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The nailbiter in Mt Albert! Or, why the by-election on Saturday is more important than you think

The run up to the Mt Albert by-election might seem quiet but the results are likely to have a huge impact on the NZ political year. Meanwhile, over in Maungakiekie, Green wunderkind Chlöe Swarbrick has been demoted to humble foot soldier. Strange days in Auckland politics, writes Simon Wilson.

Did you know there’s a candidate in the Mt Albert by-election who wants free and frequent electric buses running all over Auckland? That would be the Greens’ transport activist Julie Anne Genter, right? Wrong. Did you know there’s a candidate who wants early childhood education for all three- and four-year-olds: universal, high-quality and free? Labour’s champion of children, Jacinda Ardern? Wrong again.

Free buses is the policy of Joe Carolan, the Socialist candidate who works as an organiser with the Unite union. Free pre-school is promoted by Geoff Simmons of The Opportunities Party (TOP). It’s a mark of how unadventurous both the Greens and Labour are these days that such policies are not in their platforms.

Mt Albert might be quiet but it’s far from unimportant. Everyone, even National and NZ First, even though neither is standing, has a lot to lose.

Because the by-election is a contest of the left, it’s an indicator poll: how strong are the various progressive parties that could form the next government?

Candidates at the recent Spinoff Mt Albert by-election debate: (from left) Geoff Simmons, Jacinda Ardern, Julie Anne Genter, MC Simon Wilson

Everyone thinks Jacinda Ardern is going to win. Okay. But if she wins well, it will enhance her mana because it will prove, for the first time, that she can do it. Far more than that, if she wins well Labour will know it’s on track to lead a winning coalition in September. After the ructions over Greg O’Connor, Willie Jackson and Poto Williams, and just this week Andrew Little’s views on kaupapa Maori, Labour is holding its breath for a big confidence booster on Saturday.

But if she scrapes home, or worse, the party will immediately be in trouble. This poll is not just a measure of the value of Jacinda Ardern – it’s a checkpoint for the leadership of Andrew Little.

The biggest prize of all, for Labour, will be for her to do well in the polling booths that have swung strongly National in recent times – the booths around Mt Albert itself and in Pt Chevalier, Westmere and parts of Grey Lynn and Kingsland. If that happens, Bill English will have work to do.

What does winning well look like for Ardern? In the Mt Roskill by-election late last year, Labour’s Michael Wood won 67 per cent of the vote. There was no Greens candidate and a very poor National candidate, both of which made it easier for him, but it was a massively strong result – well up on Phil Goff’s 56 per cent in 2014 – and Wood didn’t have Ardern or Goff’s profiles. In Mt Albert in 2014 David Shearer won 58 per cent of the vote, down from the 2009 by-election when he entered parliament with 63 per cent.

So a good win for Jacinda Ardern? At least 65 per cent. With a good ground game, which Labour has, she could get to 80.

The Greens also need to do well because as with Labour, the by-election is a pointer to their potential fate in September’s general election. They have to counter a perception among some centre-left voters that the best way to defeat a National-led government is to vote Labour. And they have to overcome the perennial problem of being stuck at or a little over 10 per cent.

The stakes are very high: come September, they will need enough seats to force Labour to accept them – rather than NZ First – as the first and natural partner in any new coalition government. Being shut out of government again, as they were by Helen Clark, is unthinkable for them.

Another reason: the Greens have several very talented younger candidates this year – the likes of Chlöe Swarbrick, Leilani Tamu, Golriz Ghahraman, Hayley Holt and others will be essential to their rejuvenation – and yet on current polling it’s likely almost none of them will become MPs. The Greens caucus already has the oldest average age of any party in Parliament. To rejuvenate, they need to grow.

A good result in Mt Albert will provide vital momentum. It will also be important for Julie Anne Genter herself. She’s a senior, high-profile member of the caucus and as such is expected to demonstrate winning qualities of leadership. She’s in the same boat as Jacinda Ardern: a poor result on Saturday will damage her personal credibility badly.

