Labour's crushing victory in Mt Albert is not quite as glorious as the party is claiming. But it is not far from it. National's drubbing is about as bad as things get.

Saturday night's massacre underlined one law of byelections but broke another. The first law is not to make mistakes. David Shearer may not have set the world on fire. But his campaign was solid. His main opponent got burned by just about everything she touched. The byelection was a triumph of the soporific over the catastrophic.

The second law of byelections is that the incumbent party can expect one of its opponents to surprise and run it close as other parties' votes collapse to help it.

That surge should have come from National given its continuing strong party vote in what is a Labour stronghold. But Melissa Lee's predilection for self-immolation meant otherwise. National supporters consequently stayed at home.

The Greens' Russel Norman might have filled the void. He seemingly ran a vibrant enough campaign to have done so. Moreover, the Greens seemed to be doing everything right strategically on the national stage.

Saturday night must have been a huge disappointment. The Greens nearly doubled their share of the electorate vote they won in the seat at last year's election to nearly 12 per cent. But they hit close to 20 per cent in the party vote in some metropolitan seats in 2008. They would have expected to do much better in a byelection which had no bearing on who governs the country.

The Greens' failure to run Labour close will be of immense relief to Phil Goff. His grip on the Labour leadership has accordingly been tightened considerably by the result - and deservedly so.

Labour comfortably won the byelection because it kept the focus squarely on local concerns - the Waterview extension being the prime one.

Labour understood that Mt Albert voters were looking for someone who would be a good local MP - not some carpetbagger striding the national stage or someone representing a particular ethnic minority.

Much to National's frustration, nationwide issues seemed to get little currency. The party's strong showing in national polls thus had no spinoff in Mt Albert.

That is unusual for a byelection which tends to be a referendum on a Government's performance. This one wasn't.

Shearer's post-victory remark that the political tide had turned is misplaced. What Labour has done is stop the National tide going further up the beach.

The dominance of local issues, the fact the result did not matter, the carpetbagger factor and the neverending debacle that was Lee's candidacy make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about what the result says about the Government's real popularity.

As a minimum, however, the byelection is another item on a lengthening list of recent events which include the Christine Rankin appointment, the Richard Worth scandal and the Auckland Super City proposal and which have been marked by sloppy political management.

That was again apparent on Saturday night with the party leadership missing in action, leaving Lee struggling on her own until the bitter end.

With John Key unable to be there because of a long-booked private commitment in Taupo, deputy Bill English or another senior minister should have been in Mt Albert to face the music.

It is understandable no one wanted to front or were advised not to front - understandable but indefensible.

The absence of the leadership sent a dreadful message to the party about loyalty. The leadership has to be there for the bad times, not just the good.