Lessons from the weekend of politics

A few takeaways from the local body elections, including lessons for Labour and National and the start of 'The Phil & Bill Show'. Whoooo will win?

What can you really take in a political sense from a series of low-turnout elections in which the winners were mostly incumbents and mostly, still, male, pale and stale?

Well, a little bit, but maybe not as much as some claim.

The three main centres now have openly Labour-aligned mayors, which has those inside the party feeling pretty cock-a-hoop. Which, given how much victory has been a stranger to them in recent years, is understandable. Yes, one of the three mayors is the same and the other two actually represent a slight shift to the right from the previous leaders, but they'll argue that they were much more blatantly Labour-aligned and still gained success.

National spin-men have been knocking around this morning pointing out little has changed and just three years ago Labour won the mayoralty in these cities ahead of their worst general election result in several generations.

Which is true. But Labour will look further back, to 1992 when the Alliance did so well in local elections and then turned that into a strong showing at the general election. While there's no locked in correlation between local and national politics, parties can use the local to leverage momentum nationally, motivate their activists and bind the party.

While the turn-out was low in Auckland, the result there showed Labour still has a decent ground game and has some smart political brains behind the scenes who know what it takes to win in our biggest city, if the party high-ups will listen to them. And perhaps just as importantly, we saw National lose. The Auckland Future ticket fizzled entirely and once again the right in Auckland had a failure to launch. Its goal of swinging the council to the right to make life difficult for Goff failed entirely; he still has a centre-left majority.

So the most important takeaway for Labour is National can be beaten and if they are disciplined and focus in issues the people care about, rather than their own pet projects, there are votes to be won. Andrew Little will want to ram that message home to ensure loyalty through the next year, as the party looks worryingly at his low preferred-Prime Minister ratings.

For all that, it's a stretch to read too much into any of this. The bigger lesson from the weekend is one we already know well; that in low turn-out local elections, incumbency and name recognition – often won on the national political stage – is gold. Voters rely more on a general sense of competence and experience than detailed analysis of the issues. (and while we're at it, the postal ballot system needs to be overhauled or removed).

And that remains the biggest problem for Labour. They have to grow in the polls and to do that they have to look more competent than National. The government on homelessness, prisons, housing affordability and immigration are doing everything they can these days to look a shadow of their former competent selves. So the window is open.

But while the economy stays robust, Labour seems to be getting little traction.

The lessons for National? It really has to start taking Auckland seriously. It could lost the election by not giving Auckland the love it needs and Auckland now has an effective, politically untainted champion willing to play politics.

After his win on Saturday, Phil Goff has talked repeatedly about central government, which raises two contradictory points. First, he has to switch hats and start thinking like a mayor and not an MP. There is much Auckland Council could to on housing, for example. Justin Lester in Wellington is offering a rates rebate for those who build a house; Vic Crone was promising to crack down on land-bankers with a 'use it or lose it' clause in Special Housing developments, that saw much higher rates or rights withdrawn if owners tried to sit on land. He needs to make some moves of his own.

But, equally, the $17 billion of infrastructure Auckland needs can only be funded out of central government. Bill English has said that won't happen; he's chipping in for the central rail link and that's it. But let's be clear – and this is the contradiction to my earlier point that Goff must start acting locally – the only people who can really change Auckland's trajectory are in Wellington. Be it infrastructure bonds, fuel taxes, congestion charges, immigration numbers, or house supply, all the levers that matter are pulled by those in the Beehive, not by those on Albert St.

So it now becomes 'The Phil and Bill Show'. Can English bend? Or more specifically, can Goff convince him to bend. Goff intends to use the mayoralty as a bully pulpit to shame National into spending, ahead of next year's election. Already he's started making the point that if they both can't be seen to be spending more on housing and transport, they will both get punished by voters.

National has seemed remarkably immune to that message until now. Is it because they're unusually tone deaf on Aucklanders' dissatisfaction? Is it because they think other national policies and the John Key magic provide a buffer so they don't have to spend? Are they so ideologically opposed to not-spending or genuinely worried about the books? Or are they saving some big ticket items for election year when they will get political bang for their government buck?

Whatever the reason, Goff is right when he says Aucklanders are frustrated and could turn if they don't start work rapidly on that $17b infrastructure deficit.

Len Brown got the CRL with quiet diplomacy and by not kicking into National; Goff is unlikely to be quite that subtle. Already he's been clumsy, saying that Simon Bridges gave him the "green light" for a regional fuel tax. When Bridges denied that and said he was "loathe" to support such a tax, Goff has kept saying on the trail that he just hasn't got it through cabinet yet. In other words, Bridges is just spinning – lying – to the public while he massages the politics and Goff's versions of events is true.

It's a clunky way to behave, backing the Transport Minister into a corner and embarrassing him. It will be a test for Goff to see if he can rein in his political instincts. Or whether he feels he can afford a more assertive stance in the belief next year's election will force National's hand.

Let 'The Phil and Bill Show' commence. Game on.