I arrived back in New Zealand last year, a few months before the election, and witnessed my beloved Labour Party conduct a campaign so comprehensively awful that there were times I wondered if it wasn't a performance art piece.
I made this case in a series of pre-election opinion pieces and during a handful of media appearances and was promptly branded a heretic by fellow party members.
"Do us all a favour," one wrote, "and just quietly leave the room. Please ... We are nearly there."
It turned out the "there" to which we were "nearly" was the worst electoral defeat in 92 years: we barely limped to 25 per cent - after two terms in Opposition, the point at which we should be banging down the Beehive's door.
Labour's electoral problems are not especially complex or mysterious: the party's appeal has shrunk to a handful of urban and suburban pockets; it has failed to rejuvenate in policy, personnel or organisation since its repeated drubbings; it operates under a set of self-serving delusions, foremost among them the unshakeable belief that the tide will go out on National eventually.
There is certainly a plausible case that Labour will win the next election due to the unwritten rule that Kiwis like their governments on a nine-year rotation. If this Labour Party, broke, moribund and bereft of ideas, can win in 2017, the three-term rule will rise to immutability.
Others say I should take these criticisms inside the tent. In principle, this is correct - but there is a problem. The Labour Party does not tolerate dissent, not just in a cultural or attitudinal sense, but in its rules. Its governing bodies are elected en masse via first past the post. Sector Councils ensure minority groups have a place at the table, but there is no space whatsoever for minority opinions.
Let's take Labour's stance on our contribution to the fight against Isis (Islamic State). I am one of a small number of members who disagree in principle with the party's stand. This is a legitimate point of view, one shared by centre-left governments and political parties the world over. And yet, in New Zealand Labour, holding such an opinion renders you a sell-out, a secret Tory, an apostate.
What recourse do we have? Because members of the New Zealand Council are elected, clone-like, from the same plurality of members, there is no one capable of advocating on behalf of minority views or looking out for the rights of dissenters. This flows through all the party processes, including candidate selection. Damien O'Connor retains a place in caucus not because of, but despite, the fact that he represents an important if unfashionable strand of Labour's constituency.
Which brings me to Northland. Seven years in opposition to an Auckland-centric Government should have made a byelection in a neglected regional seat an enticing prospect for Labour, especially in light of Mike Sabin's messy departure, but Northland is way out of reach. Colmar Brunton has NZ First and National tied on 36 per cent with Labour on 20; on 3News, Labour's 16 per cent is in line with its party vote in the seat last year. Faced with these numbers, Andrew Little dropped hints on TVNZ's Q+A that Labour supporters should back Winston Peters, as if his party's emergence as a spoiler wasn't entirely predictable - and avoidable.
Late last week, cameras showed Willow-Jean Prime's supporters heckling Peters as he held a street-corner meeting. When I pointed out on Twitter the absurd misguidedness of Labour members doing this, a prominent Auckland party activist responded that they weren't heckling but expressing an opinion, as if interrupting a speaker to express an opinion isn't the dictionary definition of heckling.
Heckling Peters defies common sense, and begs the question: who is in charge of this circus? Where is Little's chief of staff, the much-vaunted Matt McCarten, or the luckiest man to still have a job in politics, Labour general secretary Tim Barnett? The goal of any Opposition is to inflict maximum damage on the Government and, in this case, that takes the shape of Peters defeating National in Northland.
If Prime siphons enough votes from Peters to deliver victory to the Government, John Key won't have dodged a bullet; Andrew Little will have stepped into the bullet's path.
Phil Quin is a former Labour Party adviser and a strategic communications consultant.