John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Result cue for National soul-searching

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For David Cunliffe, the result is vindication, writes Armstrong.  Photo / Richard Robinson
For David Cunliffe, the result is vindication, writes Armstrong. Photo / Richard Robinson

They say it ain't over until the Fat Lady sings. The curtain was being pulled down on the Christchurch East byelection long before the Fat Lady even made it to her dressing room to put on her make-up, let alone warble a few Wagnerian arias.

From the earliest results, it was obvious Labour was going to win - and win big. It was slaughter, pure and simple. National won just one of the 24 polling places. Labour's candidate, Poto Williams, secured more than 60 per cent of the vote, bettering the 2011 election margin of her far more high-profile predecessor, Lianne Dalziel.

National's share of the vote crumbled to just over 26 per cent. The large number of party votes National racked up in the seat in 2011 counted for nothing in terms of cross-over support for National's electorate vote on Saturday. That fell by roughly two-thirds on 2011's figure.

National Party bosses will blame low turnout which, at 41 per cent, was on a par with similarly abysmal figures in recent byelections in two Maori seats.

National did not complain, however, about turnout when it cruised to victory in the 2011 byelection in Auckland's Botany seat on an even lower voter-showing than occurred in Christchurch East.

National will plead that it was always on a hiding to nothing in an electorate which covers vast swathes of the most earthquake-damaged parts of Christchurch. And it will surely heed the message in that.

Even allowing for earthquake fatigue, however, the byelection result seems out of kilter with National's and John Key's continuing popularity in nationwide polls.

But the sheer scale of Labour's win will leave National with more than a few nagging doubts that something beyond the need to up the tempo of the Christchurch rebuild was at work here.

National has little margin with which to play to stay in power post-2014. The distinct possibility of Christchurch turning red will surely be the cue for some heavy soul-searching in the Beehive.

For David Cunliffe, the result is vindication for both turning Labour slightly leftwards since he became leader little more than two months ago, and for running a byelection campaign which was tightly focused on the issues peculiar to that seat - housing, insurance and the growing alienation felt by those still waiting for some degree of normality to return to their lives.

The more difficult question - but one which Labour sees as central to its chances of winning power - is whether the result is evidence that Cunliffe can capture the hearts and minds of the "missing" 800,000 or so people who did not vote in the 2011 election.

It is far too early to assume that is happening - just as the byelection arrived too early to be a definitive judgment on Cunliffe's leadership. Still, so far, pretty good.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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