However excruciating to progressives the prospect of John Key smiling, waving and yeah-nahing his way to a fourth term, nothing has changed in the ten months since the last election to suggest any other eventuality.

Despite a considerable souring of economic sentiment, Labour, under Andrew Little, has barely moved in the polls since last year's historic drubbing. His personal popularity lags behind predecessors David Cunliffe and David Shearer - and Little is more than 20 points adrift of where John Key stood at a comparable juncture in Helen Clark's third term.

Little is no ideologue; nor does he play one for the cameras like Cunliffe. Instead, his animating worldview is one of pessimism. He is gambling that voters are change-averse, grumpy and fearful of the future.

It started with the rollback of a proposed new capital gains tax (CGT) - a policy with more supporters than Labour at the last election. Was Little's reasoning that capital gains in NZ should continue to receive preferential treatment, and that wage and salary earners should subsidise those fortunate enough to earn a living from interest, rental income and dividends? Of course not.


Abandoning the CGT was not grounded in any such principle, let alone ideology. It was politics, plain and simple. Little and his advisers see an electorate skeptical of big ideas and susceptible to scare campaigns of the kind National are certain to mount against a major new tax. The CGT reversal was just the first of numerous maneuvers that reflect this downbeat assessment of the public mood.

On the TPPA, Little's Labour has adopted an unapologetically protectionist stance. On the substance, Jane Kelsey may be right that you could drive a bus through the party's much-touted five preconditions to supporting the deal, but there's no mistaking Labour's desire to appear hostile. Why else would the frontbench feature so prominently at anti-TPPA rallies, or Labour press secretaries go out of their way to chastise journalists who fail to adequately emphasise Labour's opposition? The sound bites alone have been fierce; Health Spokesperson and deputy leader, Annette King, speculated that the impact of the TPPA on Pharmac will cost lives - inflammatory language that echoes Sarah Palin's warning of "death panels" under Obamacare.

It is no small matter for Labour to abandon decades of enthusiastic support for trade liberalisation, long seen by politicians across the spectrum as a key to New Zealand's current and future prosperity. And for whose benefit has Labour seemingly changed its mind? Far more than placard waving anti-globalization activists, Labour is targeting a broad cross-section of voters they believe have come to see free trade as code for slashing jobs at home and lining the pockets of the already-rich.

Labour's release of leaked Auckland housing data in order to highlight the prevalence of Chinese-sounding surnames is perhaps the singular event of Andrew Little's tenure to date (full disclosure: I resigned from the party over the issue).

It was an audacious and high-risk gambit. Little himself conceded he knew it would attract accusations of racism - but public polls suggest it has fallen well short of being the game-changer Labour had hoped. Now, having alienated an important and growing minority, not to mention causing consternation among diehard supporters like myself, it's hard to avoid the conclusion Labour has sacrificed considerable moral authority for a measly return.

Perhaps nothing showcases Labour's defensive crouch better than its decision to oppose the referendum on the New Zealand flag. Of course, ditching the Union Jack in favour of a more indigenous, authentically Kiwi national standard is a symbolic act. It won't improve our schools or get young graduates into better paying jobs. But symbolism matters in politics, just as it did when Norman Kirk, in defiance of the French, sent a Cabinet Minster into the Mururoa nuclear test zone in 1973, or when David Lange donned a tuxedo to defend the country's nuclear-free stance at the Oxford Union.

Labour's historic mission is to forge a proudly independent national identity for New Zealand. It's depressing to see Labour cede this turf to John Key for negligible political gain.

Labour is mining economic anxiety for the prospect of electoral gain and, in the process, usurping National's historic role of defending, by any means necessary, what constitutes the status quo.

By playing up fears about the perils of globalisation or an impending Chinese invasion, Labour will encounter furious and vocal agreement. This shouldn't be mistaken for a groundswell. Voters don't reward parties who merely echo and reinforce feelings of despondency without offering real solutions.

Labour, in particular, thrives when it approaches the future with gusto, not trepidation. Merchants of doom and gloom might fill the airwaves, but they rarely win elections.

Phil Quin is a strategic communications consultant and runs the website