Long ago, Labour was the "city party" and National the "country party". Labour still holds its own in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin but it is along time since it did well in Auckland.

It has safe seats in the south and west side of the city but National holds the north and east and centre, as well as the areas of rapid growth in the northwest and southeast. And in some of the electorates that return Labour MPs voters are giving their party votes to National, indicating they want a Labour representative but a National government.

Labour knows it needs to win Auckland to return to government. The task is bound to occupy the party's minds as it meets in Auckland for its Annual Conference this weekend.

It has an imminent byelection in Mt Roskill to focus all minds on the city. It will be celebrating the reason for the byelection, its success in the Auckland mayoral election. While Phil Goff stood as an independent, there was no point hiding his Labour pedigree and it did him no harm. When it comes to local elections Labour easily commands all the main centres. It ensures a ticket on the left is better organised and unified than those on the right.


Not so at parliamentary elections. Labour has to compete with the Greens and New Zealand First for the vote against National. It is only when all three can combine their support, as they did in the Northland byelection, that they might take a seat from National. Labour's candidate appears to have a clear run in Roskill but it is leaving nothing to chance, offering light rail down Dominion Rd if it wins next year's general election.

But as Claire Trevett reports today, Labour's problem may be the rapidly changing ethnic character of the electorate and Auckland overall. Labour has no Asian MPs, National has several, one of whom is standing in the byelection. National appears to be gathering more support among the new immigrant groups than Labour and they already can be seen at National conferences. Labour has taken a less liberal position on immigration, which might work to its advantage in a general election though probably not in Mt Roskill.

To win Auckland, Labour needs to look more like Auckland. It's present leader, deputy leader and finance spokesman are all Wellington MPs. It's true that its three previous leaders, David Cunliffe, David Shearer and Goff, were all Auckland MPs and it made no discernible difference. But the party does need a more prominent figure in Auckland. List MP Jacinda Ardern looks to be Labour's most popular Aucklander though Te Atatu MP Phil Twyford is doing most of the heavy lifting on Auckland issues such as housing and transport.

It is easy to overstate Auckland's political significance, its views on most issues do not differ very much from the country at large. But increasingly the issues of concern to the whole country originate in Auckland. Immigration is heavily concentrated on Auckland, contributing to the house price explosion that has been felt in other centres. Auckland's increasing diversity sometimes sounds more unsettling to voters living far away from it than it is to Auckland.

Labour needs to show Auckland and the country it has the makings of a fresh, modern government, ready to step in when the country is looking for a change. It could be this time next year.