The battle for the north – Hone's close call

Hone Harawira hung onto Te Tai Tokerau in the June by-election after he left the Maori Party. But things have changed since then, which means Mana can take nothing for granted

The minor parties are going to provide much of the best action in this election, and none more so than the Mana Party as Hone Harawira fights to hold Te Tai Tokerau. And while he's starting in pole position, I suspect he's got a struggle on his hands.

Hone Harawira and his whanau are a powerful force in the north – on name recognition alone he's got a strong edge. But it's going to be harder for him to win now than it was when he saw off all-comers to win the by-election in June. But it's do or die for Mana.

The new party's hopes rest on winning the electorate and then gathering enough party votes to bring in one or more MPs alongside Harawira. It's not the most popular tactic, given voter's patience with the National-ACT stitch-up in Epsom that allows the Don Brash-led party to do the same thing. (And If MMP wins the coming referendum and is tweaked in the next term, it may be a trick that Mana only gets to try once).

Its broader strategy, however, is to grow its party vote from the thousands of New Zealanders who don't usually vote in elections, and that can only be good for democracy. No-one can but praise them for that.

So can Harawira do enough to get his new party over the line?

A Marae Investigates poll last week puts Harawira marginally behind Labour's Kelvin Davis, which can't have been pleasant news for Mana.

Asked which party they would give their electorate vote to, 29 percent of the 655 polled (a reasonable sample for a single electorate poll) opted for Mana and Harawira. The Maori Party got 22 percent, but the poll was topped by Labour on 30 percent.

Now the margin of error was +/- 3.5 percent, so there's really nothing in it. And of course polls in Te Tai Tokerau have had a bad rap recently, with the Maori Television effort at the by-election putting Davis just one point behind Harawira, even though the Mana man went on to win by seven percent. The logic is that landline polls are particularly unreliable in Maori electorates with poor and smaller communities.

Perhaps. But it's too simplistic to wave these polls away – even Harawira responded to the Marae result by saying he'd spend more time up north. As we know, polls aren't much chop as snapshots; they show trends. In that regard, the Maori TV poll was accurate enough, and the Marae poll at the very least suggests that Harawira has failed to convince voters since that he's a locked-in, sure-fire, irreplaceable incumbent.

At worst, the trend is away from him and towards Davis. Harawira won in 2008 with a majority of more than 6000 votes. Now it stands at 1117.

(Plus, obviously, we have no idea what impact the Maori TV poll had last time – it may have even been accurate as a snapshot, the surprisingly close numbers galvanising Harawira supporters and improving the turnout.)

What I'm wondering is if the by-election strategy has back-fired. Harawira and his advisers copped significant flak for their choice to hold a by-election less than six months from a general election, but the calculation was made that it would give Harawira a mandate and his new party a platform.

In the June by-election, voters were able to express their sympathy for Harawira as he stood apart from the Maori Party, and to acknowledge that he was one of them; Te Tai Tokerau bows to no party. But having done that, maybe they won't feel the same need to do it again. Whereas a single vote would have required voters to express how they feel about Harawira and vote strategically all in one go, now they can have another think.

What I'm inelegantly trying to express is the fact that the by-election forced many to think about their vote and to take a close look at Davis; maybe they'll take an even closer look this time.

You see, two things have changed since the by-election that makes it harder for Harawira. First, the Maori Party has got its act together. Or at least, they've chosen a popular candidate. Poor old Solomon Tipene could only manage 1,087 votes at the by-election, compared to Harawira's 6065. But this time Waihoroi Shortland is standing for the Maori Party and the party is polling at 22 percent, not nearly as far behind Labour and Mana as it was.

So the question is, who will the Maori Party take most votes from?

Second, Kelvin Davis sits low in Labour's list at 23, and on the party's present polling faces the very real risk of losing his place in parliament. Harawira pushed hard the "2 for 1" message – that a vote for him meant both he and Davis would represent Te Tai Tokerau in the House.

He can't use that line anymore. Tai Tokerau voters will be forced to choose. Davis is fighting for his life as much as Harawira this time and if Labour has any sense it will get over any vain pride and make it quite clear from Kelston to Kaitaia that it's probably one or the other this time.

The third change is in Harawira's favour. He has a party this time. At the by-election he was able to bus in supporters from south Auckland and even further afield. But his campaign, frankly, was all over the place. He won despite it, not because of it.

Hopefully he's learnt from that and with some wise heads and a more disciplined and experienced team around him, he will find his feet. He'll also have a broader manifesto with more detailed policy; his job will be to sell it.

The other variable is that there was a low turnout in June – who will the extra voters side with this time? That's something I'm not well placed to answer. But the polls suggest you'd be foolish to leap to assumptions.

It looks like it'll be hard fought. And in many ways its sad that one of these two men is unlikely to return to parliament. Both have a lot to offer.

Elections, though, don't always reward talent. It comes down to a choice. So will voters go with the up-and-coming MP or the up-and-coming party? It's seems too close to call; and that's the last thing Mana wanted.