The Mana by-election was Labour's pre-campaign test. It flunked

On past performance, the Mana by-election last weekend should have been a shoo-in for Labour. It was far from that. Phil Goff’s hand-picked candidate Kris Faafoi limped in with a majority of just over 1,000 votes to spare over National’s second-run candidate from 2008, Hekia Parata.

Fears that Unite union leader Matt McCartin’s last minute leap into the campaign would split the left vote proved to be unfounded. “It’s good to be back in Auckland,” he told me after flying home with just 816 votes in the bag from his effort to give Labour a stir up for being so timid.

McCarten came nowhere near his personal target of 10% of the votes cast – and it is the share of votes cast that tells the real story of Mana.

Parata lifted her share of the votes cast from 34.7% in 2008 to 41.6% in Saturday’s poll. She did not give Labour a “thrashing” as her leader claims, but she certainly gave Kris Faafoi and Phil Goff something to worry about over the next 12 months.

Faafoi reduced the Labour candidate’s share of votes cast to 46.4% from 52.3% at the last general election when Winnie Laban defended the seat against Parata. No-one should expect the personal following that Laban built during her eight year term in Mana to transfer to her successor - but Faafoi’s share of votes last weekend was lower than Laban’s 49.7% share on her first run for the seat in 2002. The personal loyalty factor does not explain Labour’s love lost.

The political climate should have been working in Labour’s favour. Two years into National’s slow struggle to pull New Zealand out of a recession, this is a time when Labour should be winning more share of vote in Mana – not losing it.

Lower and middle income New Zealanders are just coming to terms with the National-led government’s income tax reduction – GST rise trade-off. The most recent polls show they do not think they are better off. Unemployment is sticking stubbornly at recession levels, and unemployment is a major issue in Mana with its strong Maori and Pacific Island populations.

On top of that, there are specifically local issues in play in Mana where local fingers point at National: the dismal performance of the commuter rail service into Wellington, the festering problem of keeping a working airport at Paraparaumu, and the encroachment of an expressway development through a still-unknown number of backyards – an echo of the Waterview factor in the Mount Albert by-election.

There are other echoes of Mount Albert in Labour’s conduct of the Mana contest. This is the second time that Phil Goff has shoved a personal favourite into a local by-election candidate selection rate. David Shearer was Phil’s man for Mount Albert. Kris Faafoi is Phil Goff’s press secretary – and despite his strong spin on his local connections, he did not live in and could not vote in the electorate.

Local party feelings were bruised on both occasions. But Faafoi did not have David Shearer’s advantage: a total novice as his National opponent. He was up against a campaign-hardened National candidate who had been a presence in the electorate for the last three years, a rising star with real parliamentary experience and strong ministerial prospects.

Parata had done her groundwork with the influential Pacific Islands church leaders in Mana long before Faafoi arrived on the scene. Labour’s aggressive response to the Maori Party’s success at the last election back-fired on Faafoi. Parata was supported on the hustings by Maori Party leaders, Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. McCarten captured the support of the only other Maori Party celeb, Hone Harawira. Two traditional support bases that Labour should have been able to depend on last weekend had been undermined long before Faafoi’s feet hit the street.

The other key factor behind Labour’s poor showing is that the party was not ready or willing to roll-out real policy at this point in the general election cycle.

McCarten put his finger right on the raw nerve. Labour was too timid to deserve its traditional voters’ support. Faafoi had nothing to offer to address the problems facing Labour’s core constituency: no firm commitment to address the impact of the GST rise on low-income household budgets [aside from a minor fiddle on fresh fruit and veggies]; no policy to refocus income tax reductions to generate more benefits for low and middle income earners; no programme to create jobs to keep the work habit alive among the unemployed; and no commitment to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

However, McCarten, who is an experienced campaign organizer, ran his own campaign in Mana so badly that I thought he must be duffing it deliberately to ensure that National did not win Mana.

He made no secret of his contempt for Labour’s timidity. He was there to give Labour a bloody nose or a boot up the bum. His campaign workers were arrested for occupying a vacant State house in an electorate with a waiting list before he realized that the 25 vacant State houses in the immediate neighborhood were part of an area with a history that had many locals thinking they should have been bull-dozed rather than re-tenanted.

His supporters provided television channels with a negative spectacle by harassing and shouting down the National Candidate and the Prime Minister during a mall visit. His Mana campaign climaxed on election day, with the police investigating a complaint that his supporters were wearing union colours and waving union flags. This was not the great campaigner’s finest hour.

McCarten denies the duffing charge. He says he stimulated Labour to put the biggest political machine he had ever seen into Mana to turn out their vote. By the Wednesday before polling day, he knew the Labour machine had pulled his vote. Labour’s tactic, he says, was to tell their disgruntled supporters who were turning to McCarten that they agreed with what he was saying and it would all be covered in their policy when it was rolled out for the general election. Meantime, every vote for McCarten would be a vote for Hekia Parata.

So there we are. It was mana from McCarten that saved Kris Faafoi, Phil Goff and the Labour party from a thrashing last weekend. Faafoi and Goff have 12 months to get Labour ship-shape for the next round. So do Parata and Key.

