Does National need to turn the Key from bland to bold?

Labour’s first task in the election campaign was to get noticed. It did, with two contentious policies which might lose it votes on the specifics but win some on the getting-noticed front.

Anyone who actually watched Friday’s opening video would have seen an imaginative presentation, combining the young (for example, Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern) and the traditional (for example, Damien O’Connor who blasted the party list as dominated by gays and unions) — and even with Phil Goff in it.

Largely invisible now under the radar of day-to-day politics Labour has some depth. That is likely to become more visible next parliamentary term.

Labour’s aim was to contrast policy with personality, to be strategic (it calls that “leadership”), not tactical. Goff can’t out-popular super-popular John Key. But if Labour gets credits for substance and style — and the commentariat did in fact do that in the first few days — Goff might possibly be viewed differently by voters in the head-to-head debates. (Last night’s was after this was written.)

Labour went into last week with some indications National had taken a hit on Rena because voters thought Key did not take it seriously enough fast enough and so his star for a moment shone less brilliantly. TV3’s poll found exactly that hit.

It may not actually amount to anything real but it bucked up morale and Labour MPs were more upbeat by Sunday. Morale is an important ingredient in political contest.

On the other side of that contest the mood was smooth and calm. The video was of a stilted Key at a too-obviously-make-believe public meeting. The rally launch on Sunday — many empty seats and little razzamatazz (aside from unrelated pre-match entertainment) — featured a wooden Key on a distant stage, not looking or sounding the movie star, even of the Hobbit variety.

To this blandness National added a policy choice for its launch that did not strike out on new ground but in essence responded to Labour’s relentless “no asset sales” billboards.

Key’s future investment fund, with initial investments going to modernise schools, presents the state-owned enterprise selldowns as developmental. The transparency promised for deposits into the fund and investments made out of it finesses opponents’ charges that the assets will be frittered in current spending.

And earmarking the first investment for schools muscled into Labour territory — but also was genuine Key, from his poor-suburb childhood and a resultant desire to lift life chances for less-well-off kids.

It also underlines National’s charge that for Labour to fund similar investments in schools it would have to borrow more. The SOE sales, while over time losing the same amount in dividends as they bring in upfront, nevertheless do provide a pool of capital and so debt need not grow now.

The schools focus also is future-oriented. Education is investment in future human capability which is economically enhancing.

So it is a credible riposte to Labour’s “no asset sales” pitch and likely to resonate more with voters than saying the proceeds would go into water storage and irrigation, which would look farmer-friendly and coldly economic.

Will National also invest some of the proceeds in innovation? This is one of the big underlying questions in this campaign, even if not one that will switch many votes.

Labour said it would lift innovation spending at its conference in May by saying it would reintroduce tax credits. During the campaign it will add more policy. One idea it has discussed is innovation bonds.

National’s innovation policy will come in a week or two. There have been hints of more funds, just as there were a year ago before being scotched by the February earthquake.

A second big question will be “welfare”. Labour will flesh out its “child-centred” social policy. National adopted an actuarial-based investment approach in its youth policy in August. Will it extend that to early childhood or dog-whistle layabout imagery?

But underlying the policy contest is a numbers game. The ideal outcome for Labour (in the likely event it cannot cobble a coalition) is for National to end up needing both ACT and the Maori party for a majority. That could be near-unworkable.

ACT is polling at a two-seat level and John Banks needs National votes in Epsom to secure any seats for ACT. What if National figures ACT is not a long-term partner and eases back on the vote-Banks line because this time it is likely to govern whether ACT is there or not?

The Maori party also has problems. Neither co-leader will contest the 2014 election. There are promising young people high on the list but they are not likely to enter Parliament on November 26.

Given those political management challenges, Key really needs an outright majority — that is, 48 per cent or more. One way is to trade on his popularity and not make waves and count on Labour losing badly. Another is to be in command, with all the risks — and rewards — that entails.