While National has held Northcote since 2005, there's every indication that this time around it could switch hands back to Labour. With the Key/English era of National well and truly over, National faces an uphill battle to retain Northcote.
The key to victory in any by-election is maximising turnout by your own supporters. By-elections simply don't attract the same level of turnout as a General Election. In the nine by-elections in the past decade turnout has averaged 58% of what it was at the proceeding General Election. That's a massive drop in voter numbers and illustrates just what a difference a successful get out the vote campaign can do for a by-election. For interests sake the lowest turnout was the Mt Albert non-competition of 2017 where turnout was only 38% of what it had been in 2014, while the highest was Northland's 2015 by-election where 84% of voters from 2014 turned out.
This brings us to National's first big hurdle - getting its supporters out to vote. There's a couple of things that could dampen turnout for National. The first is supporters understandable sitting on the fence and waiting to see how National's new leadership team performs and what direction they take National in. After the successful Key/English years this is an entirely reasonable position for supporters to take, as the National Party of 2018 onwards simply can't sit on its laurels and expect warm fuzzy feelings of the Key/English era to carry them forward. Labour was somewhat guilty of that during Goff's leadership, and it's important National learns from that experience.
There's no easy way for National to earn that support other than getting runs on the board in terms of holding the Government to account and producing new ambitious policies themselves. The by-election, which seems like to hit shortly after Budget 2018, will make that latter part of the equation difficult, as Labour will have it's big set piece of the year to talk about, and National will need to have a credible alternative in place as well as acknowledging any good points in Labour's Budget. National can't be the "No" opposition party that Labour was for so long.
None of this is to say that Simon Bridges and his front bench can't secure that support, I definitely think that they're able to. But securing it within such a short time frame of becoming leader is going to be tough. That being said they've been helped by the Government's ongoing run of bad headlines which is now into its third week thanks to Clare Curran and Jenny Marcroft.
The other issue that will hit National in terms of turnout is largely dependent on who their candidate is. Reports today suggest that upwards of 10 people are potentially looking at seeking the Northcote nomination. There's rumours that a few centre-right local board politicians are looking at contesting the nomination, and speculation that there may be at least one possible contender returning from overseas, and a former mayoral candidate putting their names forward too. There's also the rumour that Air New Zealand's CEO Christopher Luxon might seek the nomination.
There's merit in either approach - either a local body politician or a high profile candidate like Luxon. A local body politician has the benefit of already being immersed in local issues, and already likely having networks in the local party and community that they can draw on during a campaign. Conversely, a high profile candidate like Luxon could be exactly what National needs to combat the hugely popular appeal of Jacinda Ardern that Labour will undoubtedly use to maximum effect in the by-election.
There's also risks in both approaches too. At a local body level the centre-right hasn't exactly covered itself in glory in recent memory with its electoral success. The conflict between competing centre-right tickets didn't help the overall cause in 2016. That failure has been the source of much debate within the National Party about whether the party should set up its own local body ticket to compete with Labour and create a conveyor belt of future MPs too. That's not to say that some of the National Party aligned local body politicians couldn't do a great job as MP for Northcote, but I simply don't know enough about any of them outside of the bigger picture of the 2016 campaign to comment further.
The high profile candidate approach from National could also look desperate too. High profile candidates either go one of two ways - be a fantastic success like John Key was, or ultimately end up being cringe-worthy like Don Brash has ended up being for the right (despite his near success in 2005). From what I've seen of Christopher Luxon it seems more likely he'd follow in John Key's footsteps, rather than follow the Brash burn bright but briefly approach. Luxon has had a pretty successful career at Air New Zealand, and would be able to hit the ground running in terms of the media commitments required of candidates, but it's harder to know how he'll relate to voters on the ground and the gruelling ground nature of day-to-day campaigning. He'll have experience dealing with a wide range of people at Air New Zealand, but being a candidate is a world apart from being the CEO of our national carrier.
Much like Labour, National should be able to deploy a fairly strong ground team to knock on doors, deliver pamphlets put up hoardings, call voters, and do all the usual campaign 101 things that keep campaigns working. In this regard the Young Nats in Auckland have excelled in recent campaigns of putting in the hard yards.
National will also benefit to some extent from Labour and New Zealand First's anti-Asian approach. With Northcote have twice the rate of people identifying as coming from an Asian background that New Zealand, National will be able to use this as an issue to drive people away from voting for the Labour candidate. As much as Labour and New Zealand First will claim their policies are about overseas people, if you read any of the reaction to Labour's "Chinese-sounding surnames" debacle of a couple of years ago you'll know how many Asian-Kiwis coped racial abuse stemming from that.