Comments (13)

by Andrew Doherty on November 23, 2010
Andrew Doherty

Given that 2002 was such a banner year for Labour, do you see any real difference between Laban's 49.7% on her first outing and Faafoi's 46.4% this time around? The Labour party vote in Mana was 47.3% in 2002 and 43.9% in 2008. In each case I would argue a candidate that was new to the electorate got essentially whatever the base Labour vote was at the time and that this base vote is well-measured by the party vote.

It seems to me that the message of this by-election is that the centre-left's position is much the same as at the last election and I would have thought that that was the common wisdom. Watching coverage of the by-election you would get a totally different impression, and it seems to me that many in the media have essentially bought the National party line on this.

The flip side of a lack of movement in the centre-Left's numbers is the fact that the Government's vote in the by-election is almost identical to the 2008 party vote. Parata's total looks a little better because of a collapse in the ACT vote and a no-show from the other Government parties.

by Eric Goddard on November 23, 2010
Eric Goddard

A by-election fought in a seat with an established list MP is always going to be a far harder fight than when all the candidates start on an even footing.

Parata has known since 2008 that she would be campaigning for Mana in the next election and she's had Parliamentary money and support to help create and maintain her profile in the electorate since then.

The short nature of a by-election campaign makes this head start even more pronounced. The 'where have you been all our lives?' feeling is difficult to deal with at the best of times and in a campaign that goes from 0-60 within two weeks it's no wonder that people have concerns about carpet-bagging.

Labour was lucky that Parata was busted 'not sleeping' in the electorate, something she was never able to give a convincing response to.

by David Beatson on November 23, 2010
David Beatson

My point is that Laban's build of personal popularity in Mana does not explain away Faafoi's lower share of vote. He still came in under Laban's entry share in 2002. Trying to compare Party share of vote with Candidate share of vote is not an "apples for apples" analysis. Faafoi should have gained traction in a by-election where his party could throw massive resources into the campaign to put a strong dent into the National candidate's support. He didn't - and that's a problem for Labour.    

by James Caygill on November 23, 2010
James Caygill

So I would have thought you would include the difference in vote share between the 2008 Party Vote and the vote for Kris in the by-election given your contention (accurate in my opinion) that Kris was an unknown and you need to discount any personal following Winnie had. In that sense you'd expect the voting to revert more to a party preference.

For completenesses sake here're the numbers:

2008 Party vote share for Labour was 43.8% (National was 36.5%). Kris took 46.4%, and Hekia 41.6%, so both improved on the PV from 2008.

I'd suggest that that means both a level of comfort with National that surprised me, but also that Kris and Labour didn't do as badly as an analysis lacking those numbers might suggest.

 

by David Beatson on November 23, 2010
David Beatson

There was no Party vote last weekend, and I'd hesitate before claiming that the Candidate vote indicates what Mana voters would have done if they had been given an actual Party vote to play with. In the absence of a Party vote in any by-election, I think I'll stick with share of votes cast as my best guide to what went on in Mana last Saturday.  

by Tim Watkin on November 23, 2010
Tim Watkin

McCarten's lack of influence does show how strongly the Pacific vote is still wed to Labour and how loyal votes can be to ethnicity.

Labour I guess can be reassured that their organisational skills keep them competitive, but the love isn't there yet. To get serious, they need a message as well as the machine, and as you say David, they don't.

What will disappoint Labour and be a relief to National, though, is that John Key's pulling power remains strong. He spent a lot of time in Mana and is still Mr Popular. People aren't showing any signs of tiring of this government.

by James Caygill on November 24, 2010
James Caygill

That's fine David, but you need to understand (and I think report) that your way of viewing things is not how I or any of the professional political scientists,activists,organisers and strategists that I respect look at byelections.

In situations where a new candidate is replacing a well liked incumbent we will always look to the previous party vote (not the previous candidate vote) for a baseline of support from which to measure performance.

I'm not trying to spin Labour's result - as I say both National and Labour did well last weekend (and national significantly more well than Labour).

by Graeme Edgeler on November 24, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

My point is that Laban's build of personal popularity in Mana does not explain away Faafoi's lower share of vote. He still came in under Laban's entry share in 2002. Trying to compare Party share of vote with Candidate share of vote is not an "apples for apples" analysis.

Current polls show that National's party support is 257% of what it was in the 2002 election. With a uniform swing, one would expect Hekia to have one this election with just under 72% of the vote. Why couldn't she transfrom National's massive popularity into an increase in support for her National candidacy is unclear, but that Hekia failed to capitalise on the enourmous swing to National since your base year, leads one to conclude that her campaign was a colossal failure.

Or in conclusion, the numbers mean just what I choose them to mean—neither more nor less.

by David Beatson on November 24, 2010
David Beatson

And, in conclusion, Graeme, I like your concluding conclusion, but I still think Labour has more to learn than National from the by-election outcome.

by swordfish on November 25, 2010
swordfish

Yes, I find myself agreeing with Andrew Doherty and James Caygill, here.

