Mt Albert likely to be a close battle

If there's anything that puts the fear of God into a government it's a by-election.

We haven't had that many of them in recent years. The last couple - in Selwyn and Taranaki-King Country - were when National was last in power, and in both cases it very nearly lost.

By-elections tend to magnify small local issues beyond all measure because they receive national attention for once. They are also often seen as a referendum on the performance of the government of the day, and voters in those seats often don't waste the opportunity to send a signal to the powers that be, safe in the knowledge it won't actually change the government.

Of course, in really marginal cases it can change the government, but only where its majority hangs by a knife-edge.

Mt Albert is very different, however, since National has a healthy parliamentary majority and it is not a government-held seat. But it's still important - more so for Labour than for National.

If there's anything that puts the fear of God into a government it's a by-election.

We haven't had that many of them in recent years. The last couple - in Selwyn and Taranaki-King Country - were when National was last in power, and in both cases it very nearly lost.

By-elections tend to magnify small local issues beyond all measure because they receive national attention for once. They are also often seen as a referendum on the performance of the government of the day, and voters in those seats often don't waste the opportunity to send a signal to the powers that be, safe in the knowledge it won't actually change the government.

Of course, in really marginal cases it can change the government, but only where its majority hangs by a knife-edge.

Mt Albert is very different, however, since National has a healthy parliamentary majority and it is not a government-held seat. But it's still important - more so for Labour than for National.

Signs that Labour is nervous about Mt Albert, which Helen Clark held with a majority of more than 10,000, are everywhere. Leader Phil Goff has been holding street corner meetings and banging up billboards before the party has even selected a candidate.

Labour was so spooked by whispers of a "buy Phil Twyford, get a free Judith Tizard'' campaign that it quietly persuaded its list MP to stand aside so as to prevent the former Auckland Central MP, who is next on the party list, from getting back into Parliament through the back door.

Goff then persuaded his friend and former star Labour candidate David Shearer to return home from his overseas aid work to throw his hat in the ring for the nomination. It's been madly polling and focus-grouping to find out what the issues are in the seat and what people like and dislike about the Government.

An opposition party wouldn't normally throw this kind of attention at one of its safest seats, but Labour realises that, like it or not, the by-election is an early referendum on its leader. It's not fair on Goff, of course. He hasn't been in the job long enough and Prime Minister John Key is still very much on his honeymoon with the electorate.

But nonetheless, there's no doubt that a thumping in Mt Albert would be very, very bad for Labour's morale. Even if it wins the seat but with a much-reduced majority, it's still a moral victory for National.

So Goff has no choice but to throw everything at the seat in the hope of coming away with a substantial majority intact - and that the Prime Minister is too busy to spend much time there himself.

Labour hasn't been helped by Greens co-leader Russel Norman's decision to run in Mt Albert himself. I can understand Norman's reasoning. By-elections get national attention, the Greens are short of media profile at the moment, and small parties often do very well in them (witness the performance of the Alliance Party in previous tussles).

But that exposure will come at a cost, as it will almost certainly split the centre-Left vote. If National's Melissa Lee (assuming she is selected) comes through the middle and takes Mt Albert, the recriminations on the Left would be bitter and ongoing.

Key has been playing down National's chances of taking the seat, and with good reason. There's no advantage in talking it up, and the underdog status suits him just fine. National has never won the seat before.

But with National's good polling overall and satisfaction with the Government's performance at an all-time high, the Goverment could do very well in the seat.

Can National win? The short answer is yes, it can. Much of Labour's dominance in the electorate was down to Clark's personal presence and commitment to the seat, which has gentrified considerably over the years. The tide remains out on Labour, so a swing against it is very likely. And only a couple of thousand votes seperated the two main parties on the party vote in Mt Albert last November.

If National's Nikki Kaye could take Auckland Central, and National could run Goff himself close in Mt Roskill, I see no reason why a good candidate couldn't take Mt Albert.

Will it though? My pick at this early stage is a win to Labour, but with a much-reduced majority - and that's assuming the centre-Left doesn't dissolve into squabbling between the candidates.

It'll be close, though, and that's why Labour is taking this very seriously.