Bryce Edwards puts a spotlight on Hamilton West: Here comes an unpredictable and intense by-election

DR BRYCE EDWARDS,  director of the Democracy Project, looks at the political climate in Hamilton West as  the political parties prepare to campaign for support in a by-election.  He writes: 

Get ready for a hard-fought and intense by-election in Hamilton West, triggered by the resignation from Parliament of former Labour MP Gaurav Sharma. Both Labour and National are going to throw everything at winning this by-election.   Complicating matters, there will be a number of minor parties and fringe elements – Sharma included – that might have a big impact on the result.

At this stage, the outcome is entirely unpredictable, with both Labour and National having good reasons for desperately needing to win it, and with some good reasons to expect success. But it’s likely to be a very close race, and a number of vital factors could determine which way victory goes.

The National Party is the frontrunner 

National is surely seen as the frontrunner in the by-election, due to the party’s hold over the seat in 4 out of 5 preceding elections, together with the fact that the Labour Government is currently in the doldrums.

As always, Opposition parties seek to turn by-elections into referendums on the current performance of the incumbents – and at present there is a lot about the Labour Government for the public to be dissatisfied about. This was evidenced by last week’s local government elections, which have also been described as a referendum on the current government.

Various successful mayoral and council candidates prospered through their campaigns against the status quo and by being anti-Government. Expect to see much of this again in Hamilton West.

National has been dominating the seat .  Although Sharma won it for Labour in 2020, this was an aberration after National’s Tim Macindoe had held it for the previous four terms.

Macindoe is apparently keen to win the seat back and so wants the National Party nomination – although last night he was refusing comment on this. There are plenty of other potential National candidates – for example, Andrew King, the former mayor of Hamilton, indicated in April that he planned to run for the party nomination for the seat.

The campaign and the chance to win the seat back off Labour is being described as a “godsend” for National. It certainly would be a major psychological boost for National’s current resurgence. As the Spinoff’s Toby Manhire says today,

“National will be licking its lips.”

He says that

“… it’s a chance to put a stake in the ground, to road-test approaches, and to draw confidence from winning back a seat”.

It’s also a chance to put the selection problems of the likes of Uffindell behind the party.

National is doing well in the polls at the moment – generally a couple of percentage points ahead of Labour, so there are plenty of reasons to believe that National should win the seat. If they don’t there will be some serious questions about the party’s organisational capacity and leader Christopher Luxon’s pulling power.

Labour is set to be the underdog

Labour faces a likely “bloodbath” in Hamilton West, according to the Herald’s Audrey Young. She says:

“Labour will be campaigning against a tide in a famous weather-vane seat. Byelections are a chance for voters to give a Government a bloody nose, at the best of times. We are not in the best of times.”

She concludes it will take “a miracle” for Labour to retain the seat in the by-election.

It would indeed be highly embarrassing for Labour to lose the seat – it would make them look vulnerable, especially in the lead up to election year. Losing a seat in a by-election isn’t the best way to start their campaign for re-election.

Toby Manhire doesn’t rate Labour’s chance of success very highly, saying that

“… though it is not unwinnable, it would take something extraordinary for them not to lose.”

Unfortunately for Labour they don’t have a lot of obviously strong contenders to stand in the seat. Top of the list is probably the Labour Party parliamentary employee Dan Steer, who recently stood for the city council. Media have been unable to reach him for comment on standing for the nomination.

However, there are other reasons for Labour to be more optimistic about their chances. Although the 2020 Labour win in Hamilton West was indeed an aberrant high vote for the party, Labour has won the seat plenty of times before.

This is why Hamilton West is regarded as a “weathervane” or “bell weather” seat. In the past, the seats have tended to be won by whatever party is in Government. Manhire describes it as

“… the quintessence of middle New Zealand and a bellwether seat; 16 of the last 18 winning MPs have caucused with the governing party.”    

What’s more, Labour’s current majority is incredibly high – 6500. In theory this makes Hamilton West a very safe seat for Labour.

As National pollster David Farrar points out, when looking at the parties as ideological blocs, in 2020 the left vote was 58% in Hamilton West and the right vote 34%. So, it would take an extreme swing against the Government

Labour’s best hope of retaining the seat is for Sharma’s campaign to split the anti-Government vote. If enough anti-Labour people back the incumbent-dissident, viewing a vote for Sharma as the best way to give Labour a bloody nose, then National’s candidate might struggle to win. A split vote could be Labour’s saving grace.

A circus of minor parties and issues

Whether Labour or National win Hamilton West might be partly determined by the minor parties standing in the campaign, as well as which issues rise to the top of the agenda on the campaign trail. On this, David Farrar says:

“If Act and/or NZ First stands and Greens do not, that helps Labour”.

According to journalist Richard Harman, National could be disadvantaged by these other rightwing and minor parties splitting the vote. He says, National

“… will have to beat off Act and a resurgent NZ First, as well as a host of small parties like TOP and the Freedoms and Outdoors Party”.

And in terms of campaigning issues, Harman says:

“Act and NZ First will undoubtedly end up emphasising the same issues; co-governance, crime, and, if the weekend conference is anything to go by, NZ First will also want (like Act) to talk about education.”

Harman suggests that Act has an obvious candidate for the campaign – their current MP James McDowall, who

“… lives in Hamilton and, as a fluent Cantonese speaker, has strong connections with the Chinese community there.”

In terms of by-election issues, Audrey Young points to the following:

“It may be about Treaty of Waitangi issues if Winston Peters and David Seymour decide to campaign there hard. It will definitely be about inflation, mortgage rates, rents, and the cost of petrol, power and fuel.”

And what about Sharma’s chances? No one thinks the incumbent has much of a chance, and he may struggle to win third place. But whatever he does will be interesting.

He has said that he has a new centre party to launch, and will

“…  send a message to the government that you can’t silence the voice of the common man”.

There will be plenty of colourful allegations.

Audrey Young is right to suggest that Sharma won’t be at the centre of the campaign:

“It is possible Sharma has some pockets of personal loyalty but his story is not the stuff of martyrdom. He has no great following or cause in the way that Winston Peters, Tariana Turia or even Hone Harawira had when they forced byelections. Ultimately, it was Jacinda Ardern in a Covid crisis, not Gaurav Sharma who won Hamilton West for Labour in 2020.”

The Government is now having to decide when exactly the by-election should be held. They will be torn between having it quickly to get it out of the way, or else leaving it until December, when it can be largely ignored by the public in the busy leadup to the Summer Xmas holidays.

Whenever it occurs, it’s likely to be something of a circus, and the strength of the fight between National and Labour to win will make it particularly intense. At this stage, it is true that a “bloodbath” for Labour is certainly a possibility, but it’s probably too soon to say.

A lot will depend on the candidates selected, the minor parties that run, the issues that arise, and ultimately whether a split vote allows Labour a chance to hold the seat.

    • Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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