Labour is in a bit of a pickle, but by opening the door for Winston is making life harder for National and ensuring and a close race in the North

Why does Labour keep ending up in these sort of tangles? From Judith Tizard through to Northland at the moment, Labour often ends up with some tricky calls come by-election time.

This time it's what to do with New Zealand First's Winston Peters and Labour's Willow-Jean Prime. Peters' decision to be the cat amongst the wood pigeons in the North amidst the Mike Sabin stand-down has scattered the candidates and assumptions about a safe National seat.

Two polls now show a close race between old tusker Winston Peters and National rookie Mark Osborne, who's neither the most charismatic candidate nor the man with the highest profile in the North; his greatest virtue may be his ignorance of the Sabin affair and his ability, Sergeant Schultz-like, to say he knew nothing.

Safe seats typically stay safe because there's a local organisation that's committed and organised. National has held the seat since 1966 and knows how to win elections. Even with the poll results as they stand, it's National's seat to lose. Perhaps even because of the poll results; there's nothing like the fear of losing to motivate turn-out.

Still, Winston could win this. With a little (or Little) help from Labour. And a little help from Mike Sabin, as information continues to drip out.

Given that Northland has become associated with poverty, lack of achievement and under-development for more than a decade now, National certainly deserves a smack from the region. It has left Northland to swing, with nothing more than a road lobby gift as a solution, in the form of the Puhoi highway. Fact is, even that road stops at the southern end of the electorate, a bit like National's attention.

When you've got an electorate that's below average in just about every health, employment, education and income stat (Shamubeel Eaqub famously talks about income levels close to Timor Leste's), then you can understand why Osborne is left with one stat he likes to trot out. Just over 7,000 new jobs in Northland last year.

What he doesn't say is that the year before the number of jobs dropped, while the rest of the country was increasing, so Northland is really only playing catch-up.

Yet now Labour's dilemma. Prime is a very good candidate. A true local, cares about her people, smart and young and able. She has a multi-election plan to turn Northland marginal in 2017 or 2020 and is in for the long game.

Then along comes Peters and steals her dream. If he gets in, her long game is knackered. Hence Labour's dithering.

Do they deliver the blow to National now by backing Peters? Or do they back Prime's long game?

It seems Andrew Little's answer is to keep Prime on the ballot, not look as though it's pulling out, but send their voters to Peters all the same. Prime is gently being thrown under Winston's bus.

Well, perhaps that's not a fair way to put it, but Prime will be gutted to hear Little say that, while Labour wants Prime in parliament, he won't rule out getting her to pull back and it's up to Northland voters to decide if they want to "send a message" to the government.

When you're quoting New Zealand First's slogan, the message is far from subtle.

Prime told The Nation it's not in her nature to pull back, yet Little told Q+A Northlanders could send a message if they so chose, clearly signalling support for Peters.

It's a bit too cute for my liking and perhaps misses an opportunity to stand alongside Peters and look like a coalition-in-waiting. But Peters probably wouldn't have bought into that anyway. And Labour doesn't want to look like it's using Northland as a chess pawn.

So Little is forced to wink and nudge. So be it; Prime will get a high list spot in 2017 and will have to delay her dream of being a local MP for a while.

It's really the only option; politics is about results now, not later. A bloody nose for Key, the possible loss of RMA reform. Sure, it doesn't make Labour look great, but it makes National look worse. So Labour's choice is made for it.

Having said that, even now there are no guarantees. But it's certainly all on now.

Comments (16)

by Alan Johnstone on March 08, 2015
Alan Johnstone

If Winston get's in the big winner is Peter Dunne, suddenly he's required to pass bills again.

It's a difficult one for Labour, but Prime is young and Winston clearly not there for the long term. At the most he may stand for a second term

Offering her a decent list place and get her working for the list vote, her time will come. I was rather impressed by Andrew Little's realpolitik on this; I doubt Cunliffe  would have been able to handle it so well.

by Nick Gibbs on March 08, 2015
Nick Gibbs

So Labour is sending voters Winston's way. In exactly the same manner National sends Epsom voters off to Act. 

by mikesh on March 08, 2015

National has held the seat since 1966 and knows how to win elections.

