Labour's landslide relief

CHEERS: Labour leader David Cunliffe congratulates Poto Williams.
CHEERS: Labour leader David Cunliffe congratulates Poto Williams.

The voters of Christchurch East have sent a clear message to the Government about the handling of the earthquake in their slice of the city.

Last night's resounding victory for Poto Williams in the seat vacated by Lianne Dalziel will have seen David Cunliffe heave a sigh of surprised relief after what was always going to be seen as a de-facto referendum on his leadership

Like National, he had been talking down his side's chances ahead of the by-election, claiming any old win would be enough, but pointing to the 4100 party vote majority National had in the seat in 2011 to suggest Labour had a mountain to climb.

Turns out he was making a mountain out of a molehill.

Even his pre-election musing, that 50 per cent would be nice, turned out to be a massive understatement.

Williams eclipsed Dalziel's 54 per cent of the candidate vote with closer to 61 per cent against 26 per cent for National's Matthew Doocey.

The combination of disgruntlement about the earthquake recovery, an endorsement from Dalziel, a big push by the campaign team led by Jim Anderton and the new energy in Labour since Cunliffe took over the reins catapulted Williams to a huge victory.

Prime Minister John Key set his sights deliberately low - a cut to Dalziel's 5000-plus majority that was inevitable given the expected poor turnout.

In the end, Williams even gave that target a shake, sweeping in with a majority of 4613 but with an abysmally low turnout in the seat of just 13,908 on the night.

That may give National some solace - that apathy especially among its own voters had inflated the size of Labour's victory.

In the end, though, you can only count the votes that were cast and on that basis it was an old-fashioned landslide.

Cunliffe was clearly buoyed by the result, last night talking up the change that was coming "to Christchurch and the country".

Labour hit the right notes with its candidate, who, he said, made a "genuine connection" with the electorate.

But its policy announcements had also hit the spot.

The promise to fast-track home-building programme KiwiBuild was welcome in an area hit hard by demolitions and rental and housing shortages. A concrete promise to buy into the rebuild of New Brighton - matched in rather lukewarm fashion by the Government, also went down well.

Cunliffe believes the pledge of a state-owned insurance company, KiwiAssure, which gained little traction elsewhere in the country, was also a winner.

Within minutes of Williams' victory he harked back to the issues that canvassers found on doorstep after doorstep in the electorate - problems with the Earthquake Commission, repeated visits and assessments without a payout and difficulties with Southern Response - the state-owned rump of the old AMI.

Cunliffe said Labour's state insurer would make a difference, but if there were still problems he signalled that "regulatory consequences" would follow.

It all suggests Labour under Cunliffe see the by-election as a sign the party should press on even more strongly in the Leftward and interventionist direction it has taken so far.

Sunday Star Times