David Cunliffe is in a good space as he heads into this weekend's annual Labour Party conference. Seven weeks after winning the leadership, he looks comfortable in the role and, unlike his predecessor, appears confident on television. His party is also enjoying a new-found consistency in polls. If the 38 per cent support for Labour recorded in a Herald-DigiPoll survey immediately after his elevation has not been sustained, polling of around 34 to 35 per cent in three subsequent polls, the latest yesterday's Roy Morgan survey, is a substantial advance from the party's 28 per cent backing at the last election. But if a Labour-Greens coalition is now well placed to challenge strongly next year, further steps are required to enhance its prospects.
Most importantly, this will entail new thinking. Labour's current appeal to the electorate rests on two strands. First, it has spent considerable time and effort responding to hot-button issues identified as causing hardship to prospective supporters.
The property market, and the plight of first-home buyers in particular, is one of these. Thus there has been an array of responses ranging from KiwiBuild low-cost housing to a capital gains tax to Mr Cunliffe's promise to dump the Reserve Bank home loan restrictions for novice buyers. The cost of power has also been singled out, prompting the plan to set up a single buyer to purchase all electricity generation.
People also know what Labour is opposed to. In the field of education, for example, there have been rejections of charter schools and national standards. What is not known is what Labour proposes in arenas that are always important election battlegrounds. In the area of health, for instance, what are its plans, especially in troublesome areas such as care for the elderly and mental health? How does it plan to create jobs? What is its thinking on social welfare? And, if charter schools and national standards are not the answer, how does it intend to tackle the long tail of under-achieving pupils?
All this requires Labour to mark out its own territory. For inspiration, it does not have to look far. The last Labour administration was notable for innovative thinking. KiwiSaver, the Cullen Fund and Working for Families were among the products of this. Their enduring value can be measured by the fact that all have survived under the present Government, subject to tinkering.
The latest Roy Morgan poll suggests, unlike the earlier Fairfax Media Ipsos and One News-Colmar Brunton surveys, that a Labour-Greens coalition could govern, with 46.5 per cent support. Such results, and Mr Cunliffe's assured demeanour, will be going quite some way towards winning over the doubters in his parliamentary team. This, in turn, improves his chances of convincing the electorate that he could head a stable government. It is also helpful to Mr Cunliffe that National continues to be ensnared in foul-ups. The most recent, involving John Banks, the Act leader, led the Prime Minister to talk up the potential of Colin Craig's Conservative Party as a serviceable ally after the 2014 election.
But Labour cannot rely on National suffering the sort of erosion in support that typically affects a second-term government. Indeed, whatever National's travails and the individual problems of Act, United Future and the Maori Party, it continues to poll well. Mr Cunliffe cannot afford to think he will sleep-walk to victory. Innovative policies in key areas that resonate widely, not least with voters who have have left the party in droves for National or New Zealand First, will be essential. Therein lies the key to further boosting Labour's prospects.