Another challenge for National is that at this point Northcote looks like it might be their first by-election without Steven Joyce, whose reputation as campaign chair is well deserved. How that might play out in terms of what unfolds in Northcote is hard to tell. Joyce, living in Albany, would have been as well placed as anyone to know first-hand what issues would and wouldn't motivate voters in Northcote. If National can get him involved in some sort of advisory capacity it will be a big help for them, though at the same time they do need to start blooding a new generation of campaign managers and campaign chairs to lead the party into the future.
The other issue National faces is that Northcote, as a bellweather seat, has shown a habit of generally voting where the largest party support is. If we went off the 2017 election results National would be a shoo-in for Northcote. However a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, with Bill English leaving and Simon Bridges taking over. The dampening impact of the end of the Key/English era can't be underestimated, and National will need to work overtime to mitigate that effect alone. Likewise with recent political polls showing Labour's support in the high 40s, and National's lurking around the mid to low 40s, my calculations have National holding a 4.5 to 5.5 percentage point advantage, and that's without taking into account the recent leadership change.
National also can't break out the cheque book in quite the same way Labour can with regards to policies. Not only are we two and a half years away from the next election, meaning it's hard to promise things that you can't credibly deliver until virtually a full Parliamentary term away, but National has had a mixed bag with those types of by-election sweeteners in the past. It also doesn't suit National's narrative that it's not just about how much a government spends, but what results they get from that spending.
One thing that is in National's favour is that regardless of whether New Zealand First runs a candidate they've probably already bled any potential National supporters from their voters back to National in annoyance over Winston Peters going with Labour. ACT also seems unlikely to take many votes from National in the seat either.
While National holds a slight advantage when looking at Northcote historically, the ongoing strong popularity of Jacinda Ardern personally, and National's own leadership change are going to make it a challenging proposition for National to win the seat again. And I say win here quite purposefully. It's not about National retaining Northcote. We're not talking about an incumbent justifying why they should still be MP. We're facing the situation where a brand new candidate needs to win the support of the Northcote community to take up that leadership role for them, and that means winning each and every vote from the ground up.
On Sunday night I wrote about how Labour has every chance to win the Northcote by-election. Now the question is - how do they go about realising that chance to make history by becoming the first Government to win a seat off the opposition in a by-election?
Winning in Northcote for Labour is more important than most people realise, and it's not just about netting themselves another MP in Parliament at National's expense. A successful campaign in Northcote for Labour would lay the foundation for it to make inroads against National's strongholds across northern Auckland. These electorates are important in that they combine both high turnout and high party votes for National. Denting that Auckland suburban firewall while maintaining their gains elsewhere could guarantee Labour the ability to govern alone in 2020. Electorates like Northcote, North Shore, and Upper Harbour, all share enough similarities with other suburban electorates where Labour has done well to suggest that Labour can make more gains in them, almost exclusively at National's expense too.
The first, and most obvious step, is choosing a good candidate. Labour is relatively fortunate in that on the North Shore they have a host of upcoming politicians who are finding their feet in local body politics. In my last blog I made it quite clear I think North Shore Councillor Richard Hills would be an ideal candidate. He's local, he's smart, he's hard working, he's likeable, and while he lost to Jonathan Coleman in Northcote 2014, he enjoyed remarkable success in the 2016 local body elections. The 2014 result isn't one anyone should put too much stock in, mainly in light of how poorly Labour did across the country in that election.
The sooner Labour does select a candidate, the sooner they're able to get their campaign proper underway. It was an advantage they put to good effect in Mt Roskill where Michael Wood his the ground running several weeks before National's Parmjeet Parmar was able to. While not faced with National in Mt Albert, it also wasn't a secret who Labour was going to run there either, with Jacinda Ardern unofficially selected in that seat as soon as David Shearer announced his resignation.
Next is Labour deploying their much hyped ground game in Northcote. As an electorate Northcote is relatively compact, measuring about 30km² - roughly 6km from east to west, and 5km from north to south. That makes putting an effective ground campaign into action much easier than the larger suburban or provincial electorates around New Zealand. Labour has talked up a big game with regards to their on the ground campaign, and if they're able to quite literally walk the talk, Northcote is an ideal electorate to do it in.
The third step is to map out plenty of visits for Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson, and Phil Twyford to campaign with Labour's candidate. Given the immense popularity of Ardern, it makes sense to use her at least once a week with the candidate, if not twice a week. The popularity and goodwill toward's Labour's top triumvirate is pretty high right now, and they'd be silly not to utilise it and hope some of it rubs off on their candidate. Ardern, Robertson, and Twyford are the Government's most capable ministers, and chances are for Twyford a lot of the issues that will pop up will be in his portfolio areas too.
