"It's all about Phil now," observed one senior Labour MP summing up last weekend's Labour Party conference, unquestionably the most significant in a generation and arguably one of the party's most successful ever.

Last year's gathering in Rotorua saw Phil Goff start to pull down the curtain on the Helen Clark-Michael Cullen years. This year's in Auckland was well and truly Goff's show. Its significance lay in its radical turbo-charging of Labour's post-Rogernomics prescription which had guided the party during the near two decades following its landslide defeat in 1990. That prescription was sort of free market, sort of not.

Labour's new economic masterplan is far more hands-on - and makes no apology for being so. This is not some panicked response to Labour's and Goff's sluggish poll ratings. A year in gestation, the economic framework document released at the conference is the blueprint to guide Labour over the next decade and beyond.

The work of Labour's policy council, the document had the conference buzzing. Here was something of real substance. Here was Labour's future. Unwanted distractions like Chris Carter were the past. The conference could not be bothered to get bothered about him. The only impact of that sorry saga was to lift the volume of the applause for Goff - a belated reminder that the party and the cause are always bigger than the individual. Unless their name is Winston Churchill or Winston Peters, the mavericks, rebels and malcontents always end up the losers.

Despite several false starts - notably Goff's inexplicable, misguided and clumsy attempt last year to play the race card in classic Peters fashion on the foreshore and seabed - the Labour leader now has a robust new paradigm with which to fight the election he must win, or get very close to winning, to remain leader.

The adoption of a far more interventionist style of economic management sits comfortably in the Labour tradition. It sits less easily with Goff's one-time adherence to the policies of Sir Roger Douglas - something that National will exploit.

Not surprisingly, conference delegates not only liked the new direction, they could not get enough of it. The economics workshops had an atmosphere of a religious revival meeting. Some had waited long for the day that Labour would finally dump on free-market solutions, even though the party had largely estranged itself from such policies.

The party's opponents claim the revamp has Labour veering to the left, rather than going forward. There is an element of that. Labour is no longer hung up about policy consistency, however. Its new pragmatism has, in one leap, freed Goff from having to try to look different within the shadow cast by National.

The new framework clearly differentiates Labour from the old enemy. It is also a clear break from the Clark-Cullen approach, but still identifiably Labour.

The delegates liked the new model even more because it has thrown a very large cat among the electoral pigeons. Caught off-guard, National does not have a ready answer.

Timing is everything in politics. Labour's economic policy framework has surfaced just as the state of the economy and the cost of living are moving very much centre-stage.

With voters leaning leftwards in this month's local body elections plus some encouraging signs for Labour in one or two recent opinion polls, the political game has suddenly changed. The conference could sniff the possibility of victory next year - something inconceivable just weeks ago.

The big question for Labour was the extent to which National would respond, if at all.

When MPs trekked into the House on Tuesday afternoon for the first session of the week, Phil Goff's political advisers were clustered around their office TVs waiting and watching.

The day before, Key had predictably slammed Labour's shift as a lurch to the left which put Labour on the "Road to Stalin".

Parliament, however, is the best barometer of the state of play between the two major parties.

But it wasn't until the following day that National really went after Labour in the free-ranging Wednesday general debate.

For Labour, it was a sign that National sees its opponent's new thrust as a threat. The problem for National is that Labour can now put up policies which National, for ideological reasons, will have to denounce as populist, but which may prove extremely popular.

There are plenty of examples in the policy "framework" paper beyond tighter controls on overseas investment, getting monetary policy to take account of the value of the dollar and the removal of GST off fresh fruit and vegetables, all of which had already been flagged.

Take electricity generation. National has a complicated system which seeks to limit price rises by subjecting the three state-owned generators to theoretical market conditions. Labour may just cut to the chase and amalgamate those generators into one.

Among other things, Labour would also look at turning Kiwibank into a full domestic bank helping small and medium business enterprises, put more onus on the public service buying New Zealand-made products and services, and restore workers' rights to collective bargaining to those shut out to it, but who want it.

Underpinning the new policy framework is the view that the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s have not worked. New Zealand's productivity has not improved; the income gap between New Zealand and its competitors has increased.

"It is becoming increasingly obvious that New Zealand needs to move beyond the current economic formula that has Government on the sideline," the paper says. Calling for a more strategic approach to lifting New Zealand's game, it says only a bold change in the direction of economic policy can deliver a high skill, high paid, high value economy. It notes other countries assist economic stakeholders to achieve national objectives. Why not New Zealand?

Labour believes there is now enough backing across business, industry and academia for such a change; that there are now plenty of credible figures who will willingly praise what it is doing.

The framework's genesis was two strands of work done by the caucus economic committee and the wider Labour Party's policy council. These were brought together in an internal paper entitled "Renewing the Kiwi Dream" - elements of which were used in Goff's keynote speech to the conference last Sunday.

