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Mana By Election Heats Up - Could Labour Really Lose?

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford
Matt McCarten

The campaign for Saturday's Mana by-election is heating up. Yesterday Labour leader Phil Goff came out saying that the party could lose one of its safest seats to the Tories if the voter turnout is low.

While scaring the voters is a favoured tactic of political leaders, this warning may not have been necessary six weeks ago. Back then Labour was looking forward to a cruisy campaign. The party thought that it would get away with its selection of former TVNZ journalist and current Goff press secretary Kris Faafoi. They might have faced a bit of a vigorous campaign from the Nats but nothing that would have severely dented their majority.

But that all changed with the entry of one person into the race - Matt McCarten.

The Unite leader put the cat amongst the pigeons with his entry into Mana. His was virtually a last minute filing and as I have explained in a previous blog even the Alliance (which had its own candidate) was not aware of his intentions until he called party Co-Leader Kay Murray. But once Matt confirmed his candidacy, it was all on.

Over the last several weeks, Matt has run a spectacular campaign. It's clear that Labour is shitting itself about Mana as a result as party luminaries including current president Andrew Little and past president Mike Williams have actively downplayed Matt's vote grabbing ability. Last week I even witnessed a revealing Facebook dialogue between former unionist and Labour backbencher Darien Fenton and Unite official Joe Carolan. If my memory serves me correctly, Denton essentially argued that a vote for Matt was practically a vote for the Nats.

I expect more of this from Labour before Saturday because Matt has exposed Labour's weaknesses. Take state housing. For nine years, Labour had control over social housing policy and should have done something about rampant homelessness and the poor quality of some state houses. During the past few weeks, Matt has exposed both Labour and National for their neglect through some of his campaign team occupying an empty state house. They have also exposed the lack of maintenance on some neighbouring properties. Labour has dismissed this expose as a stunt while the Nats have gone silent. But Matt and the Unite team have exposed a sleeping political issue that affects many people in Mana.

Due to Matt's high profile campaign, the left vote could potentially splinter. Goff is therefore right about the possibility that Labour could lose in a close contest to the Nats. But if that were to occur who would be to blame?

I believe that Goff would take the slack. During his tenure Labour have been all over the place on policy. A good example of this has been on GST where one minute they were for axing the tax, the next minute retaining it at the new increased rate, and then next minute taking it off fresh fruit and veges. While the Nats have introduced some seriously unpopular policies they are still leading in the polls partly due to the fact that they are at least consistent on policy. Goff himself has been another handicapping factor as he has failed to connect with voters. One example of his inability to connect was demonstrated when he met a group of schoolkids in Mana. I saw the video on TV of him asking these kids at the meeting "do you guys know who Mike Moore is?" and they all responded (looking naturally puzzled) "no."

Contrast Goff with Matt McCarten and you can see the difference. I have watched some You Tube footage of Matt campaigning in Mana and he comes across as the same accessible, friendly and relaxed guy that I personally know him to be. He speaks in the language that the working class voters of Mana speak. This isn't surprising as Matt comes from a working class background himself whereas many modern Labour politicians have spent their time as middle class teachers, lawyers and bureaucrats. Matt knows what it is to be down and out (just read his biography Rebel in the Ranks) and it's clear that his empathetic streak has come through in a poor electorate like Mana.

No wonder Labour are nervous. I don't want to see the seat go to the Tories either and to be honest I don't expect that it will. But Labour are in need of a good bollocking right now and the place to do that will be in Mana. If their majority goes down to less than 1000 then they have some serious thinking to do about their direction. And if that happens, it will all be thanks to Matt McCarten's brilliant campaign.


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