Sorry Winston: Why Labour needs to stand in Northland


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THE NORTHLAND BY-ELECTION could have made life extremely difficult for John Key’s government. And it’s just possible that it still might. The thing is, if Labour had been willing to throw all its local resources behind the candidacy of the NZ First leader, Winston Peters, it would have been “Game on!” for real. So, why didn’t the Labour Party follow the Greens lead and decline to field a candidate?

Some have argued that the Northland seat is so safe for National that there’s no point. That even if Winston had been allowed to run alone it would have made no difference to the final outcome. An analysis of the electorate’s voting patterns since the arrival of MMP in 1996, however, suggests that Northland might not be quite so cut-and-dried for the National Party as the pundits think.

In 1996 and 1999, had there been only one “Opposition” candidate standing against National’s John Carter, the seat would have changed hands. (In 1999 by a margin of around 2,500 votes!) In 2002, Carter would have hung on, but only just. In 2005, however, Carter’s position was much more secure. Don Brash’s deeply conservative campaign, combined with the local candidates party-building efforts, had pushed out National’s winning margin to a comfortable 3,000+ votes.

National’s winning margins really took off after 2005 – but only because in the 2008, 2011 and 2014 General Elections the NZ First Party did not field a candidate. Even with this tail-wind, however, National’s momentum began easing off. From a winning margin of nearly 8,000 votes in 2008, the year John Key led his party to victory, to a more modest lead of around 5,500 over his major opponents (Labour, the Greens and Mana) in 2014.

Okay, 5,500 votes is still a very comfortable winning margin in normal circumstances. The thing about by-elections, however, is they can very quickly morph into something thoroughly abnormal. The right candidate, bearing the right message, with the right sort of enthusiastic on-the-ground campaign workers, can upset the electoral apple-cart in fine fashion.

Just such by-election upsets were provided by the Social Credit Party in 1978 and 1980. On both occasions the wins were a product of two, mutually reinforcing, trends. The electorate’s temporary estrangement from National, and the mass defection of Labour voters to the Social Credit candidate – whom they quite correctly identified as the person most likely to defeat the incumbent. It certainly didn’t hurt that both of the successful challengers were highly telegenic and articulate spokesmen for their cause, nor that the Social Credit Party’s war-chest was bursting with cash.

Whether or not Northland might have developed into a runaway by-election victory for Winston Peters we will probably never know. If the voters had been offered a clear-cut choice between preserving the status-quo, and reining-in a National Party showing alarmingly early signs of third-term-itis, would they have opted for the latter? Would the prospect of reducing the Government’s margin of control in the House of Representatives have pleased, or provoked, Northland voters? Would Winston’s legendary prowess at bringing home the pork for his constituents secured the old scoundrel at least a short-term lease on his turangawaewae? With Labour’s candidate, Willow-Jean Prime, now set to siphon-off a minimum of 3,000-4,000 crucial votes, the answers are unlikely to be forthcoming.

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Not that the Labour Party was ever the slightest bit interested in finding out if Winston could win the Northland by-election. Andrew Little’s eyes are fixed upon an altogether more distant electoral horizon – 2017. He is convinced that unless his own party becomes the unequivocally dominant Opposition player, the electorate as a whole will continue to shy away from the prospect of a coalition government in which Labour is merely primus inter pares – first among equals.

In the most brutal political terms, this means driving both the Greens and NZ First right down to the 5 percent MMP threshold. To be seen as a credible alternative to the National-led Government, Labour needs to command at least 40 percent of the Party Vote, and Andrew Little must be rated as John Key’s equal. Labour will not get there by giving every Green and NZ First Party sucker an even break.

Andrew Little’s political role model for the next three years should be Don Brash. Because, if the National Party is able to look upon their present leader as the Messiah, it is only because his lanky predecessor took on the role of John the Baptist. “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord”, in Don’s case, meant eliminating the Act, United Future and NZ First parties as serious competitors for the right-wing vote.

One of the most important factors in Brash’s undoubted success in rolling-up the Right was his Orewa Speech. It spoke to conservative New Zealanders’ growing sense of political marginalisation: their gnawing fear that other, less worthy, groups in society were crowding them and their values out of the places that had once belonged to “mainstream” New Zealand. Like a right-wing Bill Clinton, Brash convinced conservative Kiwis that he could “feel their pain”. With just 50,000 more votes he would have become their Prime Minister.

