Flag Key away? Not yet. It depends on Labour

John Key has now twice been a figure of international fun. First, for ponying around. Now for his flag.

The Economist, a cheerleader for Key’s sort of economic policy, scoffed last Friday that “farce barely describes the process” for choosing a flag. “Many voters … find it distasteful that their country is being rebranded like a sagging brand of detergent.”

In short, a flag is not a brand. It is symbol which over time comes to signify national heritage, history and culture.

The Southern Cross symbolises our southern-ness. The Union Jack symbolises Key’s beloved monarchy and our long-past history as part of an empire.

There has long been a case for a symbol of the independent, bicultural not-British nation we are now — but done properly, not a slick “rebranding” a la Spark, and reflecting deeper constitutional change (which the country is not yet ready for).

Key has an incomplete sense of history, heritage and culture. He once (in)famously said New Zealand had not had a civil war.

He also did not grasp the international and domestic political dimensions of the refugee torrent earlier this year. His sudden flip last week looked like a Crosby/Textor moment.

So a year on from his extraordinary third election win his macro-personality is fraying a little. A flag “no” vote would fray it some more.

Add that to an economic slowdown and rising unemployment. A fourth win is looking less sure.

It is not clear yet whether the sharp negative turn in economic sentiment is measuring general bad news people are hearing or a change in their expectations for their own futures. If the latter, the polls will shift in six months or so.

So National’s continued strong average of 47.6% in four polls in August needs to be qualified. A couple of points drop would focus on Winston Peters as a fourth-term prop. New Zealand First has not yet levered Peters’ Northland by-election win into a nationwide provincial surge but in August it was holding steady at 7.6% which is not bad in a non-election year.

The bigger question is whether Labour and the Greens can climb out of their trough.

Attractive, modern new co-leader James Shaw has yet to kick up Green support. In August Greens were still around their 2014 election score.

And Labour? Will languishing Labour be Key’s best bet for a fourth term?

In August Labour averaged 30.3% — close to where it was in February and only 5% above its election disaster. Andrew Little has not fired Labour up the charts. Contrast Labour’s average 16% lead over National 12 months into National’s 1996-99 third term and National’s 5% lead over Labour a year into Labour’s 2005-08 third term even when still under Don Brash’s broken leadership.

Is something going on in Labour behind the scenes that might click next year?

There has been some organisational tightening, to improve linkages between the MPs and the wider party and between the leader’s office and the party head office through a leadership group. President Nigel Haworth insists there is a “degree of coordination that wasn’t there before”.

Fundraising, bitingly criticised by some MPs in last year’s campaign, is ahead of the plan set after the election reviews, Haworth says, and is to be revised up. Campaign procedures have been a focus, including resourcing regional “hub” organisers and sharpening ways to identify voters to target.

Haworth also says the party is widening its pool of support. Grant Robertson glumly said just after the election that Labour was not “part of the communities we live in”. Labour doesn’t have enough members or vocal sympathisers spreading the message out and feeding messages back in.

Many joined or rejoined as members for the 2014 leadership contest but now Labour has to re-enrol them. There has been some involvement of volunteers and wellwishers who don’t want to be members but collaborate on specific issues. Social housing in Wellington is one.

Business is also much more interested, sensing a possible change of government and so policy. Little, who as a practical union boss dealt with many in business, has hosted get-togethers. Robertson has a number of key businesspeople advising his “future of work commission”, which has now produced four discussion papers and will in February outline a policy “direction of travel” toward policy later in 2016.

So far policy has been more “no” than “yes”, much of it asserting national sovereignty more strongly than since 1984 in the context of foreign investment and trade policy.

The litmus test of the party’s modernising — or not — will be whether the policy platforms as they emerge next year are evidence of new thinking focused on outcomes (in the manner, if not the detail, of today’s compendious Productivity Commission social services report).

Another test will be close collaboration with the Greens built on the recent warming of personal relations.

The point for Little is that a three-term government needs deep foundations. A fraying Key would not be enough.