From 1966 to 1969 most of the area wa in the Hobson electorate which was held during those years by Vern Cracknell for Social Credit.

by Tim Watkin on March 08, 2015
Tim Watkin

Thanks Mike, interesting footnote. So they've got some rebel history, huh?

And Nick, not sure if it's exactly the same way, but close. Aren't MMP by-elections fun?

by mikesh on March 08, 2015

If Winston get's in the big winner is Peter Dunne, suddenly he's required to pass bills again.

Does anyone know Dunne stands on the TPPA issue.

by Alan Johnstone on March 08, 2015
Alan Johnstone

His official position is wait and see, in reality he'll do what ever John Key tells him to, but he'll extract a price in another area.

by Nick Gibbs on March 08, 2015
Nick Gibbs

This must make it impossible for Labour to raise funds to support their campaign. If Little doesn't think it's worth voting for her, no one's going to want to donate to her either. So who'll pay for all those hoardings? If it's Prime herself she'll be furious her leader hasn't helped her.

by DeepRed on March 09, 2015

Another thing to consider is that a great deal of the potential Labour-leaning vote is on the Maori roll, and hence in the Tai Tokerau electorate instead of Northland. It's quite possible that Northland is one of the most polarised regions in the country, economically and politically.

by Andrew Geddis on March 09, 2015
Andrew Geddis

[Osbourne's] greatest virtue may be his ignorance of the Sabin affair and his ability, Sergeant Schultz-like, to say he knew nothing.

Not quite ... on Radio Live, Osbourne admitted that "while he didn't know anything about the shadows that hung over former MP Mike Sabin, he had heard rumours."

It seems Andrew Little's answer is to keep Prime on the ballot, not look as though it's pulling out ... .

Legally, there now is no way to take Prime off the ballot - even if Prime were to announce publicly that she didn't want to be elected and that no-one should vote for her, her name still would appear on the voting paper.

by Tim Watkin on March 09, 2015
Tim Watkin

Andrew, it depends when he heard rumours. Certainly not during the election campaign. Or October. Or November. Which is when everyone else in Northland seems to have found out. He told The Nation he heard rumours at the end of December and only knew about the investigation late January.

Osborne: Look, I only found out when everybody else found out, so I don’t know any of the detail at all. And when he resigned at the end of January was when I knew that that had happened.
Okay, so only when he actually resigned? That’s when you’re saying that you found out something was going on? Just to be clear.
No, look, I heard the rumours at the end of December last year, but I didn’t know anything before that at all.

What's more he still doesn't know the details of what the police have been investigating. Hence the deniability... but it shows a remarkable lack of curiosity.

by william blake on March 09, 2015
william blake

I think it is the opacity of the Sabin affair that is causing the electoral shift. That shroud of mystery will be making the rumours fester and grow and National voters in Northland are probably embarrased by the quality or representation hoisted on them by the John Key government. 

A police investigation, unconvincing spin from National, a viable alternative in Peters and Littles' nod to the Labour voters could scupper this government. If National lose Northland I wonder if Key would go to a General Election rather than stumbling through the next  couple of years without a clear mandate.

by william blake on March 09, 2015
william blake

Simon Bridges offers the voters 10 bridges, and Chester Borrows offers Northland a loan.#porkbarrel.

by KJT on March 10, 2015

Hi. "My name is John. I have a bridge to sell you".

by Tim Watkin on March 10, 2015
Tim Watkin

William, I only have a limited sense of what's going on up there, but from what little I do hear I think you may have a point. National's problems may have more to do with Sabin that most else. But I don't think a new election is likely, it'll only put him back where he was last term. It's really not that bad.

by william blake on March 10, 2015
william blake

You are probably right Tim, supply and confidence worked last term and will likely work again, just. a few policy favours for the odds and ends making up the government. 

by Bruce Thorpe on March 11, 2015
Bruce Thorpe

The polls showing Peters in a dominant position and Prime a clear third has forced Labour into a very tight situation.

Little has handled it well in my view, facing it squarely as it actually stands.

Peters has acted without discussion, holds the best hand, the only question is whether his early lead will activate a big enough National reaction at the voting booth.

Everybody I know is going with Winston.

Sabin was always a bad choice and indicative of a dysfunctional local organisation.

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