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Peter Wilson: Labour Wary Of Mt Albert By-Election

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

Probably before the middle of this year the MPs who effectively ran the last government, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, will be gone.

The loss of Clark's remarkable management skills and Cullen's formidable intellect will be a loss to the Labour Party, but in reality those two politicians moved on immediately after the election.

The change in leadership to Phil Goff and Annette King was flawless, and Clark and Cullen had a lot to do with that.

Since then they have stayed in Parliament, careful not to cast their shadow on their successors, but Goff and King will not be truly in charge, and seen to be in charge, until Clark and Cullen have resigned their seats.

That brings Labour some new problems to deal with.

Clark is an electorate MP, she has held Mt Albert since 1981.

A safe Labour seat in every election since then, but that was when Clark was standing.

Labour says that when the by-election comes round, it will treat Mt Albert as a marginal seat.

It is wise to do so. By-elections can deliver strange results, and just because the former prime minister held it doesn't guarantee Labour can hold on to it.

In the 1996 general election, Jim Bolger retained Taranaki-King Country with a 10,223 majority.

He lost the leadership, resigned from Parliament and there was a by-election in May 1998. Shane Ardern won it for National, his majority was 899.

In last year's general election, Clark retained Mt Albert with a 10,351 majority.

That showed overwhelming voter support for Clark the MP, as the very similar majority showed for Bolger in his electorate in 1996.

But the party vote in Mt Albert last year was a very different matter.

Labour gained 14,894 votes, 42.6 percent of the total, and National 12,468, 35.6 percent of the total votes cast -- a difference of 2426.

National won that election and since then opinion polls have shown it is more popular now than it was on the night.

It will go into the by-election considering Mt Albert is a winnable seat, it will choose a strong candidate and it will go all out. Prime Minister John Key, whose personal popularity is also running higher than it was before the last election, is sure to lead his party's campaign.

The focus will be intense. Mt Albert, like other urban electorates, is small in area. It can and will be saturated, its voters will probably be relieved when the by-election is over.

For Labour, the prospect of losing it is too ghastly to contemplate. Defeat in the seat held by its former leader and prime minister would almost certainly damage morale and hang over the next general election like a black cloud.

The odds must favour Labour retaining it, but Phil Goff will have to mount a vigorous and compelling campaign as he goes head to head with Key.

It too will need a good candidate, and in that it has a problem.

Not that it can't find a good candidate, but whether or not it should put Phil Twyford into the contest.

Twyford, a capable list MP and a local, had seemed to be the chosen one.

If he won the seat, a slot would open for the next MP on Labour's list. That is Damien O'Connor, a former MP and minister who lost West Coast-Tasman by 971 votes to National's Chris Auchinvole in the last election.

There doesn't seem to be much objection to O'Connor coming back, but Cullen is a list MP and when he leaves Parliament he must be replaced from the list as well.

That would be Judith Tizard, who lost what should have been the safe Labour seat of Auckland Central to National's Nikki Kaye by 1497 votes.

There does seem to be objections within Labour to having another "old guard" MP coming back, particularly Tizard who didn't distinguish herself during her time in Parliament.

And if she stood aside, which she can if she wants to, the next four on the list are also former MPs -- Mark Burton, Mahara Okeroa, Martin Gallagher and Dave Hereora.

Before the last election, Labour was heavily into "rejuvenation" and cleared out several long-serving MPs. It was able to deliver some very good new ones, and what it doesn't really need is the return of two from its past.

Labour can get out of this bind by leaving Twyford where he is and putting up a new candidate in Mt Albert. That way there would be only one list slot and O'Connor could come back, which wouldn't be as bad as having two and especially Tizard.

The party must also be thinking about a negative reaction from voters were this to happen. One of the less popular aspects of MMP is that MPs who lose electorate seats often find their way back through the lists, and many voters don't perceive that as being right.

The by-election situation is so sensitive that Labour MPs are grimly determined to say nothing about it, other than that there is "a discussion going on".

So while Twyford might be the best bet in terms of winning the seat, putting him up might not be in Labour's best long-term interests.

It will eventually be up to Goff to decide what to do. It isn't easy, but it goes with the territory.

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