A by-election that might have something for Labour

The Te Tai Tokerau by-election this Saturday is the fourth this parliamentary term and for once it is not Labour that is under pressure. Instead, Labour has something to gain.

By contrast, Hone Harawira has something to prove — and much to risk.

Harawira was within his rights and also democratically right to call a by-election. An MP who scoots from, or is dumped by, the party under whose banner that MP come into Parliament has lost a large chunk of democratic legitimacy. A by-election restores that legitimacy.

Few MPs are in Parliament in their own right. Peter Dunne might be said to be — his party is these days not much more than an adjunct to him. Jim Anderton has held his seat in his own right in a number of elections, though when he left Labour in 1989 to form NewLabour he did not call a by-election for legitimisation. He feared he would lose.

Winston Peters did call a by-election, in 1993 after National constructively dismissed him, having fired him from the cabinet in late 1991 and making it clear it would not re-select him as its Tauranga candidate for the 1993 election. Tariana Turia did, too, in 2004 when she left Labour over the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

Peters won with 91 per cent of the vote and Turia 92 per cent. National and Labour stayed out of both contests. So the two by-elections in effect formalised Peters’ and Turia’s membership of Parliament. They then sealed that by holding their seats against their former parties in the following general elections.

For Harawira there can be no mere formalisation. First, it is an opportunity for Labour to showcase Kelvin Davis, a 2008 newcomer it rates — he is 26 on the 2011 list. Second, Labour wants the Maori seats back and standing aside would have made a mockery of that aspiration.

Labour did stand aside in Turia’s by-election. But if it had fought her and lost, as it would have, probably by a large margin, that would have added moral strength to Turia’s leaving Labour. In Harawira’s case the only risk to Labour’s credibility is to lose by a bigger margin than the 60 per cent to 29 per cent in 2008 when Harawira stood for the Maori party. That now looks unlikely.

But why is the Maori party in the race only to lose? For one, Harawira and his Mana party are claiming to be the true Maori party, which is a more direct, life-threatening challenge than Peters’ and Turia’s challenges to their former parties.

Second, the by-election gives the Maori party a focal activity on which to rebuild in Te Tai Tokerau even if its candidate, Solomon Tipene, is low-key and comes third. It has to do that so that in the event Harawira crashes — now or in November or in 2014 — the seat doesn’t revert to Labour by default. The risk is that by siphoning off some votes from Harawira, Tipene might actually precipitate exactly that. Labour is hoping that might happen in other seats in the general election, notably in Annette Sykes’ home electorate, Waiariki, if Maori and Mana go head to head.

The TV3 poll last week brought that risk front of mind, though too much shouldn’t be read into a single poll.

But Davis doesn’t have to win for Labour to win. Labour “wins” if Davis halves the 2008 31 per cent margin or better. David Shearer “won” for Labour when he got a higher vote share in the Mt Albert by-election in 2009 than Helen Clark had got in the 2008 election. In a minor key, Labour “won” in Mana and Botany by doing better, relative to 2008, than it was doing in national polls.

By contrast, Harawira needs to win well to cement his claim to be the true Maori force and to be a credible rallying point for the leftwing groupies who cheered on his party launch last month. A slim win such as the TV3 poll suggested would not be the mandate he needs. A loss, of course, would knock out him and his party — and the far left.

That is what Labour, National and the Maori party want most.

Having seeing off the Alliance in 2002 and Matt McCarten in Mana, Labour does not want another left force, however small, siphoning off votes in November when it is struggling to hold its vote and already has the Greens prospecting for fallout votes.

The Maori party badly needs Harawira out or wounded to recover its primacy in the Maori electorates. Splits are bad for major parties but often fatal for small parties. (ACT, note, has also split, though in novel manner.)

National needs the Maori party. Through it National gets by proxy Maori electorate votes that otherwise would be on Labour’s side of the House. A divided Maori party — which is what in effect Mana and the Maori party amount to — will be highly likely eventually to cede those votes back to Labour.

Cauterising, or at least crippling, Mana on Saturday is therefore in National’s interest, which was what John Key was obliquely saying last week when he said Davis could win.

So for a change something hangs on a by-election. We can thank Harawira for arranging that — though it may not be exactly what he had in mind.