To Cunliffe the spoils – so don't spoil the chance

David Cunliffe has been given a shot – a better shot than he might have had – so which direction will he take and can he switch out of primary-mode quick enough?

When we heard yesterday that David Cunliffe had got the job he's so long coveted as Labour leader, my wife said to me "well now they can get on with it after wasting the past year on Shearer". As we enter the Cunliffe era, I'm not at all sure that time's been wasted, however. In fact, the latest David off the rank may well have good reason to be grateful to the ABCs [Anyone But Cunliffe].

Alternative histories are a bit like guessing games played in the dark – a bit pointless but lots of fun. But imagine if Cunliffe had beaten David Shearer to the top job when Phil Goff stood down, or even been able to orchestrate a coup last year. One thing's for sure, the opposition within the Opposition would have been fierce. The ABCs, had they lost, would have kept plotting.

As it stands, Shearer and the caucus members who took the punt and voted for him have had their shot. They got the job, the time and it didn't work. Now, just a little more than a year out from the next election, any Labour MP with any sense of duty to the party – and ambition to be in government – must suck it up and back Cunliffe to the hilt. Cunliffe, having won on the first ballot, has a strong mandate; and the timing only makes it stronger. Cunliffe can go into election year confident he won't be rolled and with a reasonable assumption of getting another shot in 2017 if he can get Labour close in 2014.

The ABCs, as I say, took their punt on Shearer. But now they've lost, Cunliffe is stronger than he would have been. Such is the ebb and flow of politics.

That makes me wonder whether we'll see some Labour MPs announcing in the next six months or so that they'll be standing down at the next election. And to be frank, that may be no bad thing, assuming the party has been paying attention and has the right sort of candidates waiting in the wings. (Of course given Cunliffe's power base now, he's in a good position to get his kind of people on board, further strengthening his hand).

So what kind of people will he want? In other words, what direction is he likely to take the party? If his new left-speak had been new in this primary, we could say it's a toos up. But to be fair, whilst he was regarded as being on the right of the party back in his early days, his vision of a reinvigorated left and hands-on government goes back a few years now, seemingly primarily inspired by the global financial crisis and the market failings that brought us the biggest economic catastrophe in several generations.

Perhaps Cunliffe greatest strength is that he understands the economics debate that's been going in since, has taken lessons from it and can articulate a different economic world-view than the one that's dominated New Zealand since Roger Douglas was Finance Minister.

We'll be able to colour in that outline and chart that direction in the next few weeks as he switches from primary-mode to all-voter mode. But he needs to do that quick smart.

What Cunliffe has to think about rapidly now is first impressions. I've blogged before that for all the surfing-guitar-playing-humanitarian-man image, Shearer fluffed his lines; he wasn't ready to create the right kind of impression. Cunliffe can't afford to do the same and needs to find the 25 words or less image he wants to create with the majority of voters who don't pay much attention.

Judging by the two interviews I've heard today is on the right track – he's looking at ease being authoritative and stressing the need for unity. Unity has to be the first job.

But he needs to stop talking as if he's addressing the party faithful. The call for unity now is not so he can lead the party, but so that the party can lead the country. He needs to talk from the voters' viewpoint and say he understands all New Zealanders won't put up with squabbles. He also needs to wind down the John Key attacks.

That work a treat with the base, but Key remains a defiantly popular Prime Minister with most New Zealanders. They don't want to hear talk of battleground and fights and how he'll expose and bring down a guy they think isn't too bad a bloke. Most New Zealanders want to hear about service, solutions and how Labour will prove itself worthy again (a message Goff didn't want to sell and Shearer couldn't). A little humility will go a long way; a little name-calling will go a long way too, just in the other direction.

His other big job is choosing other people's jobs. Grant Robertson is likely to stay as deputy – that says unity and is of little cost of Cunliffe. Can Cunliffe trust him? Well, Robertson wants his job, but he's also an honourable man long of talent and short of knives. Shane Jones had earnt himself an economic portfolio.

There's a log jam around Education, you'd think. Hipkins has done well in that area, Robertson would fit perfectly and it would give him a prominent position and plenty to keep him busy, but then Shearer would go well there also. Shearer could get Foreign Affairs, but of all the ABCs, Goff has been best at his day job and you'd be loathe to walk away from that experience. Cosgrove could well be moved back, but that's a potential waste and would also need some balancing to avoid accusations of revenge. Calre Curran presumably will drop.

Phil Twyford is an unsung hero in Housing and should be left there. Iain Lees-Galloway may be one of the best rewarded, given his early support of Cunliffe.

The other reason Lees-Galloway might jump forward is that Labour would do well to show a commitment to the regions. National is weak on regional development while Labour needs to target some provinical seats (given it only has the one in Palmerston North).

To the winner, the spoils. There's plenty there left to debate. And I'll end here because I'm going to be doing that soon... I'm on The Panel with Jim Mora this afternoon, and I'm sure this will be a big part of the chat.