Size of defeat a warning to National
Labour’s resounding victory in the Christchurch East by-election on Saturday should be causing a few sleepless nights at National Party HQ.
It was not the loss so much. Only Labour seemed capable of convincing itself that it could lose the seat it had held since time immemorial.
It was the nature and size of the defeat that should be setting off warning bells.
A 61 per cent vote for Labour’s Poto Williams, against 26 per cent for National’s Matthew Doocey, was far better even than outgoing and popular MP Lianne Dalziel achieved in 2011 over the less-than-stellar Aaron Gilmore.
The majority on the night of 4613 was only about 700 smaller than Dalziel’s on a turnout of just 41 per cent - roughly half the turnout in 2011.
There is no doubt Labour threw a lot of effort into the seat, knowing a failure would echo back on new leader David Cunliffe. It was farewell to telephone canvassing and hello to intensive door-knocking.
The party claimed 13,000 face-to-face meetings with voters during the campaign.
Labour also benefited from the machinery of the successful local body campaign that swept Ms Dalziel into the mayoralty with a council that swayed to the Left.
But National did not exactly sit back on its laurels in the seat.
True, in policy terms it didn’t throw the kitchen sink at the electorate – in fact it was remarkably flat-footed given the power available to incumbent governments.
But it did throw the Kitchen Cabinet into the seat for varying lengths of time, including regular forays by Prime Minister John Key.
Nor did it stint on traditional campaigning tools; billboards and mail-outs including a personal missive from Key.
The message voters sent back was not just about the Government’s role in the slow and frustrating recovery from the earthquake, and the insurance woes bedevilling many, although that was a large part of it.
It was also that Christchurch – which made a significant contribution to National’s win at the last election – can no longer be counted on to deliver a decisive party vote for the Government.
It also showed that a popular leader can only take the party so far and that the polls may not be picking up the softness of the Government’s vote.
Perhaps the biggest warning of all to National was Labour’s grassroots organisation, marshalled by former deputy prime minister Jim Anderton using his now-legendary ‘‘campaigning manual’’.
Under Cunliffe, Labour has set as a primary goal getting out those 800,000 non-voters from 2011, heavily represented in Labour strongholds in Auckland.
The low turnout in Christchurch East may mask the effectiveness of that approach if it is applied in 2014 – and it could be a far greater threat to National than a bad loss in a near-unwinnable seat.