As always, you have to be mindful of not taking too much of the spotlight away from the candidate, but I think at this stage in the term the benefits of being seen campaigning with Ardern outweigh any downsides of being seen to be too dependent on her star power.
The only thing that might limit this is if the by-election campaign overlaps with Ardern's baby arriving. That being said, Ardern turning up to help Labour's candidate campaign with her new baby in her arms could well be the most iconic campaign moment in our political history.
The next thing Labour will need to do is find some good initiatives to announce for not just Northcote, but to also use as tools for the 2020 campaign across the North Shore. National did this exceptionally well with transport projects in the past, and Northcote and the wider North Shore are well placed for the same sort of pork barrelling that is just close enough in the future to be worth switching your vote for, but is also far enough away that Labour can get mileage out of it for the 2020, and maybe even 2023 elections...
The most obvious of these that springs to mind is not only bringing forward the start date of the Additional Waitematā Harbour Crossing to the early to mid-2020s, but also commit to building commuter rail in the North Shore too. To some extent that decision is made by the fact that the Additional Waitematā Harbour Crossing project calls for rail tunnels to be included in the project. Actually committing to a commuter rail network on the North Shore along with the crossing, which includes more roading, would be an ideal way for Labour to create a piece of policy that should win them votes north of the Harbour Bridge.
While National will be able to attack the policy as unaffordable, and as an example of splashing cash for votes, my gut feel is that those lines play better with the electorates who aren't benefitting from said cash splashing. Whereas those who are set to be beneficiaries of that spending are generally pretty happy to be shown some love by the Government.
The one part of this that might come back to bite Labour if they bring forward these projects is where they, especially the rail network, might impact on people's homes. It'll need to be an issue that Labour and their candidate are ready to sensitively manage, and don't be surprised if National uses it as an opportunity to push for a reform of the Public Works Act to improve the way in which people are compensated for the impact a project has on their property in line with European models.
The other thing that's useful, and this is true for both Labour and National though whichever party is best resourced to utilise this remains to be seen, is that Northcote's snug geographical boundaries make it relatively easy to target with advertising on social media, especially Facebook. A quick look at Facebook's ad tool suggests there's about 58,000 people aged over 18 on Facebook who are roughly within Northcote's boundaries. Taking the estimated performance of each party in each age group from the 2017 election, Labour would appear to have the edge in the ability to target potential supporters on Facebook. With those aged 18-44 voting more for Labour than was the average across the country in 2017, Northcote on Facebook turns up a potential audience of 40,000 people. That leaves around 18,000 for National to target aged 45 and over. Of course there will also be a variety of other factors that come into play on how political parties want to target their online advertising.
Finally, Labour needs to do whatever is necessary to ensure that neither New Zealand First or the Green Party stand candidates in the by-election. The easiest way for Labour to do this is to offer policy concessions to both parties. It may be what Newshub's Patrick Gower would call a dirty deal, but for Labour it might just be the deal they have to do to win Northcote.
For New Zealand First, not standing in Northcote is a no brainer. Following Winston Peters' decision to go with Labour, rather than with National, New Zealand First has already likely shed most of its supports who were sympathetic to National back to the blue team, which means in Northcote they're only going to be taking votes away from Labour's candidate.
For the Green Party though, the calculus is more complex. They're nearly exclusively in competition with Labour for support. Like other electorates with significant young and affluent populations where the Green Party has done well, Northcote does have the potential to deliver more party votes for the Green Party in 2020 than it historically has done. Running a candidate for the Greens will help their visibility going forward in a seat that can do better for them. The Greens, as a confidence and supply partner, have also made a point of displaying an independent streak to the Government at late, and running a candidate would support that. To convince the Green Party to not run a candidate in the seat will take a lot of concessions from Labour, one of which may be a deal to stand aside in a seat for them in the 2020 election.
Underpinning all of this is that Labour's path to victory relies in them maximising the turnout of every single possible voter who is going to vote for their candidate, and hoping that National isn't able to do the same. While Ardern didn't cause a youthquake, there was enough of an upturn in that demographic to suggest that in the short term, while Ardern's popularity is at its strongest, there's more Labour can gain out of that demographic, and Northcote is demographically well positioned for Labour in that regard.
That's enough delving into what Labour could do to win Northcote. I'm hopeful that next time I'll be able to write a bit about how National could win the seat. I say win, because with the incumbent MP leaving, it's not so much about defending a seat National already held as it is a new National Party candidate setting out to win it for the first time, which is a challenge for any candidate to do.