After Ikaroa-Rawhiti - everyone has something to worry about

Mana and the Maori party must now co-operate or perish. All parties, including Labour should be worried about the low turnout - where's the mood for change? National is losing coalition partners at an alarming rate. But the big question - will the Maori Party survive? Does it deserve to?

Labour's win in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election was big enough. 

Over the last three elections there has been a stable non-Labour vote in the electorate of around 50 per cent. The first job for any challenger was to collapse all the other candidates' support and set up a two horse race.  Labour cruised home because those opponents failed. 

Supporters of all four main contenders should be uneasy that the turn out was as low as it was. The turnout hardly suggests a dangerous mood for change - It's hard to imagine  voters in Turkey or Brazil or Greece refusing to get along to the polls.  It also suggests all the parties contesting the by-election  - including Labour - are struggling to motivate and inspire people. 

At least Labour's result - four times better than the Greens' - should (but won't) conclusively disprove the assumptions of critics who want Labour to be more like the Greens.

On the other hand, Mana has conclusively proved its case against its parent party. The Maori Party could point to nothing in the by-election as evidence that its collaboration with National delivered gains for Ikaroa-Rawhiti voters, nor could it convincingly state something they would gain in the future. 

We can't know whether Mana or the Maori Party would have won if they had established themselves as the likely alternative. Maybe the turn out would have been larger if voters believed a real contest was underway in  which their vote made a difference. But we can see, plain as daylight, that they would have more of a political impact if they cooperated - that begs the question of what would be the basis for their cooperation, so let me speculate.

It's hard to see what the Maori Party is now for. As a former Mana Motuhake  press secretary, I've always felt the Maori Party would come to this because 'Maori' isn't an ideology. The Party has frequently positioned itself as a nationalist party - which IS an ideological position, and one that from time to time puts it alternately in tension and sympathy with National. But little constructive ever arises from nationalism.

If a party stands only for an identity, and a cultural way of doing things, it is limiting. Barack Obama is not the President of the United States because he led the 'African-American Party'. And if he had, he would not be President today. You need to have a programme that says something about the future.

Last year’s dispute over water showed that Maori politics is fracturing and different power bases are emerging. It hasn’t been clear where the Maori party sits in all this, except to look like it belongs to the Maori structures of the past.

Mana, meanwhile, seems to be emphasising class-based politics at a time when post-settlement political structures are moving on rapidly.

Mana Motuhake's ideology didn't much catch on among Maori in the 80s and 90s, but the ideology was coherent: It stood for self-determination - an idea that is more fashionable now. See the Tuhoe settlement, and much of Tariana Turia's rhetoric around whanau ora and more. At the time of Mana Motuhake, some on the left of the Alliance struggled with what sounded to them more like privatisation. Maori who wanted to talk about self-determination  - and self responsibility - found more common ground with National. But its’ always been a hard sell to some in National.

Today, self-determination could be the catalyst for a Mana-Maori reconciliation. It implies powerful and interesting models of devolution and empowerment that, in turn, could easily become an economic and policy programme both National and Labour could live with, despite it representing a set of values that is threatening to both main parties. 

National found a way to accommodate some of these values and worked with the Maori Party. They’ll struggle next election, especially if the Maori party is still trying to work out what it stands for. If Labour can take on the language of aspirations and pro-development at the heart of Maori self-determination, then there could be a policy programme on offer much stronger than the parties provided during the by-election campaign as well as an obvious reason to retain Maori political representation. If this doesn’t happen, then Maori voters in seats like Ikaroa Rawhiti will turn away in even greater numbers and that’ll be the end of the Maori seats.