Labour's big win: hard thinking for John Key

The jury has spoken. But does it speak for anywhere other than Mt Albert? And does it speak on anything but Mt Albert’s particularities?

At least the Supreme Court doesn’t get a look in, to tell the jurors there is evidence they must not hear because they are not wise enough to judge its relevance or accuracy. In elections, as distinct from in the law, voters are treated, by the presiding authorities at least, as adults.

Voters adjudicate the value and validity of the parties’ and candidates’ flannel. And citizens accept the result, even if they don’t like it. Juries are past their use-by date. Voters aren’t.

On election night last year Helen Clark accepted her dismissal and within a few days Phil Goff was leader.

The downside for Goff, and Labour, of that clinical transition was that he had to endure the post-election blackout as a new Prime Minister charmed small parties and widely varying segments of the population, including Labour segments.

The worry for Goff and Labour when Clark went to New York was of a by-election result that National could plausibly paint as rejection of both.

“Plausible” is the point about by-elections. There are often multiple plausible explanations.

Nevertheless, some by-elections do in retrospect tell something about the wider public mood. Mt Albert may be such a by-election.

In 1969 National squeezed back against a rising, but not quite ready, Labour led by a rising, but not quite ready, leader, Norman Kirk.

A senior National minister, Tom Shand, died soon after the election. In the by-election in February 1970 his son — a mere sliver off the old block — lost his previously safe seat. The elder Shand’s 53 per cent slid to 41 per cent.

That was a first signal of the slippage in National’s general support that ended in a landslide Labour win in 1972.

Inflation had risen after the election. In retrospect the 1970 by-election could be read as a signal that if Labour and Kirk continued to rise and mature, there would be a change of government next general election.

That might have been the message on Saturday, had the Mt Albert by-election followed a narrow Labour win and Labour’s vote plunged.

A nearer parallel might be the Timaru by-election in June 1985, 11 months after a reform-minded Labour had won office after eight and a-half years in opposition.

Labour held Timaru with an 10 percentage-point margin over National in the 1984 election. National won it in the 1985 by-election with a 7 percentage-point margin.

This shook leaves in Wellington at the time. Was it a sign that the electorate did not like the reforms? Already some Labour voters were peeling off.

The reformers charged on regardless. The seat nearly returned to Labour in the 1987 election, helped by pro-reform New Zealand party 1984 and 1985 votes going Labour’s way and offsetting the weakness in Labour’s core vote. If Timaru was a harbinger, it was of the disaster to come for Labour in 1990 when the New Zealand party vote disappeared and its core vote rebelled in large numbers.

Meantime, Timaru did not save Jim McLay’s leadership, wrested off Sir Robert Muldoon late in 1984. Jim Bolger took over early in 1986.

Bolger himself was shaken when Sir Robert retired. His 59 per cent vote share in ultra-safe Tamaki in 1990 collapsed to 45 per cent in a February 1992 by-election.

National plunged a similar 13 percentage points in the 1993 election from its 1990 landslide.

So is Mt Albert Timaru or Tamaki or neither?

Labour won big. David Shearer’s election-night 63 per cent topped Clark’s 59 per cent, trashing the usual logic of a new boy following a super-high-profile long-term incumbent. Even in raw numbers his 9187 majority stacks up against Clark’s 10,351.

Goff’s leadership is bolstered. Labour can expect party workers to take heart. They can believe that if they canvass and connect with their core voters, as in Mt Albert, they might win in 2011.

National’s vote share dropped 12 percentage points, from 29 per cent to 17 per cent. Is that Tamaki over again?

Not necessarily. Melissa Lee was not following a super-high-profile long-term incumbent in a safe seat. She was on enemy territory and her chances were always marginal. And she was gaffe-prone. And the Greens ran co-leader Russel Norman.

More important, her dismal showing as a tokenistic candidate offers no support for National’s thesis that Asian voters are turning its way.

Nor does the by-election say much about the government’s policy approach, which still commands general (though now a little mixed) approval. It more likely reflects discomfort about super-Auckland and the motorway and ministers’ crash-through approach to those issues. But super-Auckland and the motorway are localised and — probably — time-bound. And crash-through can be moderated.

The bigger message to National from Labour’s big win is that earning votes while in government is hard work, substance over style. After Mt Albert John Key has some hard thinking to do.