Goff is a member of the policy council while his deputy Annette King chairs it. However, much of the work was done by the council's economic sub-committee which his co-chaired by finance spokesman David Cunliffe and Jordan Carter, one of a very bright bunch of youngish activists and thinkers within the party.

While Goff and King have been around since the 1980s, the development of the new economic framework reflects a changing of the guard below the leadership. Cunliffe and economic development spokesman David Parker now wield the behind-the-scenes influence once enjoyed by the likes of Michael Cullen, Steve Maharey and Pete Hodgson.

Others involved in the revamp included Shayne Jones, Lianne Dalziel, Stuart Nash, Clayton Cosgrove, Trevor Mallard along with the policy director in Goff's office, Marcus Ganley, another rising star.

One inference taken from this paradigm shift is that John Key's crowding of the centre has left Goff and company no option but to take a step leftwards to differentiate Labour from National and hope the punters will buy it come election-time.

But neither Goff, King, Cunliffe nor Parker could be categorised as doyens of the left.

Moreover, if the shift was motivated solely by expedience then it would likely fail to convince voters.

As much as anything, the revamp has been an intellectual exercise in shaping policy which takes account of looming problems such as inter-generational equity as the baby-boomers retire, asset inequality, fairness in the tax system and savings policy, the latter being one area where Labour intends to take the lead going into next year's election.

Arguably, the policies that will be grafted on to the framework, such as enhancing savings, and which will see a Labour Government play an "active" role as against what Cunliffe calls National's "passive" stance, would not be out of place in Singapore, a country which no-one would term as being leftist.

Labour may now have a fresh(er) vision. But Goff still has to sell it. That means breaking down the seemingly impenetrable communication barrier that exists between him and the public.

So Goff is undergoing something of an image makeover. That was evident at the conference by way of a huge banner hanging above the stage in the Aotea Centre's auditorium.

Staring down at conference delegates was a larger-than-life cheesy-grinned Goff in white open-neck shirt, his hands thrust deep in the trouser pockets of his smart-casual black suit.

This is Relaxed Goff the party wants the public to see - not Robo-Goff. It is Approachable Goff. Empathetic Goff. And, most importantly for now, Listening Goff and I Admit Labour Made Mistakes Goff.

It was the Kiwi-bloke version of the air-brushed portraits employed by communist regimes to glorify the supposed triumphs of their leaders.

In Goff's case, however, there is no danger of him developing a cult of personality. It has been an uphill struggle for his minders to reveal to the world that he has one.

"We did not have to prove he is a good politician, but that he is also a good bloke," says one source who has worked closely with Goff.

"It was the opposite for National with Key."

Goff readily acknowledges he still has work to do in terms of the public feeling they know him - and thus feeling confident about voting for him.

In terms of presentation, Casual Goff is major advance on Biker Goff - the persona who arrived at last year's conference on a borrowed Triumph motorcycle to show in the words of his minders "that he wasn't just a suit".

The re-packaging is also about removing the hectoring, lecturing tone that has marked his speeches and statements. Sounding authoritive does not require ear-blistering vocal delivery.

The re-imaging has a way to go yet. What was also crucial about last weekend in terms of Goff getting his message across to the electorate was the conference's ringing endorsement of his leadership - he received a standing ovation before he had even uttered a word during Friday night's opening session.

That has lifted the cloud of doubt that has lingered over his leadership since he was handed the job by Cabinet colleagues without contest nearly two years ago.

While there had been little question within the Labour caucus that Goff is the only viable option as leader to fight next year's election, continued speculation in the media meant the public was unsure of how long he might last.

That distraction out of the way, Labour's hope is that voters will now start listening to what he has to say. He may still get only one shot at becoming prime minister. But at least he now has some powerful ammunition.

Phil Goff
* Age: 57

* Married to: Mary.

* Children: Three adult children.

* Career: Labour politician, joined party in 1969. Entered Parliament in 1981, after earning an MA with first class honours. Won a place at the cabinet table in 1984 aged 31. Has held education, foreign affairs, trade, justice, corrections and a swag of other portfolios.

* Best of times: Becoming Labour leader in 2008, after the defeat of Helen Clark's Government.

* Worst of times: Being thrown out of the safe Labour seat of Roskill in 1990 as an angry electorate took revenge on the party's embrace of right wing policies. Goff was re-elected in 1993.

* Goff says:(about expelled MP Chris Carter): "What has damaged Chris is the huge sense of entitlement and an approach that has been totally self-centred and narcissistic."

* Carter says: "I can name 17 current MPs that have discussed with me personally their concerns about the current party leadership and the need to change the leader."