Saturday night’s Northcote by-election result shows that politics in New Zealand is currently in a state of stalemate.
Overall, there was a tiny swing (1.6%) from National to the Labour/Greens/NZ First block.
A swing that small hardly matters.
In essence, neither National nor Labour made up ground.
That, however, didn’t stop both parties claim victory on the night.
Labour vastly improved its vote from 35.6% to 44.2%; a fact that encouraged the Prime Minister to argue that the result was a victory for her Government.
“It was eight months ago that we last stood under these circumstances, at the end of an election at the end of a polling day,” she told jubilant supporters at a Northcote bar on election night.
“Some things have changed, some things have not.
“Some of the things that have changed have included the support for Labour.
“We have grown from a party that polled 37% on election night to one that now polls over 40.”
She congratulated Labour’s candidate, Shanan Halbert, for slashing 5000 votes off what she called a National stronghold’s majority.
“I hope that speaks to the support that Labour has gained in those eight months.
“And things that haven’t changed include the fact that for the Labour party and this Government, people continue to sit at the centre.”
She then listed some of the Government’s achievements in those eight months.
But what she didn’t say was that New Zealand First did not stand a candidate in the by-election, and it has to be assumed that the 3.8% their candidate got at the general election made up part of Labour’s vote increase as did a substantial slice of Green support.
The Green candidate Rebecca Jaung (who also stood at the general election) saw her vote fall from 6.8% to 2.91%.
Again, it has to be assumed that the 3.9% she lost went to Labour.
Certainly, there was plenty of talk during the campaign that Labour was trying to persuade Green voters to vote tactically for Halbert.
There is one caveat on these assumptions, and that is that the turnout was so low — 19,874 votes were cast against 36,191 at the general election — that the voting intentions of those who didn’t vote are a mystery.
But both parties consistently said during the campaign that apathy was their biggest challenge.
So for Labour, it was a victory of sorts, but one, that in a sense, they paid for by cannibalising their support parties.
At the start of the campaign, they were careful to talk their chances down.
Party officials referred reporters to the 2010 mana by-election when National’s Hekia Parata increased National’s share of the vote by six per cent, but Labour’s Kris Faafoi still won the seat even though he reduced Labour’s share of the vote by almost six per cent.
But by last weekend Halbert’s campaign team were sounding confident that they could actually win the seat.
Even so, the Mana analogy was not strictly correct.
Parata took votes off Labour to get her increase; Halbert took votes off the Greens and NZ First.
For National the immediate reaction was relief; firstly that they had held the seat and secondly, and possibly more importantly, that there was no surge against them which they feared would have been talked up by the media as a rejection of the new leader Simon Bridges.
Their campaign had its issues.
There were questions back in Wellington about some of the rhetoric that was being used to discuss transport issues and a fear that the tough talk could rebound on National who, after all, were the Government for most of the time the traffic jams on the North Shore built up.
There were questions about the decision to include former Prime Minister, John Key, in a Facebook campaign but defenders of that move said it was because of his huge personal Facebook following.
National also appeared surprised at the strength and passion of the Labour campaign.
“They threw the kitchen sink at it,” one MP said on Saturday night.
But a closer look at Labourt might have seen the hand of Campaign Chair Mt Roskill MP, Michael Wood, behind much of the strategy.
Wood is a long-time Labour activist who ran a highly successful by-election campaign in his own seat in 2016.
Coupled with the constant presence of the former Northcote MP, Anne Hartley and former Clark Government Minister, Chris Carter (fresh back from Myanmar) and Labour had a highly experienced brains trust at the heart of its campaign.
But to the extent that the by-election can be a pointer to the general election, it is now clear that the fate of Labour’s support parties will play a huge, if not dominant role in the next election.
If they collapse and Labour does not try to save them with electoral deals then the closer the contest comes to a two-party Labour v National race and National’s chances improve.
If both NZ First and the Greens stay in the race, then National could once again end up stranded with the highest share of the vote but with not enough allies to boost that share above 50%.
So the conclusion from Saturday is that to be safe, Labour needs to start targeting National voters, and National itself needs to think deeply and seriously about its support party strategies.
Until either party makes a move in those directions, the current stalemate looks likely to continue.