But Orewa isn’t the whole story. Brash was also assisted by the much less visible contributions of National’s ideological ninjas. Think-tanks, media assets, lobbyists, conservative preachers and sympathetic celebrities – all reiterated, where it mattered most (which was well away from the journalists’ cameras and microphones) the simple message that the only sure way to secure a victory for the Right was to get in behind the National Party. In this, at least, they argued, the Left is correct: “Unity is strength.”

This is now the real mission of Andrew Little and his team. To find the means of both reassuring and activating Labour’s base. This does not mean producing his very own version of Brash’s Orewa Speech, but it does mean acknowledging the consistent messages being sent to the party by those who feel themselves to be Labour, but who no longer believe that Labour feels itself to be them.

Standing with these voters will, almost certainly, mean that a vociferous, but much smaller, number of voters will end up walking away. Little must let them go. The job of winning them back isn’t his, it belongs to Labour’s own (yet to be properly organised) ideological ninjas. On the blogs, Facebook and Twitter; over bottles of beer at the pub; or glasses of wine at the dinner-table; the labour movement’s oldest lessons must be rehearsed again and again: “If we don’t stick together, then we won’t fight together. If we won’t fight together – then we can’t win.”

The Left needs to accept and understand that the “we” in those sentences is directed at Labour’s once and future voters. Not the Greens’ – and certainly not NZ First’s.

Sorry Winston.


  1. Labour standing just guarentees a Natz victory. It,s just plain dumb n JK will thank you for the stupidity. Why oh why are labour so stupid n slow to learn?

    • You’ve completely missed the point. It’s not about the short term battle (aka the seat), it’s about the longterm war (2017 election).

  2. So the two biggest parties continue to hold onto a FPP mentality. Too bad that voters who remember that system will all be dead in a few years.

  3. The problem, as I see it, is that if Labour cannot work collegially with potential coalition partners whilst in Opposition – then why should the public believe they can achieve that unity and sense of purpose in Government?

    It’s interesting to note that Key very rarely ever put down any of his potential coalition partners in public. Indeed, in at least two instance (Epsom and Ohariu), he gave two other parties a free pass to win those seats in the hope they could draw in a second MP on either (or both) of their coat tails.

    (Did you ever notice those particular dirty deals, Mr Gower?)

    Contrast that to Labour slitting Hone Harawira’s metaphorical throat in Te Tai Tokerau. In doing so, they not only eliminated a possible coalition partner, but also one or two possible extra Mana MPs on Hone’s coat-tails.

    Had Labour’s defeat been narrower – say one or two MPs – their actions in Te Tai Tokerau would have been self-defeating to put it very, very mildly.

    I’ve said it before and will say it again; the Right know the value of working collegially and collectively when it comes to winning and retaining government power.

    The Left seem to have on-set alzheimer’s when it comes to working together.

    • Pity this is Frank.

      Labour wont learn from their past mistakes to deal with opposition partners?

      They are letting us all down here by splitting the vote so National win the seat and hold on to power and kill our future by acting as an accomplice?

      Are they just mad or stupid?

  4. Read the post again Kevin. Nothing plain or dumb about Labour trying to rebuild itself. Standing aside to let Peters become more important/relevant/powerful would be dumb.
    Come on Chris, I thought I was going to get through a whole post without some obscure historical reference. But some Latin and the Bible!!! well done. But I do wonder what Zeno of Elea would have thought of this situation

    • Winston Peters is slowly reaching an age, where his physical and mental faculties will slowly but gradually weaken, as nature sadly has it so. Hence he is hardly going to become more powerful or relevant for many years, and as NZ First has nobody that can replace him as leader, there is little reason to worry too much about the “competition” from NZ First.

  5. So it is all “three cheers to Labour” this week, dear Chris Trotter?

    Well, perhaps they could start working out some clear policy first of all, before we should even consider giving Labour a vote again, that is a party vote.

    And marginalising Greens and NZ First may make some sense for a longer term strategy, but what is that longer term strategy then? We know as little as before the general election. Why this single minded focus on getting votes off Greens, NZ First and National (or “the centre”, as vague as that term may be), and why not dare to actually adopt and push policies that will first of all get the large and growing number of non voters listen up again?

    No, I think it is utterly stupid, to take such a stand at the moment, and ensure the largely unknown, not really “popular” Nat candidate to win the by-election. I saw the man standing for the National Party on TV tonight, and he looked like a loser, to be honest, certainly not one who has charisma and any other appeal.

    Instead of playing the card for Labour being the “only” worthwhile alternative, Labour would have been better advised to play this one low key, and leave the electorate for Winston to try out.

    By the way, Winnie is not getting any younger, he still has some power, we see, but there is no real substitute for him as NZ First Leader, so there is also no need to rush to marginalise NZ First, as once Winnie loses his strength and health, the party may be doomed to fall below the 5 percent threshold anyway. That may happen by 2017.

