Labour: down and out?

Can it get any worse for Labour leader David Cunliffe or, conversely, any better for Prime Minister John Key, six months out from the September 20 general election?

The results of the Herald DigiPoll survey released this week put Labour's support down to 29.5%, the lowest it has been since Mr Cunliffe took over the leadership from David Shearer in September last year, and Mr Cunliffe's individual support down to 11.1%, lower than the worst DigiPoll rating of former leader David Shearer (of 12.4%).

The results will be frustrating and concerning for the Labour Party and Mr Cunliffe. His popularity has taken a major dive from the early days of his promotion (where he polled 37.7% in a DigiPoll survey).

He has also been criticised for his performance in the House, where deputy leader David Parker, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones are the Labour MPs most visibly making an impact and confronting the National-led Government on issues. Even in election year, Labour seems to be stuck in the one role, that of attacking and denigrating, while failing to offer viable alternatives. Many of its policy details have failed to gain traction, been overshadowed or forgotten, and it has backtracked on flagship ones such as removing the GST on fruit and vegetables.

In contrast, National's popularity remains strong (50.8%) and it seems Mr Key can do little wrong - his personal popularity is up to 66.5%, his best second-term rating, albeit down from first-term highs of more than 70%. And even with the fallout from Judith Collins' Chinese business meetings, the Government's continued asset sales push despite their substantially reduced revenue, controversy over the SkyCity deal and illegal spying, several contentious education sector issues, privacy breaches, and continued heartache and frustration for many Christchurch residents still battling with post-quake bureaucracy.

How can National remain so popular, Labour must wonder?

National is reaping the rewards of a ''rock star'' economy, but the ''key'' to its success is certainly in no small part to its ''rock star'' prime minister, whose personal invitation to visit the Queen and Balmoral and holiday golf with US President Barack Obama and the like put him on cosy terms with global notaries, but whose language and relaxed, down-to-earth style and attitude also have genuine appeal to the average New Zealander.

Labour, meanwhile, has struggled to find a charismatic leader since Helen Clark. Phil Goff, David Shearer and now David Cunliffe - likeable, capable or intelligent as they may be - have not made an impact against their formidable National foe. The party, too, has failed to engage voters, and indeed to clearly identify who its voters are. It has major work to do to regain its popularity base, many of whom were surely among the record numbers who didn't vote at the last election and seem unlikely to again this year. Precious votes are being lost to the Greens (up in the DigiPoll to 13.1%, their highest polling since the 2011 election).

On its latest polling result, National could govern alone. When a week is often a long time in politics, it may seem like anything is still possible in six months. In reality, unless Mr Cunliffe can pull something out of the hat soon, it seems increasingly unlikely Labour will make it to Government in September.

If that is the case, it seems inevitable another leadership battle will be fought and the same issues will arise as in the last one - namely is the country ready for a gay party leader and potential prime minister in Grant Robertson? If not, who will lead the party? Could David Parker be convinced to stand? Shane Jones? Will the new wave - the likes of Jacinda Ardern or even David Clark - be considered for leadership roles? Will Mr Cunliffe and Labour stand up and deliver, or will party supporters be subjected to more indecision, infighting and inaction?

If so, the real loser is New Zealand, because a strong, viable opposition is vital to democracy - and to offer real and meaningful choice for voters.

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