Labour in box seat -- for 2020.

Labour deputy Jacinda Ardern with leader Andrew Little. One of these two will be New Zealand's next Labour PM.  She'll be great. 

Labour deputy Jacinda Ardern with leader Andrew Little. One of these two will be New Zealand's next Labour PM.  She'll be great. 

As Labour delegates gather for the party's election-year Congress, there is reason for hope about its electoral prospects. But not this year. Not with Little. 

There are better grounds for optimism about Labour's electoral prospects that at any time since Helen Clark lost office.  

This is not to say I believe Andrew Little is set to become PM at the September election. He will not.  

Under Little, Labour will win between 28-32 percent of the party vote, but no more. Opinion polls, published or otherwise, have been remarkably stable over several election cycles and Labour cannot wrest free from the cage branded 26-32.  

An uninterrupted string of bad polls stretching back over a decade suggest this is not the usual ebb and flow of electoral fortune, but a new normal for Labour. Bluntly, their pool of voters and potential voters has shrunk to unsustainable levels for any major political party.

Whatever the reason — my own view: it stems from Labour's abandonment of provincial and rural New Zealand — it is hard to see how it can redress the structural insufficiency of their voting base in time for September since they have assiduously ignored doing so for a decade.  

Some readers will point out, no doubt in a flurry of delightful, colourful and well-researched tweets, that Labour and Little can and will win on 32 percent. If both the Greens and NZF win between 12 and 15 percent of the vote, the total non National pile grows to between 56 and 62 percent. That's not to mention the Māori Party, who might conceivably add a point or three, and perhaps a useful overhang.  

Andrew Little, not a man who screams ideological conviction, will offer whatever deals he deems necessary to win over NZ First. But I can't see Winston agreeing to share power with the Greens. He may at a pinch accept their cross-bench support to uphold a Little-Peters government.

If that's not a recipe for disaster, I need better recipe books.  

No, Peters will giddily toy with, but ultimately reject, a grand centre-left coalition. Instead, he will add his pile to National’s  — a straightforward two-party coalition backed by a comfortable parliamentary majority.

No need to flatter demanding cross-benchers. No need to sit on cabinet committees arguing the merits of Safe Schools with Chole Swarbrick.  No need for NZF to endanger their future electoral prospects by signing on to a governing agenda brimming with poison pills. Most importantly, however, Winston knows that such a three-headed coalition will be chaotic and, at best, short-lived.  

Winnie hasn't just seen this movie before; he was the auteur who wrote, directed and played most of the parts.

But Labour's prospects aren't as grim as all that. If you'd asked me twelve months ago, I might have gravely opined that the party faced possible extinction. That was, in hindsight, premature and silly.

In fact, I believe the ingredients are finally there for Labour to make a winning hand of opposition. There are three reasons for my upbeat assessment.  

Firstly, leadership. Labour will swing quickly behind a new leader in Jacinda Ardern. (I am told the affiliates won't step in to save Little, all but ruling out an unsightly grasp for reelection).  

Ardern is beloved by party members and supported by the powerful group of MPs who congregate around Grant Robertson. All in all, if Ardern puts her hand up, she will enjoy the most comprehensive mandate, and the most wide ranging factional support, since post-1996 Clark. In the critical six months after Labour's fourth consecutive defeat,

Ardern has the best chance in a generation to enact reforms to broaden and democratise Labour. If she dodges this challenge, as Goff, Shearer, Cunliffe and Little did, all the vivaciousness in the world won't keep her from the same scrapheap.  

Adern could a lot worse than asking Michael Cullen to oversee the election postmortem, using Bryan Gould’s pathetic effort in 2014 as a reverse how-to guide.  

Secondly, just as a patchwork coalition of Labour, Greens and NZF promises dysfunctional mayhem, an English-Peters government is unlikely to be much better. The fact this will be the fourth term of a National-led government, under its second-string leader, voters will exhibit about as much patience with the new coalition's inevitable shenanigans as I do for airline ticketing rules. There will be, in New Zealand politics, the near-forgotten scent of blood.  

Finally, credit where it's due. Labour under Little has recruited well. The recently announced party list may be not be perfect, but the introduction of new talent like Deb Russell, Ginny Anderson, Greg O’ Connor and Priyanca Radhakrishnan augurs well for the next term.  No opposition needs a fully-fledged cabinet-in-waiting -- fewer than ten genuinely competent MPs will do -- but the incoming crop means the party should be able to pull together its most talented front bench since losing office.    

Ardern can hit the ground running with a revitalised team unified behind her leadership.  Facing a dilapidated government whose fate rests on the whims of a mischief-making nihilist, Labour may finally encounter in 2020 an election as easy to win as they convinced themselves the last three were.