What’s a good result for Genter? In the 2009 Mt Albert by-election then-party leader Russel Norman got only 12 percent of the vote. In 2011 the Greens party vote rose to 17 per cent and in 2014 it reached 22 per cent (despite their having a relatively low-profile, non-MP candidate). Mt Albert has become one of the Greens’ best electorates.

This time Genter should expect at least 30 per cent. She could go over 40. (Ironically, though, she may not want to win because of the damage that would do to Labour. Sometimes MMP politics can be a real beast.)

Gareth Morgan’s TOP is debuting in Mt Albert. Candidate Geoff Simmons says they’re “blue-green”, “radical centrist” and “pro-business with a heart”. With no National Party candidate he could do quite well, although even the greenest and most liberal of National supporters may be sorely tested by TOP’s plan to remove all incentives to investing in property.

TOP is the bold new voice in New Zealand, or is it? Success for them will be anything over 10 per cent. At five per cent they may think they have enough to stay in the race. Less than that and it’s time to get back on the motorbike, Gareth.

There are 10 other candidates, all of whom will count it a triumph to get into three figures.

Meanwhile, this weekend Act has its annual party conference and the Greens have their List Conference. Act will be announcing a rethink of its justice and prisons policies, with Mike Williams, head of the Howard League for Penal Reform and former Labour Party president, scheduled as a guest speaker. Finally, it seems, Act will be giving up its scaremongering, opportunist vote-grabbing, small-minded and vindictive desire to punish, punish, punish and damn the social consequences.

Did I overstate that? I don’t think so. Act’s record on law and order, with policies it must know are inhumane, counterproductive and socially destructive, is shameful.

What a tragedy it has taken them so long. Will party leader David Seymour now be asking the government to rescind the three-strikes law?

CHLOE SWARBRICK. PHOTO: GETTY

As for the Greens and that list, they have an insoluble problem. Only two MPs are retiring (it should be at least five) and party rules require the list to have a balance of gender, age, geography and ethnicity. The ultra-democratic election process, frequently praised by Chlöe Swarbrick, actually favours South Islanders and established MPs, and that means even she may not make the cut.

The party has not made the most of her political talents. She put her name up for Auckland Central but was beaten by list MP Denise Roche, who has stood twice for the seat already. Roche has a solid record of local activism but will never impress in a larger context. She has powerful support from her Waiheke branch but Swarbrick is possibly the only member of the Greens who could have given sitting National MP Nikki Kaye a run for her money, and – more importantly – raised the party vote for the Greens substantially in that electorate.

Not wanted in Central, she might have stood against Act’s David Seymour in Epsom. Wouldn’t that be a showdown worth watching? Just think about the truckload of publicity the Greens would get from it.

But no. Instead, she’s been shunted over to Maungakiekie, a seat that’s irrelevant to the Greens and which Labour should have every expectation of winning. They used to own it. But get this: Labour’s candidate is Priyanca Radhakrishnan, a progressive young female activist. So the risk for them both is that Swarbrick will win enough votes to stop Radhakrishnan winning and National will retain the seat, probably with city councillor Denise Lee. It’s nuts.

Swarbrick has taken to calling herself a foot soldier. She should be a captain.

And that Mt Albert by-election? It’s this Saturday.

If you’re in the electorate and you want the Labour Party to feel good about itself, vote Jacinda. If you want the Greens to become Labour’s natural partner in a coalition government, vote for Julie Anne. If you want to signal to all parties it’s time for a “radically centrist” rethink of economic and social planning, vote for Geoff Simmons.

If you want to give a shout out to the unions who really do lead the fight for the poorest, vote for Joe Carolan. He’s not carrying a torch for Māori nationalism but he is in every other respect a proxy for the Mana Movement. If you’re interested in one of the others, I’m sorry, I can’t help you.

And if you’re not a centre-left voter anyway? My advice is to cunningly employ reverse logic against whatever gets you going in the above. Or just don’t vote. Have a good weekend.