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G Campbell: Labour’s money problems & by-elections

Gordon Campbell on Labour’s money problems and looming by-elections

If Labour and its leadership didn’t have enough immediate problems, the party’s capacity to mount an effective election campaign next year is certain to come under increasing strain, given the drain on its resources in coming months. Labour has already fought one expensive by-election campaign this term in Mt Albert. It now faces a further one in Mana thanks to the retirement of Winnie Laban, and another in Te Atatu over the replacement to Chris Carter.

In the category of unlikely – but – still -possible contests there is Manurewa, where George Hawkins is looking for a seat on the Supercity council in Auckland, and Wigram, where Progressive leader Jim Anderton may or may not stay on in Parliament if and when he wins the Christchurch mayoralty race. Even if only the two certainties (Mana and Te Atatu) eventuate, the expense involved cannot help but put pressure on a party that is not exactly flush with funds – rumour has it that there is only about $100,000 left in the Labour kitty – and those by-elections could empty the coffers even before we get into election year proper.

Given the expense factor, Hawkins and Anderton could decide to hang on next year doing two jobs at once. Anderton has in fact, already cited the likely cost to the public of holding a by-election – they tend to cost between $600,000 and $1 million – as a reason for not resigning from Parliament immediately, should he win the Christchurch mayoralty. The upside for Labour is that none of these seats is anything other than a safe centre-left seat, so there is little chance of an embarrassing loss. The downside is there is nothing much to win either, from committing all those precious resources. For instance: even a resounding win for the party’s new electorate representative in Te Atatu (whoever that may turn out be) seems just as likely to be taken as grassroots support for Carter, than as a ringing vindication of the Goff leadership.

In Mana, the field of likely candidates for Labour appears to be pretty strong.

The potential line-up includes Goff’s current chief press secretary Kris Faafoi. Other names being mentioned include Taima Fagaloa (a Porirua City Councillor, Pacific Health Director and Capital & Coast District Health Board member) the Porirua Deputy Mayor Litea Ah Hoi and the former Progressive candidate and Labour supporter Josie Pagani. Fagaloa in particular looks like an interesting candidate, having resigned recently from a good job on a point of principle.

In Te Atatu, the situation is far murkier, for obvious legal reasons connected with the departure of Carter. If any heavyweight contenders do emerge, this will become apparent only very close to the closing time for nominations. In the meantime, perennial Labour hopefuls such as former EPMU unionist and economics lecturer Hamish McCracken may be interested. He was a candidate for Northcote last time around and, as the tide ran out for Labour, the party went from a 2,383 deficit in 2005 when Ann Hartley was its Northcote candidate to a 9,360 deficit with McCracken. On the evidence, Labour would be trading down if he ultimately became Carter’s replacement in Te Atatu.

For Labour, it is going to have to make a virtue out of simple messages and grass roots mobilisation next year. Even so, as the US commentator Will Rogers said over 70 years ago, politics is so expensive it takes a lot of money these days, even to lose.

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