Phil Quin on what Mt Roskill means

If you listened to the press gallery and to Andrew Little, the retention of a safe Labour seat signals the end of John Key.

Phil Quin has other thoughts:

In late November 2012, the then UK Labour leader, Ed Milliband, celebrated a stunning by election victory in the seat of Corby.

Labour’s Andy Sawford had secured a swing of over 12 per cent to wrest the seat from the Tories.

“This constituency has sent a very clear message today,” Milliband told cheering supporters, “that it’s putting its trust in a One Nation Labour Party and that middle England is turning away from David Cameron and the Conservatives”.

In the 2015 General Election, Corby was reclaimed by the Conservative Party, along with vast swaths of the “middle England” Milliband had been so bullish about just two years earlier.

Whereas Milliband needed but a fraction of the swing achieved in Corby to oust David Cameron from Downing St, Labour went on to lose 26 seats in the 2015 election as the incumbent Tories gained 24.

It was, as Labour peer Lord McConnell told the BBC, a “catastrophic night” for the party and its supporters.

Sounds?awfully familiar.

In light of Labour’s impressive win in Mt?Roskill on Saturday, it seems worth pointing out that by-elections are notoriously unreliable harbingers for coming electoral fortune.

As with Corby, the sharp uptick in Labour’s vote is best understood by looking at voter turnout: despite only about half the number of voters participating on Saturday as compared to the previous general election, Labour’s Michael Wood almost matched Phil Goff’s electorate vote.

Meanwhile National’s raw vote plummeted by close to 10,000. It’s not rocket science: Labour got its vote out; National did not.

Remember the 2013 Christchurch East by election, which saw Labour’s Poto Williams romp home in what then leader David Cunliffe rightly called “a stonking win”?

Cunliffe’s claim during the same speech that it signalled National was “in serious trouble” across New Zealand did not pan out less than a year later when he led Labour to its worst election result in the post-Michael Joseph Savage era.

Stonking, indeed.

There are few truisms left standing in this fickle political era, but this remains: oppositions rarely, if ever, lose by-elections in seats they hold, and can often win where they don’t.

“It’s a basic rule of politics,” Richard Angell, Director of Progress, UK Labour’s centrist pressure group, told me, “the voters know it can send a message to but not change the government.

I’m not sure retaining a safe Labour seat sends any message to the government other than Labour can retain a safe Labour seat with a chump as a candidate.

According to Angell, by election victories can be curses in disguise, causing party strategists to double-down on a failing strategy.

“Ed Miliband” he said, “surrounded himself by wishful thinking, ignoring that the public didn’t trust his leadership nor potential stewardship of the economy – the only things that matter at a general election”.

The echoes with Labour’s predicament here border on the unnerving.

Neale Jones, Andrew Little’s chief of staff took to Twitter to rail against the “commentariat” for failing to grasp Labour’s brilliance, as if two opinion polls the preceding week placing Labour in the twenties were rendered moot by the Mt Roskill win.

Rather than finding solace in the Mt?Roskill win – using it to crowd out copious evidence the party is heading for another general election defeat – Labour needs to ask itself why it can win so effortlessly in a low-stakes contest while at the same time lagging the National Party by 15 – 20 points in most polls.

But, sadly, it seems Little’s Labour has no appetite for such honest self-examination.

Neale Jones and others will enter the Christmas season more cocksure than ever than Labour is on track under their stewardship.

These signs of complacency ought to worry anyone who wants to see the back of John Key next year.

We are likely to see more such utterances from the former Standard author, it’s how they roll.

Thankfully, Andrew Little’s leadership is as safe as houses going into election year.


– Fairfax