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Peter Wilson: Labour Gets A By-Election Boost

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson
David Shearer
David Shearer

Labour was always going to win Mt Albert and National had everything going against it, but David Shearer's runaway win on Saturday was still a big boost for Phil Goff and his opposition MPs.

Shearer's 9187 vote majority was surprisingly close to Helen Clark's 10,351 in last year's general election, and she had held the seat since 1981.

That doesn't usually happen when a former prime minister is replaced, and National had hoped for better than the 3426 its candidate Melissa Lee came away with.

An upbeat Labour Party is talking about having "turned the corner" in its bid to reconnect with voters and sees the result as validation of its nationwide campaign to convince people it is listening to their concerns.

Anything less than a good win would have been bad news for Goff and could have raised questions about his leadership, but he was able to confidently stand beside his victorious candidate and talk about Labour redoubling its efforts to oust National in 2011.

In contrast, Prime Minister John Key didn't put in an appearance and Lee was short of support on election night -- as she was in the closing stages of the campaign compared with Labour's all-out effort.

National's campaign went wrong before it had started.

Very soon after Lee was announced as its candidate it became apparent in media interviews that she didn't know what the Government had decided to do about the Waterview connection.

Although Labour's twin tunnel proposal had been canned weeks before and an announcement was imminent, Lee hadn't been kept in the loop.

She didn't know the details of the unpopular alternative of a surface and tunnel motorway through the electorate and had to muddle her way through.

Things deteriorated from there as Lee proved to be unusually accident-prone and a series of gaffes became media events which dominated the first two weeks of the campaign.

While this was happening, Shearer quietly went about his work and he was backed on the ground by an estimated 300 Labour Party activists.

It was all about Labour showing it could still run a damn good campaign, even if it was a by-election in a safe seat, and it worked.

National managed to avoid a worst-case scenario of coming third behind Labour and the Greens by about 1000 votes -- the Green's co-leader Russel Norman gained 2418 against Lee's 3426.

Shearer's campaign strategy was to ignore the controversy surrounding Lee and avoid trying to benefit from it.

ACT's John Boscawen did the opposite and hammered her at every opportunity. He won a meagre 943 votes.

The centre-left vote for Labour and the Greens was an impressive 15,031 compared with the National/ACT centre-right vote of 4369.

For a seat that has been held by Labour for the last 63 years that wasn't strikingly unusual, but it showed National's strong support in nationwide opinion polls isn't universal and Key hasn't mesmerised the entire country.

All the same, this result won't have much of an impact, if any at all, on the mood of voters nationwide.

The by-election was strongly influenced by local issues, particularly the motorway, and National would run a much tighter campaign in a general election.

It says it has learned some lessons although it won't say what they were. One is obvious -- take much greater care of candidates, don't hang them out to dry and then more or less ignore them when it looks as though they're going to take a thrashing.

The Government has to turn its own corner and it will soon put Mt Albert behind it.

All things considered, it has had a wretched few weeks.

Richard Worth's resignation as a minister and his announcement on Friday that he was quitting Parliament has been a huge distraction for Key and his senior ministers.

It has ended relatively painlessly without the need to expel Worth from the caucus but the issues surrounding the former MP and junior minister have been far from edifying.

Key had become increasingly irritated by having to deal with it, and his comment last week that he had "washed his hands" of Worth sent the strong message that if ever a career was over, this one was.

Whatever happens to Worth now, it won't have any more effect on National than Taito Phillip Field's predicament is having on Labour. Worth has been cut loose and he won't be coming back.

The washing of the prime minister's hands also sends a wider message that he doesn't waste any time when it comes to dealing with errant members of his caucus.

In the previous government, Clark was inclined to stand ministers down and reserve judgment while a police investigation went through its tedious process, but that isn't the way Key operates.

As Worth left he was still protesting his innocence, saying he couldn't defend himself in the public and political arena against "hearsay, character assassination and scuttlebutt" which had Labour's fingerprints all over it.

From the National Party's point of view, that doesn't matter now. When MPs quit Parliament they are quickly forgotten.

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