    As for sidelining or competing with the Greens, how damned stupid, it would make more sense to adopt some of their successful policies and make them “redundant” that way, rather than carry on as Labour did just before the general election.

    Sorry, I cannot agree with what Chris writes here, and I cannot agree with Andrew Little on this one.

  6. Well Chris, there then, is the dilemma and the reason Labour will never regain voter share it once enjoyed.

    Simply put, it refuses to be the first amongst equals, it wants to be the pre-eminent representative of the left.

    Sadly, doomed.

    (hint, before pitching for such a position it might pay Labour to cut the crap and actually become a left wing party)

    • Northlander

      That would be a problem if Peters was standing in Te Tai Tokerau. But given that the Northland electorate has been a National stronghold, that may turn out to be an advantage in this byelection.

  7. Labour betrayed its voters in 1984 and they continue to do so. We’ve waited a long time for them to become a left party again. Helen Clark nearly managed it, but the Rogernomes appear to have dragged it back to the right.

    Labour are losing voters. What they’re doing isn’t working. Yet they continue in the same arrogant disconnected way (with the exception of Cuniliffe).

    The left needs to see that Labour can work with it’s potential coalition partners! It’s not rocket science! This by election offered a perfect opportunity to show that they can work with potential partners.

    For Labour to behave as if it’s the only main left party, ignoring all the votes it’s losing to Greens particularly, is so arrogant its off putting. It shows, yet again, they don’t accept MMP and they appear to be stuck in FPP past.

    I’ve voted Labour before, but I’ve so had it with them. Never again. Waited too long for them to get their act together. Disgusted.

    And I’m in Northland.

    • So it’s not about the Candidate then Lara? Its sure as hell not about working with potential partners. It is about having honest, intelligent candidates that genuinely want to do something for Northland. Willow Jean Prime is a prime example of those qualities.

      • In this case I think it’s about what’s best for NZ. And continuing with National having an absolute majority is IMO not what’s best for NZ. If Labour agreed and had their eye on THAT bigger picture, they’d do what the Greens have done and stand down their candidate.

        Willow Jean Prime may be a fantastic candidate, by all accounts she genuinely has Northland’s best interests at heart. But its highly unlikely she’ll even get close to winning that seat. That’s the reality. So all she’s going to do is split the anti-National vote between Labour, Winston and the few others left.

        Labour are bleeding support. What they’re doing isn’t working… .yet they continue to do the same thing. Expecting a different result?

  8. Two points:

    1 If the National voters of Northland become sufficiently disenchanted with National because of a certain scandal, they are perhaps more likely to vote Winston if he is not linked to Labour than if he is so linked by Labour standing down.

    2 A large proportion of Labour or potential Labour voters in Northland are not on the general roll, so can’t take part in the by-election.

  9. I don’t think Labour standing dooms Winston. Labour’s vote collapsed significantly in the 1992 Tamaki by-election and 1994 Selwyn by-election when a third party mounted a strong challenge (the Alliance came within 1300 and 428 votes of winning those safe National seats respectively), and I can see the same happening again.

    • Chris,

      Labour won Napier back again, as you said repeatedly because NatZ split the vote!!!

      So why are you Chris as a student of History now suggesting labour should split the vote in Northland and loose the election?????

      Wake up Labour and back out of your vote splitting of the northland vote.

  10. What bullshit Lara. Helen Clark broke from rogernomics and pushed centrist politics with intermittent but strategic moves to the left.

    Andrew Little is a further move to the left again. With the exception of raising the retirement age (which Andrew Little has dropped), the LP in its current form seem to be on a similar track with an albeit different, more accommodating style that Cunliffe’s Sept 2014 democratic socialist electoral manifesto.

    There exists a large chunk in the electorate that runs a mile (straight into the arms of National) from radical sounding rhetoric and excessive closeness to the Greens (let alone the bat shit insane, economically illiterate and directionless Mana).

    You can’t win an election for the Left without a sizeable portion of that part of the electorate. Only Labour (and to a lesser extent NZ First) understand that.

    All the moralising and demanding your ecoanarchist wishlist will not change that, rather it will play straight in the arms of the Right.

    • Starting off your comment with “what bullshit” is really rude.

      I don’t engage with rude people.

    • What bullshit Lara. Helen Clark broke from rogernomics and pushed centrist politics with intermittent but strategic moves to the left. .

