I spent the last three weeks in the Mana electorate as an independent candida' />

I've been back in Auckland since Monday and it's like I never left.

I spent the last three weeks in the Mana electorate as an independent candidate in its by-election. I wanted to liven up what was turning out to be a lacklustre campaign by adding a bit of policy debate.

Do you remember when we used to run campaigns where competing candidates actually talked politics and offered up different policies so that voters would understand what they were voting for and why?

These days you wouldn't know what the differences were between the two main parties. Listening to Labour's Kris Faafoi and National's Hekia Parata at candidate meetings over the campaign, I'm still unsure if there's any difference.

The only point where they disagreed was over Labour's disingenuous promise to take GST off fresh fruit and veges to help "struggling families".

However, at the same time, Labour said it would keep GST at 15 per cent. That means the weekly family groceries would still be more expensive than they were before the GST increase. That is pathetic, really. But Faafoi insisted that, wherever he went, his supporters were enthusiastic with the extra scraps thrown their way.

I'm not sure the founders of the Labour Party would have bothered sacrificing their blood, sweat and tears for a socialist paradise if they had known their difference a century later to the capitalist class was GST off stuff they grew in their gardens.

Despite that, I always assumed Labour would retain Mana but I was amazed how close the final result was. At the beginning of the campaign I said that if I couldn't get a close third or second place in the last week, then any support I had would slip to Labour.

We had identified about 2000 supporters but, in the last few days, Labour's message that I was splitting the vote resonated and most of those people moved to Labour to keep Parata out.

They were right, too. If I had retained my earlier support, Labour certainly would have lost. Retaining the seat by just over 1000 votes is a wake-up call for Labour.

Despite its superior campaign team there was an enthusiasm gap from its traditional support base. Consequently it didn't manage to get its core vote out. I am told Labour will roll out policies next year that its supporters will love. For its sake, I hope so.

This brings me to whether there's a space for a new party if Labour continues to drift. This idea was surprisingly raised on the Labour Party-aligned Standard Blog during the Mana by-election. It suggested I'd been in cahoots with Hone Harawira and Sue Bradford in planning such a project.

That is nonsense. I've never had any conversations about such a thing with either Harawira or Bradford. However, I do have enormous respect for both and, if such a coming together of people like them did happen, I wouldn't stay away.

I believe in a strong progressive force within the Labour Party but my experience as the president of the New Labour Party and its successor, the Alliance, is that it's also necessary to have a strong force outside that party.

Without such a presence outside, Labour tends to swing to the right to compete with National for the so-called centre vote. Labour's been doing that for the past two and a half decades and trying to be National-lite won't get Phil Goff into government next year.

So here's my advice to Labour. If you don't look after your left flank then it may well create an opportunity for another progressive party to appeal to people who were once reliably in your camp.

In the Mana campaign I promoted traditional Labour policies to working class people who loved them. Fortunately for you, enough of them went back to you last Saturday to save your party from humiliation.

Next year they may not. That's the real lesson of the Mana by-election.