(1) "Fa'afoi reduced the Labour candidate's share of votes cast to 46.4% from 52.3% at the last general election...No-one should expect the personal following that Laban built during her eight year term in Mana to transfer to her successor - but Fa'afoi's share...was lower than Laban's 49.7% share on her first run for the seat in 2002. The personal loyalty factor does not explain Labour's love lost."

I'm not sure Laban's 49.7% is any sort of solid benchmark, David. After all, Graeme Kelly took a mere 41% of the Candidate-Vote in 1996, his fourth election as MP for Mana (previously Porirua). Even in 1999, when Labour were riding high, Kelly only managed 47% - essentially the same as Fa'afoi.

 

(2) "Trying to compare Party share of vote with Candidate share of vote is not an "apples for apples" analysis.

Or "sheep droppings for sheep droppings" as the Herald's Audrey Young would have it. The problem with this line of reasoning, David, - and as Andrew Doherty has said, virtually the entire MSM has bought it - is that it's even more absurd to compare the Candidate-Vote in a TWO-vote General Election with the Candidate-Vote in a ONE-vote By-Election.

Laban's Candidate-Vote was a personal one. 4500 of her 6100 majority came from non-Labour people (1100 National voters, 1800 Greens and 1600 minor-party voters). These non-Labour people could happily vote for her because, of course, they had the luxury of a second vote (having already done their duty and cast their all-important Party-Vote for their preferred party -  the party representing their core political allegiance, National, the Greens and so on).

A ONE-vote By-Election involves entirely different dynamics. All things being equal, you'd naturally expect most of these 4500 non-Labour Winnie-voters to return to the candidates representing their respective parties (the one they cast their Party-Vote for in 2008).

The point is: in a one-vote By-Election, these voters can't separate their core political allegiance (as expressed in their 2008 Party-Vote) from their 'personality contest' preference (Candidate-Vote) in the way that they can at a two-vote General Election. So they're confronted with a choice. And I think it's reasonable to assume that most are going to reaffirm their primary political allegiance - most of the 1800 Greens, for instance, who Party-Voted Green / Candidate-Voted Winnie choosing to remain with their primary party (voting Green candidate Logie).

Partly as a result of this "transfer" of non-Labour Winnie-voters back to their core allegiance, the majority Fa'afoi is supposed to inherit from Laban is slashed. Yet by constantly insisting that this 6100 personal majority is a "Labour" one, by treating it as the benchmark by which to judge these By-Election results, and by continually telling us that Mana is one of "the great Labour strongholds" because Winnie had a 6100 majority, these leading political journalists are essentially inferring that these Greens, Nats and minor-party supporters are, in fact, "Labour" voters swinging to the Nats in droves.

Hence, it's Audrey Young and others who (apparently without knowing it) are conflating the Party and Candidate votes, "comparing raisons and sheep droppings", as Audrey would have it.

So, the 2008 Party-Vote Labour majority (a mere 2500 over National) should be the benchmark. Taking into account the By-Election turnout, we're talking about  1700 as the majority you'd expect Fa'afoi to get - the baseline figure by which to judge his performance.

(3) "Parata had done her groundwork with the influential Pacific Islands church leaders in Mana...Two traditional support bases that Labour should have been able to depend on last weekend had been undermined long before Fa'afoi's feet hit the street."

Nope. That was the National Party line and the MSM once again (as in 2008) fell for it hook, line and sinker.

In the run-up to the 2008 General Election, similar predictions of unprecedented Pasifika swings to National were made by one or two National-leaning Pasifika people in South Auckland, backed-up (or should that be "jacked up") by local Nat Electorate officials and loudly, uncritically broadcast in the media. In the event, the swing never eventuated.

Fast-forward to 2010. And the media once again fall for it. The DomPost, 'The Nation' current affairs programme and various other outlets report "Samoan Community leaders", Paula Masoe and Liz Tanielu, backing Parata and prophesying a significant split in the Pasifika vote in Mana. Apparently, many are about to swing to Parata.

What happens ? Well, take a look at the Labour and National vote in the four Eastern Porirua suburbs where the vast majority of Pasifikas in Mana live:

....2008 Party-Vote...2010 By-Election vote...Difference

Ascot Park

Labour...63................71...................................+ 8

National.21................21................................... =

Porirua East

Labour...68...............75....................................+ 7

National.15...............16.....................................+ 1

Waitangirua

Labour...80..............85.....................................+ 5

National..9.................7......................................- 2

Cannons Creek

Labour...83.............86......................................+ 3

National..6...............7.......................................+ 1

 

 

 

 

by David Beatson on November 27, 2010
David Beatson

Sorry Swordish [and others].

I still think you're mixing your drinks by bluring the line between Party and Candidate votes. There are still voters out there think their local candidate vote is more important because they want local representation.

The blunt fact is that Labour should have done better in the Mana by-election. Two years into National-led government, after a budget that delivered little relief for low and middle income earners; with unemployment stubbornly stick at recession levels, and with local issues that had locals protesting at National-led decisionmaking, the National candidate in a Labour-held seat increased her share of the vote.

Labour supporters certainly didn't swing to National. They didn't swing to McCarten either. They sat this one out - and one of the biggest party machines ever assembled in a single electorate couldn't get them to budge. Tough but true.

  

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.