John Armstrong: National drops the beach cricket ball

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Smile so you look like a winner. Talk about what Labour will do when the party is re-elected. And don't worry about the polls.

So ran the advice from Labour's hierarchy to delegates during a closed-door strategy session at the party's weekend congress.

There was nothing phoney about the smiles on the faces of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen as congress proceedings wound up yesterday afternoon, however.

Having spent the weekend scaremongering about National's intentions in government, the Labour leadership could not believe its luck that John Key would go on TVNZ's Agenda programme and talk about National not selling state assets "in its first term".

Key's attempt to get privatisation off the election agenda only led to the obvious question: did that mean National would run a privatisation policy if it won a second term?

You can bet your life Labour will try to make it mean that. National's leader did go on to say that if his party did want to sell state-owned businesses in its second term, it would first seek a mandate to do so at the 2011 election. But that was a bit like Don Brash saying National would only remove the ban on nuclear-powered warships if it got public approval through a referendum.

Such talk keeps the issue alive. To kill the the privatisation bogey, Key could have used the "we have no plans to do such-and-such" line. Instead, he gave Labour fresh ammunition in its bid to break out of what Cullen calls the "Beach Cricket Syndrome". In beach cricket, everyone gets a turn at bat. Cullen means the electorate wants a change of government because it thinks it is time for one.

The double-digit gap between National and Labour in the polls cannot be explained away so easily. But Cullen is right in one respect. Voters have in part switched off Labour because they think it is doomed to defeat. Because they think that, the major parties' poll ratings are largely static. And because they're static, people think Labour is doomed.

Just how Labour busts this self-perpetuating loop was the big question hanging over the congress. Labour's election strategy is based on the belief it holds the advantage on leadership and that it has a proven track record of delivering on its promises.

It has rolled out fresh policy initiatives in order to take ownership of the "big issues", such as superannuation, climate change, infrastructure development and national identity. The repeated catch-cry at congress sessions is that Labour has "a plan for the future" and, by implication, National does not.

However, should the polls not budge, there were enough hints from the congress to suggest Labour reserves the option of running a far more negative "attack" campaign in order to frighten the wits out of what are termed "soft" National voters.

Labour accepts it is fighting against a strong public desire for a change of management, but it is sure the electorate does not want a change in direction. Labour therefore has to convince floating voters that a change of management will mean a change of direction.

That job is made considerably easier when National's leader offers a helping hand.

- NZ Herald

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