By-election win welcome relief for Shearer

WINNING COMBO: Labour leader David Shearer with the party's candidate Meka Whaitiri who won Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election.
WINNING COMBO: Labour leader David Shearer with the party's candidate Meka Whaitiri who won Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election.

It may not have been a stonking win for Labour's Meka Whaitiri in Ikaroa-Rawhiti last night, but it was comfortable enough to have Labour and leader David Shearer heaving a sigh of relief.

A majority of 1761 will be acceptable, given the low turnout and the loss of some of Parekura Horomia's personal vote. To match Horomia's majority of 6541, on the proportionally lower voter numbers, she would have needed more than 3000, but as Shearer - in "underpromising" mode - put it last week "a win is a win".

Shearer's opponents, inside and outside the party, had set it up as a mini-referendum on his leadership. A handful of pessimistic MPs had vented privately to the media that a bad result last night, and a failure to lift in the polls, could open a window of opportunity to roll him in October or November.

That timing is dictated by a number of factors.

The first is the so called "Goff" parallel. If a coup does not come early enough in the cycle, the moment can pass and the party can rumble on to an inevitable defeat.

There is also the new Labour leadership process to take into account. First the caucus would have to lose confidence in Shearer, then there would be a campaign period among the candidates followed by a ballot of the caucus, members and unions - a divisive and energy-sapping process that could not be allowed to drag into election year.

Late in the week the prospect of a spill was already being ridiculed by counter-spin from Shearer loyalists, though, who pointed out that the Labour-Green bloc is only a few percentage points adrift of National. It would need only a small swing for the Opposition to gain power - a point Green co-leader Russel Norman also makes - and on most scenarios it is Winston Peters who holds the balance of power. That is a cause of equal discomfort for both Labour and National.

Shearer's defenders also stressed that comparisons with recent events in Australia are over-stated. There, Julia Gillard was facing an election wipe-out and the loss of a huge number MPs under a first past the post system. Shearer, with allies, is close to power under an MMP system and has the prospect of a bigger caucus after 2014 on current numbers. Neither, though, inspired the voters.

Equally interesting to the Labour maneouvring is Mana's canny choice of a radio personality Te Hamua Nikora that saw it beat the Maori Party's Na Raihania into third place last night.

As Mana fights to displace the Maori Party (and its divided leadership) as the pre-eminent Maori party, it is a hugely significant result.

It is one that Prime Minister John Key can take little comfort from. With no candidate of his own, he had endorsed Raihania as a representative of his support partner.

But the result has underscored the unpopularity of his Government among Maori and the fading fortunes of his ally. The parties of the Opposition won something like 80 per cent of the votes cast.

And so it is on to Christchurch East, which will be a much more difficult by-election for Labour and the really acid test for Shearer - right in the middle of the Spring "window" his party could throw him through.

National must and will stand a candidate. Its popularity, a new Labour face, some infighting for the nod from Labour (quickly sat upon by the party leadership) and the changing demographics in the seat make it problematic for Labour and Shearer.

A sigh of relief last night, then, but still no reason for Shearer to breathe easily.