Gordon Campbell on the Northland by-election

Supposedly, Winston Peters’ victory in Northland has exposed the simmering dissatisfaction with the government that exists out in the provinces. Yet it remains to be seen whether this defeat will have much significance – and not simply because if and when Labour resumes business as usual in the Northland seat at the next election, Peters’ hold on it could simply evaporate.

On Saturday, National’s electorate vote declined by 7,000 votes, as the 9,000 majority it won last September turned into a 4,000 vote deficit – mainly because Labour supporters followed the nod and wink given by Labour leader Andrew Little, and voted tactically for Peters. In the process, Labour’s vote went down from nearly 9,000 votes six months ago, to only 1,315 on Saturday. While the turnout was high for a by-election, nearly 6,000 fewer people voted on Saturday than in last year’s general election – and presumably those stay-at-homes were a mixture of National and Labour voters.

However, as Danyl McLachlan has argued on the Dim-Post site, Peters’ triumph merely shows that a strong conservative populist candidate can win an electorate like Northland, provided that Labour doesn’t contest the seat. Given the contrivances involved in Peters’ victory, how does this translate as a significant setback for the government, much less as a victory for the centre-left?

To which one would reply that perceptions do matter. Prime Minister John Key and campaign manager Steven Joyce both put their mana on the line in Northland, and lost. More to the point, by winning the Northland by-election so handsomely, Peters has exposed the underlying fragility of the government’s position in the provinces. Plainly, regional New Zealand is unhappy. If offered an alternative – albeit it would probably have to be a conservative populist one – it would take it. In his explanations for the Northland defeat, no wonder that Joyce has tried to pin the blame on (a) “local issues” and (b) the low profile of National’s chosen candidate. By doing so, Joyce and his colleagues are seeking to prevent the “New Zealand First disease” from spreading to other electorates that have equal reason to feel poorly treated by a succession of Beehive occupants, National and Labour alike. Unless Peters can be successfully cloned by election year 2017 though, that probably isn’t a major concern.

For Northlanders, this wasn’t simply a “protest vote” to punish the government for those years of neglect. Voters in Northland appear to have made the rational calculation that if Peters wants to hang onto the seat, he will need to deliver results. In future, any good news that happens north of the Harbour Bridge will be claimed as due to the sterling efforts of the former member from Tauranga, now re-born as the former schoolboy from Dargaville. In similar vein, if the government wants to win back Northland in 2017, it will need to pick a good candidate, and back his or her campaign to the hilt. Voters elsewhere in the country have reason to envy the ongoing political attention that this by –election has delivered to the people of the North.

Clearly, the centre-left voted as tactically in Northland on Saturday as their centre-right equivalents have ever done in Epsom. That is a bit of a double-edged sword. As Danyl has intimated, the discontent in the provinces can boil over something significant only if and when Labour withdraws from the battlefield – which it can’t afford to do again. So, while Labour will be rejoicing at the government’s setback and celebrating its part in the result, the real victory will come only when and if voters around the country decide to tick the Labour candidate, and – more importantly – give their party votes to a Little-led party. Those shoes have yet to fall.

Until then, the centre-left should not be looking at Winston and kidding themselves that the enemy of their enemy is really their friend. Cosying up to Winston – and the distancing from the Greens that this involves – has led Labour into all kinds of self-defeating positions in the past. The downside from Peters’ victory on Saturday is that this will increase the likelihood that the Labour leadership will now feel impelled to woo Peters again, in 2017.

Train songs

Bukka White made so many great train song blues – “ New Frisco Train” “Panama Limited “ “Atlanta Special” “Bald Eagle Train” etc – that I’d always assumed he’d invented the whole business of using the guitar and washboard to imitate the rhythms, bells and whistles of locomotive transport.

Yet in a recently re-discovered country song from 1930, Red Gay and Jack Wellman did the whole routine, including the sound of a lonesome mule chasing after the train.

To Bukka White, the train meant freedom and a means of escape. But throughout Gay and Wellman’s epic country “Flat Wheel Train Blues Pts One and Two” there’s a sense of melancholy permeating the entire track as if – even in 1930 – these scenes were already fading into history. Hang on as the track kicks into “Part Two” because that’s when this train really begins to roll…

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