In mid-year, Helen Clark was adamant that the Labour Party would not help the Greens in their most fertile oasis, the Coromandel electorate. It was not clear why such assistance should even be considered, she pronounced, confirming that Labour would field a candidate. That, however, was before a string of recent polls revealed a drastic narrowing of the centre-left's lead. And before the Greens, boosted by the genetic engineering debate, staged a mini-resurgence. They now attract abut 3 per cent support, sufficient to net three or four seats if they win Coromandel.



And the race for that electorate has developed into a neck-and-neck tussle between Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons and the sitting National MP. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Helen Clark now signals that Labour supporters should cast their constituency vote for Jeanette Fitzsimons. Those Green seats could yet be the buffer that allows the centre-left to govern without having to rely on New Zealand First.



The change of tack is, however, bound to attract some scorn. Was it not Labour which criticised tactical arrangements between the National Party and its supporters? They are the sort of behind-the-scenes contrivances that see National standing aside in Wellington Central in favour of the Act leader and in Ohariu-Belmont to help the United Party leader.



There is much justification in the claim that such arrangements constrain democracy. How can it be otherwise when party supporters are denied the opportunity to cast their constituency vote for that party?

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Labour can claim mitigating factors. Its Coromandel candidate remains in place, even if Labour supporters are now put in a situation that some may dislike. And Helen Clark's signal to those supporters at least provides plenty of time for considering options.



Certainly, there is not the whiff of absolute panic that accompanied Prime Minister Jim Bolger's election-eve endorsement of Act in Wellington Central in 1996. That move destroyed the campaign of a young National candidate locked in a three-way tussle for the seat. It ensured there was no likelihood that Mark Thomas would go down in history as the man who won his seat but lost an election. National has made certain there will be no similar embarrassment in Wellington Central this time.



In contrast to Mark Thomas, Margaret Hawkeswood, the Labour candidate making her fourth bid for Coromandel, has little prospect of winning. While it is easy to feel sympathy for her plight, as an experienced campaigner she must have entered the race knowing what the reality of MMP might hold in store.



Her job now, as Helen Clark has remarked, is to work for the party vote. The importance of that task cannot be overstated. The party vote, not the constituency vote, will determine who holds power in the next Parliament.



That fact appears not to have dawned on many voters. They still think in first-past-the-post terms, a relatively simple world of candidate versus candidate. But if politicians have had to sharpen their tactical nous to make the most of MMP, so must voters.



Labour has appreciated the reality of the Coromandel race and given an appropriate signal. It must hope that its supporters are as adroit as National's voters in Wellington Central three years ago and, having done their sums, reach the same conclusion.