Fairfax (joined to a lesser extent by the Herald) has decided to go a bit mental on Labour and Cunliffe. An endless stream of stories trying to tweak Cunliffe’s nose over every little thing. Part of this is covering the embarrassment of their own rogue poll. More importantly, it’s a test that all new leaders get. The wave of hypercritical stories don’t mean much in themselves, how Cunliffe’s Labour responds does.
If Cunliffe appears to be shaken or to go to ground, then that will reveal a weakness in leadership. If Cunliffe responds with strength and confidence, that will define him as the incoming PM.
Having just heard a clip of him on RNZ, I think we can be confident he’ll go with the latter. He knows himself and he knows the issues – and he provides excellent quotes.
My advice would be that Cunliffe is Labour’s great strength – the rise in Labour’s polling since his took over shows that – and they should seek to maximise his msm opportunities.
That means him fronting on issues rather than spokespeople more often. It means giving radio and print in particular the message that they should go to him for comment on big issues, rather than to the portfolio holder (TV’s harder because you have to be in a major city to get filmed for the news and Cunliffe’s doing a lot of travel – while regional visits are important and he got good coverage in Shannon, I would be hesitant about putting him in media blindspots too often). It also means approaching any radio stations where he doesn’t have a regular weekly interview slot and asking for one.
My other piece of advice would be for Cunliffe to take a leaf from Key’s book on tricky issues and shrug them off. Fairfax is trying to make a big deal over some of the conference remits, for example. Cunliffe should say ‘this is a democratic process, that means letting people present a range of ideas and what it produces are well-thought through, reasonable positions’.
Lastly, remember that this is a test, it’s not a declaration of war from the journalists. So don’t treat it like one, don’t go into siege mode. Just pass the test.