OPINION: In Labour's inner sanctum they say the worst is past. That the low point came a couple of weeks back when the polls were bad and leader David Cunliffe was fighting off charges of hypocrisy over secret donors to his leadership fighting fund.
The public polls are no better, with the gap between Labour and National hovering at 20 percentage points in some - a chasm which even the addition of the Green and NZ First support cannot bridge - and the latest survey putting them at a morale-sapping 29.5 per cent.
But Cunliffe and his inner team are talking a confident game. They say their internal polling has them at 34 per cent and the polls will bounce around. With six months to run until polling day they are rolling out policy, starting with Cunliffe's "economic upgrade" scene-setter and a multi-pronged forestry plan aimed at boosting local wood processing. And then of course there were the successful hits on the reputations of two key ministers, Judith Collins and Hekia Parata over the past two weeks.
There may be an element of whistling in the dark but it's still clear Labour has a mountain to climb before September 20, especially up against such a popular prime minister as John Key.
So can Labour still win? And what can it do to give itself the best chance?
Auckland University political marketing expert Jennifer Lees-Marshment says it is a hard task and six months is not long, but in politics "you never say never". Key may get too arrogant or make a major mistake.
But Labour lacked a distinctive message especially if it wanted to bring back Labour voters who left it in 2008 and 2011. She sees the richest pickings among lower middle class, professional and aspirational voters who feel they are not getting ahead. While a broad policy platform is essential, the key messages should be narrower; maybe three issues to convey an alternative brand that would offer middle voters a better quality of life, more cash in their pockets and a vision to take the country forward.
At the same time it must present as an alternative government - with the ability to deliver. So policies must be soundly costed, and Labour's team must demonstrate its managerial ability.
Cutting back on attacks on National, and conceding not everything the government does is wrong, showed respect and voters liked that. "Opposing makes you look like an Opposition."
Handling the issue of a coalition with Greens is part of the mix - something highlighted by the spat between Shane Jones and the party over whether to attack the Greens or treat them as a natural ally.
Lees-Marshment believes too much co-operation risks diluting the brands of both parties. From Labour's point of view the ideal would be one or two areas where they can have a joint position but with "a double edge". For example a strong public transport initiative could be sold as both good for the environment and a way to make it easier and cheaper for people to get to work.
Former Labour cabinet minister John Tamihere - now offside with the party - said Cunliffe "has an Everest to climb".
"They need to organise themselves as a team to be assertive and hungry for the Treasury benches."
Although Cunliffe was hungry enough he lacked the ability to connect, said Tamihere, whose reading of Cunliffe is that he is capable and smart but struggles to convince people he is on their side.
Compounding the problem, Labour's activists did not reflect the mainstream voter pool Labour once represented. "It's out of whack with the electorate," Tamihere said.
Six months out from polling day, Labour simply did not look like an alternative government.
But there were opportunities to be exploited such as struggling families being "gouged" by price rises from banks, power and petrol companies.
Labour was offering help in some areas, but its baby bonus package - while well-intentioned - was poorly managed and poorly expressed.
Tamihere believes one-off policies like Labour's Working for Families package or its 2005 interest-free student loans promise would not work any more. These days voters were looking for a broader, more cogent, package. Its policy platform need to focus on the basics; health, welfare, justice, education and housing; and steer away from "identity politics" that pandered to minority groups.
He did not rule out Cunliffe being prime minister by Christmas, but felt "there is just something not there".
"What he says is great, but it doesn't resonate."
By contrast Key was grey and said little but it was hard not to like him.
"When you are being led by a bloke that does not engender antipathy . . . apart from [among] hard-arsed Labour activists and greenies, you have to have someone who can take him out."
National was well-funded, well-advised, "slick" and presented a small target.
"That [29.5 per cent for Labour] was probably a rogue poll but it's slash your wrists territory six months out . . . Polls like that just get [funders'] chequebooks to close."
Despite the critique of Cunliffe, neither Tamihere, nor Lees-Marshman, mentions a change of leader as an option.
Over in Labour's "war room" they are working on a two-pronged strategy to close the gap on the Right bloc. The first is to get out the non-vote from 2008 and 2011. It believes just 200,000 of the 800,000 who stayed away in 2011 could decide the election.
Its new campaign manager David Talbot, with a background in polling and social media, is a key player here.
The second is to focus sharply on inequality and whether financially-stretched voters are benefiting from the improving economy - or feel the rewards are going to the few per cent at the top.
In fact "Get your fair share, vote Labour" is not a bad first rough cut of its likely election theme.
Its promise to curb power prices, take the top off house price rises through a big building programme and a capital gains tax, and its $60 a week "baby bonus" fit that bill. A harder sell is its promise to make long-term changes to prepare the economy for the post-dairy boom, post-Christchurch rebuild - which it contrasts with National's "minding the shop".
The capital gains tax is part of that, as is monetary policy reform, a boost to Kiwisaver and the return of tax breaks for research and regional development.
On the other side of the coin Labour is trying to paint National as dyed-in-the-wool crony capitalist helping its "mates" first. It is the narrative behind its attacks on Judith Collins' links to Oravida, the Sky City pokies-for-casino deal, cash for the Bluff smelter, tax cuts, hand-outs to the film industry and even the $400m subsidy for irrigation.
From Labour's point of view it adds up to the coherent policy platform which Lees-Marshment and Tamihere say is crucial. But at this stage it still seems a million miles from the simple shortlist Lees-Marshment thinks is crucial to a long-odds fightback by Labour.
- Sunday Star Times
Did the Key v Cunliffe debate change your vote?Related story: Support slips for National and John Key
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