Labour Party leader Andrew Little has wasted no time running up the white flag in the Northland byelection. He has as good as endorsed Winston Peters, the New Zealand First leader, in suggesting Labour voters should "send a message" to the Government. Those who support this sidelining of Labour candidate Willow-Jean Prime will say it is further evidence of Mr Little's pragmatism. Maybe so, but it says even more about a politician who is for turning.

Mr Little's initial instinct to compete strongly in the byelection was the right one. If any contest was tailor-made for Labour and its new leader, it is Northland. The electorate's unemployment rate remains stubbornly above 8 per cent. This provides Mr Little with the perfect opportunity to flesh out his ideas on job creation. Equally, talk of social and economic inequality should have a particular resonance.

All this with the guaranteed attention provided by Mr Peters' opportunism. Yet these pluses counted for little when a couple of opinion polls suggested Mr Peters could upset the National Party candidate, Mark Osborne. The most recent, by TVNZ Colmar Brunton, showed the pair tied on 36 per cent. But Mr Peters jumped to 51 per cent and Mr Osborne gained little when voters were asked who they would favour if Labour pulled its candidate.

A byelection loss would tarnish the Government. That, obviously, is in Labour's interests. And if the Government's survival would not be an issue, some of its proposed reforms could be jeopardised, including changes to the Resource Management Act. But that scenario assumes Mr Peters can win. That remains a tall order.


Polls at this early stage are notoriously unreliable. There is a high probability that Mr Peters' bubble will burst. As much as he was born in this electorate and has been a strong campaign presence, he represents a party that has not run a candidate there in the past three general elections. Mr Peters talks of Northland being "neglected and ignored". If so, his party is certainly culpable. Notably, it attracted only 12.7 per cent of the party vote there at the last election.

Mr Osborne has inherited a 9000-vote majority. But Mr Peters' early impetus means National is now taking nothing for granted. It has acknowledged as much in promising to spend up to $69 million to upgrade 10 one-lane bridges in the electorate. Despite the urgings of former MP Mike Sabin, none of these were included in a National election pledge to fast-track some regional roading projects.

That bit of pork-barrel politicking is a forerunner of what lies in store if the polls remain equivocal. The local party organisation will also leave nothing to chance. All that spells trouble for Mr Peters. It also suggests Labour is belittling itself in making way for New Zealand First. The country's second-biggest party is showing it is willing to bow to one of far lesser stature and to a 69-year-old politician whose most recent attempt to win an electorate resulted in an 11,742-vote drubbing.

In the TVNZ poll, Willow-Jean Prime garnered 20 per cent support. That is a reasonable starting point. As befits its standing, Labour's best policy would have been to back her to the hilt.

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