
image into a modern, dynamic and revitalised political brand
came last Monday with Mr Cunliffe unveiling his shadow
There is an important upcoming speech to the Council of Trade
Unions' conference early next month, which will be followed
by Labour's own conference in early November, which will be
followed by the Christchurch East by-election campaign.
This week's Herald poll is a bonus. Conducted after Mr
Cunliffe became leader two weeks ago, the survey's findings
beg the obvious question of whether there is a direct causal
link between his taking over and the sudden lift in Labour's
support and a corresponding drop of five points in voter
backing for National.
However, if the dramatic closing of the gap between the two
main parties from nearly 18 points in the previous Herald
poll in June to just six points this month was solely down to
Mr Cunliffe, then he surely would have enjoyed an even more
spectacular performance in the preferred prime minister
rating than the near 17% he scored.
The poll's respondents were clearly well aware of the change
in the Labour leadership.
Only 1% of those backing Labour singled out David Shearer as
preferred prime minister.
However, that did not automatically translate into wholesale
endorsement of Mr Cunliffe. More than half of those who said
they would give their party vote to Labour opted for someone
else as preferred prime minister - John Key, Winston Peters,
Helen Clark, Phil Goff, Russel Norman or Grant Robertson and
in that order. In contrast, more than 95% of those giving
their party vote to National favoured Mr Key as preferred
A chunk of Mr Cunliffe's's rating came from Green voters who
scored him nearly as highly as Dr Norman - recognition
perhaps that the Labour leader will be the prime minister in
any governing coalition forged by the two centre-left
If Mr Cunliffe's impact was somewhat subdued, the narrowing
of the gap between National and Labour is harder to fathom.
What might be happening is that the wear and tear on
National's reputation from various earlier debilitating
sideshows and botch-ups is finally showing in the polls.
Voters' attitudes as to how they will cast their vote are
slow to change - more so with a government as pragmatic and
unwilling to risk frightening the punters as the current one.
There thus can be a long lag between cause and effect in the
Mr Cunliffe may just be the beneficiary of that timing.
What is noteworthy is that in the preferred prime minister
rating, Mr Cunliffe attracted support from equal quantities
of male and female voters - unlike Mr Shearer, much of whose
backing came from women voters.
This is important.
Labour has been doing well with women voters, but is missing
out with men.
Fed up with the party's continuing penchant for the
politically correct, the latter have switched off Labour and
tuned in happily to Mr Key's moderate conservatism or found
comfort in Mr Peters' economic nationalism and more
hard-edged social conservatism.
But Labour has been here before.
Back in March, the Herald poll flattered to deceive
with support for Labour jumping to more than 36%.
Unfortunately for Mr Shearer, those gains evaporated.
That it might happen again is ample reason for Mr Cunliffe to
continue to be cautious when it comes to talking up opinion
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald