Size of loss a warning for Nationals

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Last updated 09:18 03/12/2013
David Cunliffe and Poto Williams
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

CHEERS: Labour leader David Cunliffe and Christchurch East by-election winner Poto Williams toast her victory on Saturday.

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OPINION: Labour's resounding victory in the Christchurch East by-election should be causing a few sleepless nights at National Party HQ, although you wouldn't know it from Prime Minister John Key's reaction.

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 and with a registered voter base about 6000 smaller.

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 put in place for the successful local body campaign that swept Dalziel into the mayoralty with a council that swayed to the Left.

It made some canny policy announcements during the campaign - on home building, the KiwiAssure state-owned insurance company and the revival of New Brighton.

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 Key where his enthusiastic welcome may have lulled the party into a false sense of support. Nor did it stint on traditional campaigning tools, billboards and mailouts, including a personal missive from Key.

But in downplaying the implications for National, Key pointed to the low turnout - for some reason comparing it with his own 21,000 majority in Helensville.

He had "zero expectations we would win".

National was polled regularly in Christchurch and while there were a range of views on its performance "anecodotally", it was one area that showed strong satisfaction with the Government's efforts.

Nor was he fazed by the poor polling by his ally the ACT Party, which, with 56 votes, was "proportionally the same" as its 2011 result - where it won 101 party votes but did not stand a candidate.

He said ACT got a lot of its votes in seats like Epsom and not in Christchurch East or South Auckland.

However you look at it, though, the voters sent a clear message to Key that 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.

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National will also be analysing the result for its implications elsewhere, especially in seats that are affected, although not as badly as Christchurch East, by the earthquake.

It probably confirms an end to National's brief hold on the revamped Christchurch Central seat, and will give Ruth Dyson heart in Port Hills, where the boundaries have moved against her.

Labour may also be eyeing Waimakariri with new enthusiasm, which Clayton Cosgrove must have felt was a losing cause under the new boundaries.

Apart from any local impact, the by-election result also showed that a popular leader can only take the party so far and that the polls may not be picking up an underlying 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.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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