The March 28 Northland byelection had the makings of a real nailbiter if Labour had stood aside and made it a two-horse race between New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and National's Mark Osborne. But yesterday, Labour's leadership played it safe and nominated Willow-Jean Prime, who has been trounced at the last two general elections, as its candidate.

It would have been a high-stakes gamble but, if successful, would have delivered a severe blow to the Key-led National Government's grip on power. Instead, we can look forward to the ho-hum replacement of one National MP by another, with Mr Peters and Ms Prime scrapping it out for the minor places.

On National Radio yesterday, Labour leader Andrew Little was talking up his candidate's chances, and questioning Mr Peters' electoral appeal. In his position, it was the only thing he could do. He said Ms Prime "has a profile and understanding you might not see sitting in Wellington or Auckland". Rather desperately he added that "Labour has always struggled to get good numbers there" but "circumstances may well have changed and [she] may well be in with a chance".

That seems highly unlikely. Since the seat was created in 1996 it has been solidly National. At last September's general election, National's Mike Sabin, whose sudden resignation for undisclosed personal reasons triggered the present contest, scored 18,269 votes to Ms Prime's 8969. The party vote gap was even wider, National on 17,412, Labour, 5913. New Zealand First, with no candidate, was close to Labour on 4546.


In the six months since that election, nothing has happened to reverse this pattern. Not viewed from a seat in Auckland, anyway.

Unlike the small parties, Labour and National have traditionally felt the obligation to provide a candidate in any poll to give supporters the chance to have their say. But there have been exceptions. In 2004, for example, when Labour's Te Tai Hauauru MP, Tariana Turia, resigned over the party's foreshore and seabed legislation, Labour did not contest the resultant byelection. Neither did National. Mrs Turia received 92.74 per cent of the votes. Labour's non-participation was totally pragmatic. It faced a hiding at the polls.

Similarly in March 1993, when Winston Peters resigned from the National Party and forced a byelection in Tauranga, neither main party contested, calling it a publicity stunt.

Mike Williams, who was president when Labour chose not to contest the Te Tai Hauauru byelection, is against joining the Northland fray. Again for very pragmatic reasons. He says Ms Prime is a very good candidate who increased her vote last September, "but she still can't win". And given she can't win, he says Labour should save the $50,000 to $80,000 it will cost to take part.

He says Mr Peters endorsed Kelvin Davis, Labour's winning candidate, in the Maori seat of Te Tai Tokerau last election and now Labour should return the favour. He reckons the New Zealand First leader, who has family connections in the North, is the only person who, "on a good day", could win the safe seat off National and create all sorts of turmoil for the Government.

With Mr Sabin gone, National holds 59 seats in the 121-seat Parliament. If Mr Peters were to win an electorate seat, he could resign his list seat, and under MMP rules, be replaced by the next NZ First candidate on the party list. National would be down to 59, but with support from Act leader David Seymour, United Future's Peter Dunne and the two Maori MPs, would still have a majority in votes of confidence.

But on issues like such as reform of the Resource Management Act, National could be stranded once more. Of its allies, only Act is likely to back it.

If there was a time for the Opposition parties to think strategically and gamble on the Winston card, this was it.


Labour could try to persuade supporters to vote against their candidate, but many would not heed the call.