Everything to play for in Northland

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.