Voter Apathy in Christchurch East

John Armstrong’s column today highlights the extreme levels of apathy in the Christchurch East by-election.

Byelection? What byelection? With just a couple of days to go until the polling booths open in Christchurch East, one thing is for sure: apathy is the big winner so far. It is difficult to recall a by election that has received such scant attention.

Both National and Labour – which has held the seat since 1919 – have made a point of talking down their respective chances of victory.

In Labour’s case, it is easy to understand why. Christchurch East may be one of the poorest electorates in the country. The long-serving Lianne Dalziel, whose decision to contest the Christchurch mayoralty triggered the byelection, may have secured a solid 5,000-plus majority at the last election. The popular politician may have given a strong endorsement of her would-be Labour successor, Poto Williams.

It is no accident, however, that Williams’ campaign manager is none other than Jim Anderton. It is a measure of Labour’s nervousness that it has called on the experienced former Alliance leader to motivate the party’s volunteers who do the donkey work of electioneering.

Most of the country has no idea a by-election is under way.  And they don’t really need to.  It could be argued that Christchurch East is a seat only ever held by Labour so what is the point of ‘taking a look’ at what is going on there.  The truly startling fact is that Labour are doing so little to showcase Labour.  A lot of this comes down to the candidate.  Poto Williams is underwhelming at best.  Why else get long time campaigner Jim Anderton to lead her campaign and scurry behind Poto cleaning up what she’s said by adding a few more layers of intellectual thought and political spin.  Labour’s problem is so much of Christchurch East being a Labour territory was all about Lianne, not all about Labour.  Poto simply does not have the personality or roots that Lianne had.  Armstrong alludes to this:

Labour has reason to worry. First – and most astonishingly – National won the party vote in the seat in 2011 by a margin of more than 4,000 votes.

That outcome had a lot to do with the decline in support for Labour in successive general elections in what was previously “Fortress Christchurch” for the party.

A Labour victory may hinge on the nearly 3,200 voters who backed Dalziel with their electorate vote in 2011 but who gave their party vote to National doing the same favour for Williams at the expense of National’s candidate, Matthew Doocey.

But there are no guarantees of that happening. Quite the reverse.

While I think it is unlikely Doocey will win the by-election he has done a good, safe pair of hands job.  Yes, he is kind of boring and won’t set the world on fire but as the less favoured to win (remember a Nat have never won the electorate vote in Christchurch East) he is doing everything that needs to be done, he is plodding, shaking hands, kissing babies and looking after the Party vote for the Election proper.  A strong showing by Doocey leads to a good future for him. You see that is the point of it for the Nats – yes, it would be nice to get a surprise win but if it means they can blood someone new into that seat who can in the Election proper keep the Party vote solid then in an MMP environment that is gold.  It seems that the Nats have finally matured into MMP politics – putting solid and safe performers into Labour strongholds means two things. First, can cause a bit of bother to incumbent Labour MPs and second, can increase that all important Party vote.

The reality is that National has nothing to lose.  This by-election is no gauge of support of Government instead it is all on Labour to make sure they win.  And they are nervous.

National has wasted no opportunity downplaying its chances, mostly so it can claim a huge upset should Doocey win. If Labour holds the seat on Saturday night, Key will simply argue that was always going to be the case.

Labour has realised it has a scrap on its hands. The capacity of that party’s machine to prod likely Labour voters in the direction of the ballot box should ensure a Labour victory, though not a large one.

So if voter apathy continues and Labour can’t get enough of the vote out it will suggest there is something wrong with Labour’s machine.

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