Ready to get the message out

Labour Party leader David Cunliffe needs to stamp his mark on the party's election-year congress which starts in Wellington tonight. He tells political editor Dene Mackenzie he is up to the task.

Labour Party leader David Cunliffe has not had the best of times recently. If he was not fighting off claims of large anonymous donations from a wealthy Chinese businessman, he was deflecting an announcement on bringing back the moa from Trevor Mallard, one of Labour's longest-serving MPs. A television poll even asked who was the best person to replace Mr Cunliffe as Labour leader.

Labour has been languishing in the polls, falling below the crucial 30% mark this week and Mr Cunliffe's preferred rating as prime minister is barely into double figures.

He fought off a bad cold that left him nursing himself back to full strength last weekend but, he told the Otago Daily Times, he was back to his best and would be putting all of his energy into motivating Labour activists who assemble in the capital tonight for the election-year congress.

There had been criticism the congress was not open to the media, except for Mr Cunliffe's address on Sunday. National's annual conference last week, although carefully stage managed, was open to the media with journalists and MPs tweeting from the conference floor.

Responding to criticism, Labour has now opened some of its Saturday session to the media.

However, an election-year congress was different to the party's annual conference, he said.

''A conference is dealing with policy but we have already finalised our policy. This is about gearing up the campaign teams so they can go back to their electorates and campaign hard for every last Labour vote.

''National might have millions of dollars but we have thousands and thousands of supporters ready to get out and campaign on behalf of the party.''

Party membership had more than doubled since this time last year, some of it because of the leadership contest which Mr Cunliffe won.

Mr Cunliffe believed despite the ''dreadful smear campaign'', party activists were in good heart and ready to take the party message to the streets.

Labour moved away from the traditional electorate organisations and formed ''hubs''. There was an Otago-Southland hub which allowed members from right across the region to join and campaign across electorate boundaries for the party vote.

''This is an MMP-focused campaign. I believe we have the best organised troops.''

Labour would be 120 years old in 2016 and had a tradition of activism unmatched by other parties who would also be campaigning hard, he said.

Education was the major theme of the congress. Policy announcements would be made tomorrow and in the leader's address on Sunday.

Asked about his personal health, Mr Cunliffe said he had been battling a cold but was feeling much better.

On Monday, he would start a five-day regional tour spending 100% of his time on the road. With a recess week in Parliament, other Labour MPs would be touring the country to help candidates' campaigns.

After the final week in Parliament, which would be dominated by valedictory speeches, Mr Cunliffe would return to full-time campaigning in the build-up to the official campaign launch.

''I'm reminding people that at the last election, the Government lost 6% to 7% of its vote. I want to ensure at least that much happens again. The election will be tight. It will be close,'' he said.

- dene.mackenzie@odt.co.nz

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