The Labour Party is guaranteed one thing in the countdown
to this year's general election: there is no danger of David
Cunliffe peaking too soon.
Indeed, if the three-year electoral cycle is likened to a
three-lap middle-distance track race at the Olympics, then
most of the other parties are currently jostling for room on
the back straight before rounding the final bend for the
sprint to the finish.
Meanwhile, Mr Cunliffe-led Labour is still at the starting
blocks, slowly taking off its dark-red tracksuit and planning
nothing more taxing than an afternoon stroll.
Or so it seems. When he became leader last September, Mr
Cunliffe was well aware he had precious little time to lift
Labour's share of the party vote to a higher and more
sustained level above the modest increase already gained by
his predecessor, David Shearer.
At most, Mr Cunliffe had just 14 months to reconnect Labour
with the voters who had turned their backs on the party at
the 2008 election and who subsequently seemed not to have the
slightest interest in listening to what Mr Shearer or his
predecessor, Phil Goff, had to say or offer.
Mr Cunliffe - who has probably lost another month, given the
election is likely to be in October rather than the
traditional Saturday in late November - seemed well aware of
the ultra-tight timetable with which he was working.
He immediately announced his MPs had been placed on a ''war
footing''. But they have yet to leave the barracks. The
opinion polls since have offered little succour with the
party rating at just under 32% in the latest Fairfax survey,
which indicated National might be able to rule alone, said to
have had a chilling impact on the Labour caucus.
The continuing high levels of support for National are making
a nonsense of the two absolutely essential tasks required of
First, he has to build a mood for a change of Government when
there is no sign of any such feeling abroad in the wider New
Second, Mr Cunliffe has to persuade voters that Labour is the
party that must be given a strong mandate to carry out
That would normally call for fresh ideas to excite voters.
The problem for Labour is that the voters do not want to be
excited and are happy with what is dubbed the ''progressive
conservatism'' which is the hallmark of John Key.
As it is, Mr Cunliffe has precious little to show from his
five months in the job. A peaceful Labour Party conference
and a comprehensive by-election victory in a safe Labour seat
do not really count for much.
When it comes to fresh policy that was not in the last
manifesto, there is Mr Shearer's promise to build 100,000
affordable homes over 10 years.
National is fighting back strongly on that front and its
solutions are rooted in the here and now and are now yielding
results, whereas Labour has yet to provide the full detail of
how its policy will work.
There is Mr Shearer's promised revamp of the wholesale
electricity market and the claim it will mean lower power
prices. But power consumers struggle to follow the complex
debate and anyway have been promised much before only to find
themselves paying even more.
Then there is the new publicly owned insurance company,
KiwiAssure. And, of course, there is the $60-a-week ''baby
The latter policy is the clearest indicator yet of the
direction in which Mr Cunliffe is taking Labour.
It was the result of a considerable amount of work, much of
it done by Jacinda Ardern, the party's spokeswoman on
The policy is bold in applying to most children aged up to
three years - a crucial time in a child's development, but
one from which the state is comparatively absent.
The policy also marks a return to near universality in the
wide scope of the payment. It flags the seriousness of Mr
Cunliffe's Ed Miliband-like talk of Labour's policies being
all about ''fairness and opportunity''.
The baby bonus was well-received by voluntary organisations
working in the social sector.
The challenge for Mr Cunliffe is to explain how such policies
interact with things such as Labour's promotion of a capital
gains tax. The bigger picture is lacking.
There is also a lack of urgency, which is failing to provide
the momentum to keep Labour in the headlines for the right
reasons - rather than trying to ping John Key for living in a
''leafy suburb'' when you do likewise.
Mr Cunliffe has also been unlucky in losing his office chief
of staff - an absolutely pivotal position.
But, according to one expert, Mr Cunliffe's looming problems
are not solely his fault. They say it takes one to know one.
And Bill English sure knows better than anyone else exactly
how it feels to be David Cunliffe right now.
Although English's voice was its usual mixture of dry humour
and sarcasm, it had the occasional tinge of sympathy as the
Minister of Finance spoke in Parliament on Wednesday
afternoon, doing what he loves doing - dissecting the Labour
Party, diagnosing its various ailments and predicting it will
fail to overcome them before voters roll up to the polling
Mr English blamed ''lazy and weak'' Labour MPs for failing to
take the pressure off their leader. He said Shane Jones
gaining headlines with regard to his allegations against
Countdown had only served to show up the poor performances of
It is something Mr English understands full well. It was from
the same uncomfortable, but potentially rewarding position
that Mr Cunliffe now occupies - Leader of the Opposition -
that Mr English led National, back in 2002, to its worst
defeat in the party's history.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political