Sssh. Don't tell anyone, but Labour's actually building a coherent plan for running the country. Unfortunately for them, no-one can see past its repeated mis-steps
Pick your parable: from the Jews it's "Do not be wise in words — be wise in deeds". The Chinese say "talk doesn't cook rice". For Americans, it was Benjamin Franklin who declared that "Well done is better than well said". It all comes down to the same point – actions speak louder than words. And if Labour wants to have any chance in the election, someone needs to drum that into the skulls of the party leadership quick-smart.
The latest round of polls are looking dire for Labour and the left in general. They've come at the worst possible time in the cycle, with John Key having his moment of glory in the White House and David Cunliffe trapped in a Donghua Liu hell, albeit one mostly not of his own making. But they are what they are, and with Labour sinking below 30 percent in our Poll of Polls for the first time since early 2012, what they are is potentially fatal.
The smell of failure is hard to scrub off in just three months.
The tragedy for Labour is that in word at least it is looking more like a government-in-waiting than it has for years. Its Fiscal Plan released this week joined up many – but not all – of the dots in its economic policy. What we see is a cohesive and politically sound vision for running the country, one that few, if any, previous Oppositions can match in its thorough thought and costings.
It offers what National, for all its rhetoric, is not – a vision of how a government might grow out of recession and begin to rebalance the economy. On their own, there are good arguments against a capital gains tax, against increased taxes, and against the rush to pay off debt. There are questions around Kiwibuild. But put them together and you see a fully formed policy package that offer a mix of both the orthodox and the bold.
It's telling that National's budget this year was rightly described as Labour-lite, with its focus on social services and nudging up spending. So how fascinating that Labour's "alternative budget" is so blatantly "National-lite" with its author David Parker so eager to show his fiscal restraint, to minimise tax increases and stress Labour's economic cred.
National's "tax and spend" response sounded pre-recorded, as if they'd ignored the document and simply stuck to to the mantra of all good centre-right governments everywhere.
The subliminal message in the words Labour has written is exactly the one it needs the electorate to hear: "Thanks National for holding the fort during the GFC. No major harm done. But it's time for some leadership and action, so we'll take it from here. Frankly, you don't have it in you".
Problem is, while Labour thinks those are the words its saying, what voters are hearing – or more importantly, seeing – is "not ready, not ready, not ready". Labour's words make it look like a government-in-waiting, yet its deeds say anything but.
Why the disconnect? Sure, Labour can moan about how it's been harshly treated by some questionable reporting this week, but it needs to clean its own house.
While National's disciplined leadership sticks to its master-plan – education in January... health in the budget... tax cuts, law and order or whatever it may be at the conference this weekend... and so on, Labour seems to be reacting to one crisis or claim after another. It's swinging at low balls.
Leader David Cunliffe is all over the place. In 2011, Cunliffe was Labour's best campaigner – those who damn him for Labour's poor campaign that year at best aren't able to see it from the voters' point of view and at worst are ABCers determined to scapegoat him regardless. Yet he has regressed significantly since. The primary race was meant to provide the party with a new leader who was fighting fit and on the front foot. Yet for whatever reason he went into his shell over the summer and lost momentum; New Zealanders got their first impression then and weren't convinced. He's yet to force them to reconsider.
And when it comes to laying blame, it's hard to look past him and his team. Mistakes at the first big policy announcement of the year, over-reach with his "leafy suburbs" criticism of Key's wealth, repeating one-liners at stand-ups like a junior MP lacking the confidence to have a grown-up conversation, mis-filed letters and repeated uncertainty over policy. This week's mix-up over oil v dolphins is woeful, especially given it's not the first time he's stumbled over where Labour stands when it comes to environment v exploitation.
Is it poor backroom support? Too much advice? Too much time being spent on factions or internal issues? Too much gotcha politics and not enough time spent on how he'd help New Zealanders do that bit better? I don't know, but those deeds mean that even voters who might be interested in the policies, are struggling to see his incarnation of Labour as the right crowd to make it happen.
And there's another issue, and that's the fear of coalition. How much are the poll problems Labour's own and how much are they concern over the role Internet-Mana might play? While it's impossible to tell cause and effect from raw data, Labour's drop in the past month coincides with the appearance of Internet-Mana on Labour's left.
For all that the new party might boost turn-out and eliminate wasted vote on the centre-left, there's a risk that centrist swing voters are wary of Internet-Mana's place in a Labour-led government; Labour might want to work out a strategy on that rather rapidly.
Because in brief, it can't afford many more horror weeks; time is short. It needs to marry its deeds to its words and somehow convince voters to take a second look at the party with a fresh pair of eyes.