Labour can be reasonably pleased with the Mana result. The majority is small but that does not mean anything for the wider party. To win Labour had to overcome 1) a weak candidate 2) a ferocious Key-centred National campaign 3) a threat to its left 4) a media narrative that damned it thrice over, and 5) a very low turn-out.
A 1,000 vote majority is not huge but that is no reason to think that Mana has suddenly become a marginal seat and it is certainly not a bad omen for the Labour Party as whole going into next year. The factors that worked against Labour in the by-election will not be present again with the same force at the general election:
1) Kris Fa’afoi was not stellar by any means. He appeared to lack conviction in his public appearances and to be repeating lines from others too much. That’s, perhaps, the inevitable result of going from newsman to press sec to candidate in record time.
Fa’afoi was not the asset in the campaign that, for instance, David Shearer was in Mt Albert. But he now has 8 months to get the measure of his new position and he will. A quick learner with good underlying values, Fa’afoi will grow as an MP and will be a much stronger player come the general election.
2) Even the Tory rag the Trans-Tasman made a point of how hard the Nats were running in Mana. For National, this by-election was about testing the durability of their one asset – John Key. Hekia Parata pretty much hid in the background. Her job was simply to laugh when Key made a joke. Often, media coverage had a comment from Key vs a comment from Fa’afoi.
Make no mistake, National was seriously hoping for an upset result.
Fa’afoi won’t be up against Key in 2011. It will be just him vs Parata. National is not going to expend so much of their one asset’s time in Mana again.
Parata also got endorsed by United Future and the Maori Party. Again, don’t expect that in 2011.
3) Matt McCarten will be disappointed with the 816 votes he won. It’s less than 4% and it came from him campaigning directly and intensely, if only for three weeks. I don’t think it will kill the idea of a new Left Party but it’s a set back.
Most of those votes must have come from Fa’afoi, which nearly halved his majority. McCarten won’t be running in Mana next year.
4) There are essentially three election media narratives. The first is the train wreck/deserved defeat (Bill English, Don Brash, Melissa Lee, Labour 2008). The second is the heroic underdog (Celia Wade-Brown, Len Brown, Winston Peters and Jim Anderton in the old days). The third is the nailbiter.
They all worked against Labour in Mana. The media narrative of Goff’s leadership as a train wreck was established almost before the poor bugger had got into the big seat and hasn’t (yet) been wiped by the closing polls. As Goff’s man, Fa’afoi’s campaign was always tainted with that – notice all the articles about how he had to win a huge majority or it would be a defeat for Goff. And Parata got to play the underdog because she never really had any chance of winning. Her coverage was almost entirely sympathetic. The nailbiter that was created as a media narrative further dis-stablised Fa’afoi as the de facto incumbent.
That it was such a boring campaign that small mistakes would be picked up on by the media desperate for something resembling a story and the only ones were made by Fa’afoi’s side didn’t help.
5) Turn-out was incredibly low at less than 50%. National wanted it that way, of course. We all know a low turn-out hurts Labour the most. Low turn-out alone has cost Fa’afoi thousands in his majority, and that will be reversed next year.
Bear in mind, too, that Parata’s supposedly successful campaign actually saw her win fewer votes this time than she did in 2008.
So, the Labour election organisation had to overcome all these obstacles. And they did, convincingly in the end. It was a game with the conditions stacked against them, albeit one fought on home ground.
Of course, next year Fa’afoi and the local party will have to succeed without so much support from the rest of the party but they’re now up-skilled and ready.
One thought on Parata. She’s one of several new Nat backbenchers who is so full of themselves they are already talking about being PM some day. This is her third defeat in an electorate race but I doubt that will knock the chip off her shoulder.
One thing missing from all analysis I’ve seen so far. Yes, Winnie Laban has a 6,000 vote majority in 2008. But that was a personal vote. Looking at party vote Labour’s majority was just 2,500 (Mana was never a safe Labour seat it was a safe Laban seat).
So take Laban’s personal vote out of the picture in the by-election and the Labour candidate starts with just a 2,500 majority. By election turnout 65% compared to 2008, so reduce the expected majority to 1,600.
And Faa’foi actually got 1,080 of that, campaigning against the PM. Bloody good result for Kris and for Labour!