With every passing week, it becomes more likely that New Zealand First will decide the next Government.

In that context it was significant when New Zealand First deputy leader Ron Mark publicly rubbished Labour twice this week, in the general debate on Wednesday, then again on Thursday in Question Time.

Winston Peters was away but he apparently has no qualms about it.

New Zealand First attacks the National Government frequently.


Until now, it has largely avoided open attacks on Labour in the 4 years the parties have shared the Opposition benches.

But for a party that will go into the election with no coalition preferences, it has to change that perception.

Mark's salvoes represent a new phase for New Zealand First - a "no favourites" phase.

The party did it badly in the first MMP election in 1996, giving the impression it wanted to get rid of National then going into coalition with it.

MMP is 20 years old and the public and media are better educated about the party that can go either way.

It is about time the phony peace ended.

New Zealand First has a perfectly civilised relationship with Labour but they are rivals, after all.

Behind the attacks on Labour this week is a fight for patch protection. Labour is making its mark on several of New Zealand First's four defining policies - immigration, foreign ownership, law and order, and the elderly.

Who was the first person Newshub featured on Tuesday for its polling item on immigration? Labour's Andrew Little.

That would not have happened a year ago.

Patch wars didn't end with immigration this week. Little's musings about possibly writing off student debt with some country service in regions of particular need is established New Zealand First policy - reiterated by Peters in a speech to students this week, on the same day the story on Labour and student debt broke.

Mark on Wednesday: "Every second day Labour is picking up one of our policies and trumpeting it as its own. If you want the Rolex, come to New Zealand First - do not go buying a cheap Singaporean model from the Labour Party."

New Zealand First, not averse to the odd conspiracy theory, has visions of Labour flicking through its manifesto (yes, a 101-page document in 2014) in search of its next popular policy.

Both of Mark's attacks on Labour were over immigration, an area of extreme sensitivity.

They were directed to Labour spokesman Ian Lees-Galloway who has been looking at the record 209,000 work visas issued to foreigners in the past year, and comparing them to unemployment categories in New Zealand - an eminently sensible exercise.

Every second day Labour is picking up one of our policies and trumpeting it as its own.


Exacerbating the resentment in New Zealand First is the perception that when Labour discusses immigration it is respectable because it is about employment and housing but when New Zealand First does, it is racist and xenophobic.

Mark: "Is the minister surprised that he has so many anti-immigration questions from Labour these days, given that previous Labour leaders have so viciously attacked New Zealand First and Winston Peters on the very same topic?"

The "vicious attacks" haven't happened for years.

But Mark and Peters have long memories and can quote chapter and verse about who said what when as far back as 2002.

Despite their party supporting Labour in Government from 2005 to 2008, they hold a grudge.

Mark is taking more responsibility in Parliament, with Peters spending more time in his Northland electorate and in regional New Zealand.

Mark is more able in the House than any of his backbench colleagues - which helped his coup against Tracy Martin for the deputy job last year; a coup that was not encouraged by Peters (nor actively discouraged).

That coup sent a message to ex-Labour MP Shane Jones that he can't expect to swan into Parliament as Peters' heir apparent to the leadership at next year's election.

There is no suggestion that Peters won't stand again in Northland.

There is increasing speculation that Jones will leave the diplomatic corps and stand for New Zealand First against National MP Shane Reti in Whangarei, an electorate in which New Zealand First has traditionally done well.

Peters has always had an appeal in regional New Zealand and his Northland electorate is a platform from which to grow that appeal.

He is pulling large meetings - nearly 300 this week in Rangiora - but he will soon be holding a rally in the Labour heartland of South Auckland.

It is hard to see Peters and New Zealand First getting anything but stronger in the next 18 months.

He has a large natural constituency in the baby-boomer pipeline which may want some insurance against tampering with their entitlements.

And he is still an anti-establishment icon who will appeal to the disappointed and disaffected.

He will also pick up support from voters tiring of National who can't bring themselves to vote Labour.

He will pick up support from conservative elements of Labour who think Little isn't ready or that Labour and the Greens are too radical.

That's what made Little's attack this week on "right-wingers", former Labour members including Porirua Mayor Nick Leggett, such a blunder.

It wasn't about attacking Leggett.

It reminded people that Labour has factions - which usually lie dormant between leadership coups and leadership elections.

But it sent a message to voters who identify with similarly conservatives lefties in the caucus, such as David Shearer, Stuart Nash, Damien O'Connor, and Kelvin Davis (and Jones when he was there) that Labour might not be their natural home.

And any voter looking around for an alternative to the two big parties will find a welcome mat outside New Zealand First.