The inevitable invocation of the Kiwi Dream at Labour's Congress in Wellington this weekend contrasts with the sheer nightmare the party has had in the past fortnight.

It will require a huge effort by leader Andrew Little to lift the spirits of his party in his Sunday speech, because first he has to lift his own.

He will have to forget the debacle over Willie Jackson's candidacy, the unhelpful floating of "alternative policy" by Kelvin Davis, and his own woeful media performances this week and convince himself that all is well.

Little's first speech to a party conference as leader, in Palmerston North 2015, was a triumph but conditions were very different.

Advertisement

The party membership had had a year to adjust to the fact that again their most favoured candidate, Grant Robertson, had not won the leadership contest.

Little had already succeeded in bringing together a divided caucus and there was plenty of goodwill.

It was a very personally focused speech in which he was presenting himself, his family background, and inter-weaving it with Labour values.

He may have felt the pressure but the stakes were not high. There were two years to go to the election and he was up against a leader who showed signs of polarising people.

The pressure now is immense by comparison and the next two weeks - this weekend's conference and Labour's response to the Budget on May 25 - will be a critical performance period for Little.

He is up against a leader who is not as polarising as Key and competes with Labour in the social justice space.

Little has to sound like a potential winner, and that could be hard when many in his half caucus don't believe they can win.

Little will make much of the true new stars on his list, as he should, and he is expected to give more detail on its policy opposing negative gearing on rental properties.

But Little has made things difficult for himself as the next big test approaches.

The public debacle over Jackson's candidacy and list ranking was one thing.
But the internal damage is where it must have dented Little's confidence.

His decision to recruit Jackson was met with resistance in February, his advocacy for Jackson to be given a high list place was denied by the list ranking committee (effectively the party's New Zealand Council) and then moves by Little to get the council to reconsider the ranking were abandoned when it became clear that Little was going to lose.

Party activists will defend their actions against Little's project by claiming it was democracy at work and that the leader is just a member.

Little's people say no one will remember come election time in September.

But every small blip makes it that much harder to make up ground.

The shemozzle over Jackson has undermined Little's authority within the party as well as outside.

Labour could do a lot more to help improve its own fortune. The big test starts now for Andrew Little.

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

He has to do a patch-up job on that at the weekend as well as attempt to look like an alternative Prime Minister.

It would help Little's cause if he had a refresher course on how to answer simple media questions with a simple answer.

Ninety per cent of the time he handles media perfectly well. But once in a while he swerves into a cul-de-sac and drives round and round in circles and frustration boils over.

Inexplicably on Tuesday, in interviews on RNZ and in pre-caucus standup with political reporters, he could not give a simple answer about what happens to the existing charter schools under a Labour Government.

National wasted no time in mocking Little in the House over the fact that his own captain's pick, Willie Jackson, continues to support charter schools in defiance of Labour policy.

He looked beaten and humiliated in front of his own troops.

Whatever the pros and cons of recruiting Jackson in the first place - and the cons seem to be winning - it may be best that Jackson is kept in a straitjacket and gag until the election.

The advent of social media and the 24-minute news cycle means you cannot mouth off the way he does and did when he was an Alliance MP and get away with it.

However, the damage of the past fortnight belies the party's achievements of the past year.

The party has a plan, with election organisers in place and a new style of targeted campaigning and messaging that has had a dress rehearsal in two byelections.

It has a new deputy leader in Jacinda Ardern and some prospect of rejuvenation through the party list with the likes of Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Jan Tinetti, Willow Jean Prime and Kiri Allan.

The party organisation is in much better shape than it was at the 2011 election and at the 2014 election, although its polling is stubbornly hovering about the 30 per cent mark (Colmar Brunton).

But a better comparison would be how it compares to Labour in 1999, after three terms of a National-led Government, and to National in 2008, after three terms of a Labour-led Government. And the comparisons are not favourable.

In 1999 Labour and the Alliance combined were almost 49 per cent to National in the low 30s a couple of months before tipping National out of office (DigiPoll).

In May 2008, National was over 50 per cent and Labour and the Greens combined were in the low 40s before National took office.

New Zealand First was down to 2 per cent in the wake of a donation scandal and didn't make it back to Parliament until 2011.

Everything points to New Zealand First holding the balance of power next election and determining Labour's fate.

But Labour could do a lot more to help improve its own fortune.

The big test starts now for Andrew Little.