Cunliffe caught between left and centre
David Cunliffe (Photo: Michael Roberts)
By Peter Wilson, Political Writer
Labour leader David Cunliffe's difficulty in moulding his policies so they don't alienate voters in the political centre hasn't been lost on the National Party.
In parliament this week Paula Bennett found a different use for the "Yeah, Nah" campaign as she taunted opposition MPs.
It's an attempt to get the message across to young people that it's OK to refuse a drink, and Bennett's message was that it's the new name for the Labour Party.
"It's the yeah, nah party, it's yeah nah this, yeah nah that and yeah nah everything else," said Bennett.
She went on to taunt Labour MPs with a list of Cunliffe quotes which, according to her, proved beyond doubt that he speaks with forked tongue.
Her point was that Cunliffe says one thing to audiences like the party faithful and not quite the same thing when the media questions him about exactly what he means.
Differences are subtle. There's a slightly softer tone, a little less certainty about timing, perhaps not everything is set in concrete.
Cunliffe came into the leadership with a hiss and a roar, vowing to take Labour back to its roots, promising union-friendly policies and an end to any notion that his party was anything like National.
"Under my leadership Labour will be deep red, not pale blue," he told his party's annual conference, and the delegates loved it.
He's given no indication that he'll renege on his promises and no one expects him to, but Cunliffe must be acutely aware that elections are won or lost in middle New Zealand.
Right-wing voters back National, left-wing voters back Labour or the Greens. That's not going to change.
It's the ones in the centre who really matter, and to win in 2014 Labour has to persuade a fair number of middle income, home-owning New Zealanders that it offers them a better deal than National.
Unless they're unusually altruistic, they're not going to be impressed with pledges to raise the top tax rate, repeal employment law reforms and give government workers a "living wage" of $18.40 an hour.
They might not be all that keen on extending Working for Families tax credit to beneficiaries either, which is one of the tricky issues Cunliffe has still to address.
Although Working for Families was introduced by the previous Labour government as a reward for people who found jobs but still had difficulty making ends meet, the party's current crop of MPs have been loudly complaining that it doesn't help the most needy people - beneficiaries.
The Greens, who will be Labour's coalition partner if there's a change of government, insist on it being extended.
Doing so would entirely change the nature of the scheme and it would cease to be an incentive for finding work.
Then there's the SkyCity national convention centre deal, which will be ratified by parliament next week when the bill that allows it to happen is passed.
Labour MPs have hammered the government for months over the agreement which will see SkyCity build and pay for the $402 million centre in exchange for gambling concessions.
"We're discussing the biggest money laundering operation in New Zealand's history," Trevor Mallard said in parliament.
What would a Labour-led government do about it? The Greens say they'll tear up the contract. Cunliffe is more realistic, saying it won't be "incinerated" but he would want changes, which haven't been specified.
The government points out the serious consequences of any government legislating to breach contract law.
Cunliffe has about nine months to sort out his election manifesto, he has a lot of work in progress.