A call to arms: Peters and Brown enter the battlefield

Winston Peters and Len Brown both made declarations of intent at the weekend that promise a battle royal on the right of New Zealand politics

The old Middle Eastern political adage is that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Extend that line of thinking into New Zealand politics and the return of Winston Peters offers a twinkle of hope for Labour.

Remember Labour? You won't have heard from them much even though they are her majesty's Opposition in this parliament. They're polling roughly 30 percent at the moment (31.3% according to Pundit's up-to-date Poll of Polls) and seem to have been deemed by the media, and indeed themselves, as essentially irrelevant.

Winston Peters' declaration at the weekend that, assuming his party continues to support him through two more AGMs, he "plans" to stand in the 2011 elections promises a rough and tumble fight for votes on the populist right of New Zealand politics. Labour's support is so low as to be close to its core base; Peters knows there's little to be won scrambling after those crumbs so if anything he will tilt right.

The voters that Peters will be targeting are amongst the 55 percent of those currently supporting the government, but who are starting to get edgy about the smacking referendum (Peters voted against the section 59 amendment so can be populist and consistent on that one), job losses, our steady shift towards Australianisation, the Auckland governance reforms, and Key's strategic decision to move closer to the Maori Party (including his probable decision to favour them with a repeal of the foreshore and seabed legislation.

That army of more than half of New Zealand voters is hugely diverse and cannot be expected to hold together over the next three years; governing by definition requires decisions to be made (although this government has turned stalling into an art form) and decisions alienate voters. Slowly, support will be chipped away from National's record numbers and Peters is looking at picking up enough flakes from here and there to patch together five percent.

Can he do it? Some, such as Michelle Boag think we're in a post-Winston era. Others, such as Matt McCarten, think it's simply too hard and too costly to get back into parliament once you've been voted out.

But voters don't think in terms of eras, at least not unless they are being led by a prime minister more ground-breaking and inspirational than John Key. Just because few politicians are exploiting the xenophobia and populist feeling abroad in this land (Rodney Hide and Paula Bennett being the notable exceptions), doesn't mean it's suddenly gone away. And just because the Alliance couldn't get enough coins into their collection bucket to engineer a way back, doesn't mean Peters can't.

New Zealand First, and Peters especially, will know the millions of dollars it will take to be viable again. My pick is that meetings have taken place this winter that give Peters confidence enough to think he can cover the cost of a campaign. Fundraising, and the identity of his donors, could harm Peters yet again in the next couple of years, but he wouldn't be back in the game unless he had the chips to play with.

Peters will take succour from the fact that last year he lost in a landslide turn against the incumbent government. National won record support, he spent the year dogged by mistakes and scandal, the mood for change was irrepressible... yet he was still able to poll over four percent. The Owen Glenn saga was a disaster, capped off by Peters' helicopter use. But take that out of the equation and his was an otherwise excellent campaign.

One of the greatest political truisms is that 'nothing is forever'. So yes, New Zealand First could work its way back. Will it? It's simply far too early to even attempt an answer. Partly, it will be a question of whether enough New Zealanders will be able to forget the Glenn affair or whether they simply can no longer trust Peters. Partly, it will depend on what happens between now and 2011.

It will be a battle royal. Hide's stance on Maori seats and smacking suggests that the authoritarian wing of ACT is having more sway than the libertarian wing at the moment and that it will be going after the same voters as New Zealand First; ie those on the centre-right and right who think anything involving Maori or government is "PC" or "nanny state". National will also feel compelled to pander to at least the centre-right part of that crowd.

And the battle will be personal. Key's decision not to even consider a coalition with New Zealand First last year did for Peters. The former MP for Tauranga will have the current MP for Helensville in his sights. And Hide led the parliamentary charge against Peters over the Glenn affair. Oh yes, this will be personal. Peters has already called Hide "a mendacious sybarite". (No, I didn't know either; it means "a person devoted to luxury and pleasure; effeminate".

Labour can have the rare pleasure letting them go at it while it gets on with its own game. New Auckland mayoral candidate Len Brown will be a significant player for the party next year. The Auckland mayoralty will be the one high-profile political game next year in which Labour stands a chance; it will be an important anti-government platform and Brown looks up for it. With Bob Harvey likely to stand for the super council rather than the top job (perhaps in the hope of becoming Brown's deputy?), only Mike Lee can split the left. Who knows how fragmented the right could become?

It will be a fascinating contest. Can Brown and Harvey together rally the south and west against John Banks' support in the east and centre? Exactly how much money will business throw at Banks' campaign? Will National use the political capital of popular MPs such as Paula Bennett and Sam Lotu-liga to compete in the south and west? Who will claim the north?

The armies aren't exactly engaging yet, but make no mistake, the weekend's events began a new chapter in this government's story; the call to arms can be heard loud and clear.