      Well, no. Lara wrote that Clark ‘nearly managed’ to re-align Labour to the left, the qualifying (and salient) word she used was “nearly”. I’d add that in my view Clark hardly broke from Rogernomics, that was beyond her power to achieve, instead she merely called a halt to its programme. Since National took office the Right’s agenda has essentially pickled up from where it was halted and resumed without undue hindrance, albeit in a more circumspect manner.

      Moving leftward (your argument) from an economic stance firmly positioned to the right doesn’t qualify the resulting outcome as being on the left. Even Muldoon’s 1970’s conservative National administration was far to the left of the current Labour Party.

  11. All this does not bode well for society – with the uncertainties approaching, the only future is a green future. Wake up.

  12. So according to a TV3 News poll out today, Winston is leading in Northland, at 35 percent, well before the largely unknown, hardly impressive National Party candidate, and well also before the Labour candidate.

    As the campaign has just started, and Winnie has got an impressive bus and team, I bet he will win Northland, possibly easily.

    So Labour may keep their “pride” (as losers), and the Nats have something big to chew on.

    I rest my case, that is what I say to critics of what commenters may have thought about my earlier comment above.

    • Go Winston go.– Be the trouble for Planet Key that you know so well how to achieve.

      You may well be our only saviour available to us all, and Andrew please back out while you can with grace & dignity.

      Let the will of troubled Northland people vote their returning gifted son of Northland Winston home to take care of them all at this time of deep need.

  13. The poll may not reflect the actual outcome as by- elections are notoriously unpredictable but it is obviously going to be a two horse race with Labour unlikely to crack the whip.

  14. Maori have a proverb up here( can’t remember the te reo sorry)which goes like this.
    What ever happens in the way of societal (political) change in the “tail of the fish” trickles down and influences/changes the rest of fish .Particularly the head.( Wellington).
    Winston will win.

  15. I guess the main message to be taken from this posting, Chris, is that discipline will be required from the traditionally fractious Left-leaning public caucus. The trick, sometimes is to find a trend, put yourself in front of it and then call yourself the leader.

    Whatever anyone says, the typical Labour or Green voters will vote strategically for Winston in the Northland electorate. His majority, when combined with disaffected former National voters along with a pretty low turnout of those people who can’t bring themselves to vote for anyone but the National candidate, but who are feeling negative about Sabin/arrogance/spying etc etc, is likely to be pretty healthy.

    The best strategy for Labour is to get involved in the dabates coming, then give a nod and a wink to their voters, (without specific instruction), to support the candidate with the best chance of unseating the National candidate. It is going to happen anyway so they might as well take credit for the result.

    The point is, if they withdrew from the race, they can neither take credit, nor present themselves as the Leaders of the Left that they need to become if the Left is to win at the next election.

    If we want a Left – even a moderate Left – party in power, then we are the ones who must show disciple. Of course, in our ranks there are some, even perhaps many, who would rather rail endlessly against a Right-leaning government, than give comfort to a party administration that doesn’t appear deepest red.

    Unfortunately for those people, achieving a better society can no more be effected by Bumper-sticker belief systems of the Left than it can by the “Private=Good; Public=Bad” of the Ruth Richardson era, or the Kiwi/Iwi type nonsense of the Brash interlude.

    People long to be in charge of their own lives and they long for respect. Government support of the disadvantaged parts of the population can do many things, but it cannot achieve either of these targets.

    The fact is, we need several strains of the Left to find a way forward. Segmentation and partisan sub-tribalism is not only damaging but ultimately self-defeating on every level.

  16. Chris, your article is nonsense. If Labour contests Northland, it will come a poor third. How can that help bring voters back to Labour? How can it not be good for NZ First? If it turns out that NZ First would have won if they had received Labour’s votes and, as a result, shifted the balance of power, that will simply convince voters that Labour is tactically stupid, or purely self-centred.
    The problem with your analysis is that, for Labour to return to power, you assume outcomes that are simply unachievable. A 40% vote for Labour alone? Are you kidding? If, to get that figure, Labour blatantly sets out to destroy, the Greens and NZ First, where will those voters go? Not to Labour. Do you think that those who care about the environment, monetary reform, the TPPA etc are going to give their votes to a party that doesn’t give a stuff about any of these things?
    The more likely outcome is that people will see Labour as trying to undermine MMP voting and return to first past the post, something voters will not tolerate. This suggests that, if Labour persists with a philosophy which appears suicidal, the 2017 election will see Labour heading for oblivion and the smaller left wing parties will increase their vote.
    Lets assume that in the next two years there will be another financial crash that knocks National about a bit; a policy of simply building bridges with those minor parties will place Labour better than alienating their potential friends.

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