Mana from Matt & Loves Labour’s Lost

The Mana by-election was Labour's pre-campaign test. It flunked

On past performance, the Mana by-election last weekend should have been a shoo-in for Labour. It was far from that. Phil Goff’s hand-picked candidate Kris Faafoi limped in with a majority of just over 1,000 votes to spare over National’s second-run candidate from 2008, Hekia Parata.

Fears that Unite union leader Matt McCartin’s last minute leap into the campaign would split the left vote proved to be unfounded. “It’s good to be back in Auckland,” he told me after flying home with just 816 votes in the bag from his effort to give Labour a stir up for being so timid.

McCarten came nowhere near his personal target of 10% of the votes cast – and it is the share of votes cast that tells the real story of Mana.

Parata lifted her share of the votes cast from 34.7% in 2008 to 41.6% in Saturday’s poll. She did not give Labour a “thrashing” as her leader claims, but she certainly gave Kris Faafoi and Phil Goff something to worry about over the next 12 months.

Faafoi reduced the Labour candidate’s share of votes cast to 46.4% from 52.3% at the last general election when Winnie Laban defended the seat against Parata. No-one should expect the personal following that Laban built during her eight year term in Mana to transfer to her successor - but Faafoi’s share of votes last weekend was lower than Laban’s 49.7% share on her first run for the seat in 2002. The personal loyalty factor does not explain Labour’s love lost.

The political climate should have been working in Labour’s favour. Two years into National’s slow struggle to pull New Zealand out of a recession, this is a time when Labour should be winning more share of vote in Mana – not losing it.

Lower and middle income New Zealanders are just coming to terms with the National-led government’s income tax reduction – GST rise trade-off. The most recent polls show they do not think they are better off. Unemployment is sticking stubbornly at recession levels, and unemployment is a major issue in Mana with its strong Maori and Pacific Island populations.

On top of that, there are specifically local issues in play in Mana where local fingers point at National: the dismal performance of the commuter rail service into Wellington, the festering problem of keeping a working airport at Paraparaumu, and the encroachment of an expressway development through a still-unknown number of backyards – an echo of the Waterview factor in the Mount Albert by-election.

There are other echoes of Mount Albert in Labour’s conduct of the Mana contest. This is the second time that Phil Goff has shoved a personal favourite into a local by-election candidate selection rate. David Shearer was Phil’s man for Mount Albert. Kris Faafoi is Phil Goff’s press secretary – and despite his strong spin on his local connections, he did not live in and could not vote in the electorate.

Local party feelings were bruised on both occasions. But Faafoi did not have David Shearer’s advantage: a total novice as his National opponent. He was up against a campaign-hardened National candidate who had been a presence in the electorate for the last three years, a rising star with real parliamentary experience and strong ministerial prospects.

Parata had done her groundwork with the influential Pacific Islands church leaders in Mana long before Faafoi arrived on the scene. Labour’s aggressive response to the Maori Party’s success at the last election back-fired on Faafoi. Parata was supported on the hustings by Maori Party leaders, Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples. McCarten captured the support of the only other Maori Party celeb, Hone Harawira. Two traditional support bases that Labour should have been able to depend on last weekend had been undermined long before Faafoi’s feet hit the street.

The other key factor behind Labour’s poor showing is that the party was not ready or willing to roll-out real policy at this point in the general election cycle.

McCarten put his finger right on the raw nerve. Labour was too timid to deserve its traditional voters’ support. Faafoi had nothing to offer to address the problems facing Labour’s core constituency: no firm commitment to address the impact of the GST rise on low-income household budgets [aside from a minor fiddle on fresh fruit and veggies]; no policy to refocus income tax reductions to generate more benefits for low and middle income earners; no programme to create jobs to keep the work habit alive among the unemployed; and no commitment to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

However, McCarten, who is an experienced campaign organizer, ran his own campaign in Mana so badly that I thought he must be duffing it deliberately to ensure that National did not win Mana.

He made no secret of his contempt for Labour’s timidity. He was there to give Labour a bloody nose or a boot up the bum. His campaign workers were arrested for occupying a vacant State house in an electorate with a waiting list before he realized that the 25 vacant State houses in the immediate neighborhood were part of an area with a history that had many locals thinking they should have been bull-dozed rather than re-tenanted.

His supporters provided television channels with a negative spectacle by harassing and shouting down the National Candidate and the Prime Minister during a mall visit. His Mana campaign climaxed on election day, with the police investigating a complaint that his supporters were wearing union colours and waving union flags. This was not the great campaigner’s finest hour.

McCarten denies the duffing charge. He says he stimulated Labour to put the biggest political machine he had ever seen into Mana to turn out their vote. By the Wednesday before polling day, he knew the Labour machine had pulled his vote. Labour’s tactic, he says, was to tell their disgruntled supporters who were turning to McCarten that they agreed with what he was saying and it would all be covered in their policy when it was rolled out for the general election. Meantime, every vote for McCarten would be a vote for Hekia Parata.

So there we are. It was mana from McCarten that saved Kris Faafoi, Phil Goff and the Labour party from a thrashing last weekend. Faafoi and Goff have 12 months to get Labour ship-shape for the next round. So do Parata and Key.