The loudest message went to National. The loudest clap was for Winston (not NZ First). But each party can take fortune cookies from the result in Northland this weekend.
First National. The secret of John Key's Teflon popularity; 'don’t be what we know you really are - Tories.' When National inhabits the centre ground, and behaves like a Labour-lite government, they're hard to beat.
After the 2008 election Key’s government kept Labour’s Working for Families tax break and interest-free student loans. After 2011 it introduced free doctors visits for kids under the age of thirteen and extended Paid Parental Leave, a policy they fought to kill fifteen years before.
Bill English, at times has looked like the best Labour finance minister since Michael Cullen. Except when the mask falls and he says nasty Tory things like ‘Low wages make us more competitive overseas’ or ‘If the market wants raw logs the market gets raw logs’.
Now it turns out the tilt to the centre was skin deep.
There was no great conversion to active management of the economy or compassion. 2008-2014 saw a series of tactical moves from a government with a slim majority, dependent on the Maori party. That's all. And the Maori party voted ‘left’ on just about every major piece of legislation, from employment law to paid parental leave.
Everything changed after the 2014 election when it looked like National wouldn’t need the Maori party.
Time to throw some red meat to the base. The problem with the economy, they announced in an odd move, that would have been comical had it not been so mean, was that we’re all taking too many tea breaks.
Stop drinking tea and the economy will thrive.
‘And then we’re going to pay you more by paying you less.’
The Employment Relations Amendment Bill, in the words of the Cabinet paper will 'enable employers to offer individual terms and conditions that are less than those in the collective agreement.'
Translated that means 'keep wages low'. The Bill removed the right of a new worker to be paid no less than anyone on a collective agreement.
Against that backdrop, government ministers drove round Northland in a phalanx of Crown cars, and the popular John Key looked like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, promising sweets, chocolates and bridges.
National is still polling high across the country. And perhaps luckily for them, the numbers in parliament have returned to something closer to 2011. The Maori party will be a hand break.
If John Key has any sense he’ll make a virtue of circumstance, and use Northland as his excuse to resist throwing any more red meat, and spend less time talking up the Auckland economy of latte makers and hair dressers, and more time talking up the milk and wood produced in the regions.
There are lessons for Labour too. Winning by doing nothing is not success.
Yes, the nod and the wink to Labour supporters in the North helped get Winston across the line, and thousands voted tactically because they heard the call. But it would have been so much easier for Labour to share the glory on Saturday night if they'd said clearly during the campaign; ‘A win for Winston is our best way to send a message to the government, and start the road to a Labour-led government in 2017. He can’t win without us. We’re asking you to vote for Winston, come up and volunteer or donate.’ Winston’s biggest risk was turnout on the day. He didn’t have much organisation on the ground. Luckily for him, the National party’s fabled machine backfired and failed to get its own supporters to vote for them.
Now he’s bending over backwards to tell people his win had nothing to do with Labour’s help.
Governments don’t just lose elections. Oppositions have to win them. When Willow Jean Prime was campaigning (before the nod and the wink) she didn’t have a strong enough Labour message. 'Vote for me to get a strong local voice for the North in parliament' wasn't strong enough. That reveals a gap in Labour’s strategy nationally. They haven’t yet given people a reason to switch their vote to Labour. Getting that right needs to be a priority.
How did Winston - not Labour - manage to capture the protest vote in the North? It wasn’t just brand Winston. He had a good message and he delivered it with passionate. He gave people hope.
But the biggest message is for the Greens.
They are nowhere in this by-election, which is not a surprise. But a Labour-New Zealand First ticket is looking possible in 2017, and that feels a lot less scary to voters than a Labour-Greens ticket.
Which brings me to one final fortune cookie for Winston; ‘Don’t forget that you won this by-election by campaigning on a Labour message of more jobs, more infrastructure, and a pro-active government that grows the economy in the regions, for the many not just the few.'
Don't make the mistake that National just made, or shifting back to the right.