Gone fishing — but for what exactly?

On Saturday Labour catches the long east fish again. Or so it reckons — or needs to reckon. If the fish escapes Labour’s net a hunger will set in.

And history tells us that if hunger turns to starvation, good souls can turn self-destructive or worse.

The first rule about by-elections is that not much can be read into them about the country’s state of mind. The second rule is that each party can read self-serving tea-leaf wisdoms into the result.

Both rules are especially true about a Maori electorate. Maori politics, including Maori electoral politics, are different.

The past 20 years tells us so. After half a century of holding all the Maori seats, Labour lost one in 1993 — to Tau Henare, scion of a ranking National whanau but at the time on ex-National Winston Peters’ waka.

Actually, the half-century tenure was not Labour’s as such. It was courtesy of the Ratana movement and by the early 1980s that alliance was fraying as claims for land, justice and mana gained confidence. The Labour party’s Maori council was less a Labour council than a Maori one. But few in the white hierarchy noticed.

In 1996 Peters, often then more Scot than Maori and scoffing at “sickly white liberals” who indulged Maori militants, parlayed Henare’s win into a clean sweep. Peters in 1996 had alliances where they counted, at the apex of Maoridom.

That clean sweep lasted only as long as Peters’ dalliance with National. Henare found his way to his birthright place, in National. Labour got the seats back in 1999.

But that was an illusion. The logic of MMP was that the seats were Maori, not Labour. The accident of the foreshore and seabed (F&S) judgment and legislation in 2003-04 delivered four, then five, seats to the Maori party in the 2005 and 2008 elections.

Ikaroa-Rawhiti stayed Labour through that turbulence. Or did it? Parekura Horomia held it as a ranking — and very Maori — Maori at least as much as, and arguably more than, as a Labour cabinet minister. Nanaia Mahuta has high rank and held Hauraki-Waikato through the F&S. The Tirikatene name prevailed to win back Te Tai Tonga in 2011.

Horomia was Ngati Porou in an electorate in which Ngati Porou (at each end) and Ngati Kahungungu (a vast swathe through the middle) predominate. Labour’s by-election candidate is Ngati Kahungungu. The Maori party’s candidate is Ngati Porou but its president and one co-leader are Ngati-Kahungungu. On that simple numerical count the Maori party has an edge.

In political-socioeconomic terms Labour is the more logical choice since most Maori are not well off. Moreover, the Maori party’s candidate is National’s candidate, by proxy and by explicit endorsement, and National is the party of the better-off.

Still, the Maori party frequently breaks ranks with National on socioeconomic issues, including workplace law. And the Maori party is Maori, even though both its co-leaders came from Labour.

But the Maori party has lost national momentum since its split with Hone Harawira and Mana. So if it were to win on Saturday that could be read as peculiar to the circumstances of the by-election and not as signalling a revival (though a win could contribute to a revival).

The obverse of that is that if voters respond on Saturday to Labour’s need to catch the fish again, such a Labour win could be read as Maori party weakness, not explicit endorsement of Labour. Also note that Labour, being broad-based, can put numbers on the ground to get the vote out.

Moreover, the Maori seat turnout in general elections is far lower than in general seats and the by-election turnout is likely to be so small as to sow doubt about how representative it is. Also, Maori interest in Maori electorates may be waning, if the Maori party’s worry about the low numbers opting for the Maori roll in the current re-enrolment is a guide.

None of those factors will stop David Shearer claiming endorsement and victory if Meka Whaitiri wins. Nor will they stop John Key and Pita Sharples claiming defeat for Labour if the vote is low or close or scorning Labour as weak, irrelevant and disorganised if Na Raihania wins (which Shearer might be able to blame in part on the Greens for standing).

And nothing in the result will soften the hard fact that, whatever the result, Labour has some tough rethinking to do about the quality of its Maori electorate candidates and whether those candidates are Labour or Maori and what that means for Labour and its role in those electorates.

By contrast, the by-election to replace Lianne Dalziel in October should be a breeze.

Not so. Among special factors in that by-election (including frustration at Gerry Brownlee’s reconstruction management) is that Dalziel felt undervalued by both the Goff-King and Shearer-Robertson leaderships. Her going symbolises the healing and uniting work still ahead of Labour and the questions that hang over Shearer as leader. Also important: can Labour choose a next-generation candidate?

But first there’s a fish to catch.