John Armstrong: Shane Jones facing uphill battle to reclaim Northland for NZ First

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

What chance of Shane Jones prising the seat of Northland from the tightly-clenched grasp of the National Party at September’s general election?

In short, not much.

Jones is confronted with a simple, but ugly equation — one that he will never be able to come up with enough numbers sufficient to solve it.

National’s majority in Northland at the 2017 election was a relatively slim one — less than 1400 votes. That figure is very deceptive, however.

That is because of what might be termed the “Winston factor”. The sly, cunning but seemingly ageless fox of New Zealand politics captured the Northland seat in a byelection in 2015. National won it back at the general election two years later.

Such is Peters’ popularity, persona and all-round impact on any scenario in which he chooses to make himself a player that trying to draw comparisons from voting statistics pertaining to him with those of any other politician is both bogus and meaningless.

The way the cookie crumbled in terms of the distribution of the electorate vote in Northland in 2017 has little to relevance to what might or will happen in the seat in 2020. Except for one thing. That Peters slid to defeat by 1400 votes suggests that Jones, who is still an apprentice to the maestro, will struggle to do any better.

In a rare concession to Father Time, Peters has handed the candidacy in what — based on the taxpayer-funded largesse poured into the region — is New Zealand First’s best and only hope of providing the invaluable dividend of an electorate seat in Parliament.

To get a still rough but far more accurate fix on the distribution of voter loyalties in Northland, it is necessary to check the party vote in the seat in 2017.

Here the gap between National and New Zealand First is vast. The former picked up close to 19,000 party votes; the latter less than 6,000.

Boil it all down and it is all bad news for Jones. Ousting Matt King, the incumbent National MP, would require not far short of every Labour or Green Party supporter to vote tactically in Jones’ favour.

It is one of the golden rules of politics that anything is possible; that nothing ought to be ruled out; that one should expect the unexpected. And so forth.

In Northland in 2020, nothing ain’t going to happen. There isn’t going to be any avalanche of tactical votes of the kind that were cast in the seat in 2015 and which tipped the seat into Peters’ lap. Jones will be punting on opinion polls in the electorate making him the leading contender to topple King —and the Labour and Greens vote collapsing in his favour.

The circumstances are very different in 2020.

In 2015, Peters had the advantage of being in Opposition. Byelections are something every governing party can happily do without for obvious reasons. Peters ran a brilliantly conceived and superbly executed campaign. National’s effort was inept and insipid.

There is another crucial difference. In 2015, Andrew Little, Labour’s then leader, hinted that supporters of his party were free to lodge a protest vote wherever they thought best.

No sooner had Jones confirmed last Monday that he will be New Zealand First’s candidate in Northland than Jacinda Ardern was all but ruling out an electoral pact with her coalition partner — even one of the unwritten variety like that between National and ACT in Epsom.

Her language left a small amount of wriggle room should she have a change of mind, but otherwise it was a pretty definitive statement and will be read as such.

Without any help from Ardern’s quarter, Jones’ candidacy amounts to little more than a flag-waving exercise. But has she made the right call?

Winning an electorate would provide New Zealand First with platinum-value insurance protecting at least some of its current batch of MPs from being shut out of the next Parliament were the party to fail to clear the hurdle of the 5 per cent threshold.

It hardly needs stating that under the Electoral Act, victory in an electorate renders the threshold null and void.

Victory in Northland would not only save Jones’ parliamentary neck. Likewise it would save that of his leader unless New Zealand First’s party vote was to evaporate across the whole country. And that is not going to happen.

What is well worth mentioning— it dwarfs everything else really — is that if Jones was to perform a miracle of loaves and fishes proportions and save New Zealand First from parliamentary extinction, it could end up saving the current prime minister from being forced to relinquish the most coveted of roles and leave her tagged forever with the ignominious label of “one-term wonder”.

Given Jones has given Jacinda Ardern more aggravation over the past two years or so in government than arguably the whole of the Opposition combined, there would be rich irony in that.

Not that many months ago the opinion polls were indicating that Labour and the Greens would be able to govern in the next Parliament in joint coalition and without needing Peters’ outfit on the team.

That has all changed.

It is now very much in question whether Labour and the Greens would hold enough seats combined to give them a majority over National post-September. It seems unlikely, in fact. There is nothing in the political milieu to suggest that might change in the coming months. At the same time, the odds would seem to be increasing that Peters’ party, which is currently averaging 4.3 per cent support in the published opinion polls, will fail to clear the threshold.

Peters and his colleagues have been courting trouble. They have ignored their party’s archly conservative voter base. They have done little to curb migrant inflows into the country.

Peters’ inaction on such hot-button issues has left a gap. It all adds up to being a gift for Simon Bridges. National’s leader isn’t wasting it.

Just witness the tough talk on welfare and law and order contained in draft policy papers issued by National last year.

Were New Zealand First to fall short of the threshold, the ramifications would be far greater than most people realise. The mathematics of MMP come into play. The number of wasted votes could as much double.

By example, had New Zealand First fallen just short of the threshold in 2017, National would have held 60 seats. ACT’s single seat would have given National a 61-59 majority — very narrow, but enough to govern.

Bill English would not be “Sir Bill”. Not yet, anyway. That would be because he would still be prime minister.

The margin between ending up in power or not are looking like being just as narrow, if not even narrower come September. What happens in Northland could yet matter.

One can be 99.9 per cent sure that, it won’t. But there remains the very slightest possibility that it will. And wouldn’t Ardern and the rest of the Labour Party be kicking themselves the day after the election if that turned out to be the case.