If you like your politics raw and potentially lethal, look no further than the fight right now between the Labour and Māori parties for the Māori seats.

Yesterday’s decision by Labour to withdraw its Māori MPs from the party’s list – focusing on winning seat by seat and effectively eliminating the Māori Party – is the latest bare-knuckle play in this election’s most intriguing and perhaps pivotal battle.

It is a saga involving the Māori King, a King whisperer, cousin vs cousin, Iwi leaders vs urban Māori advocates, big names on either side – and the possible fate of this National-led government.

The move with the highest profile so far was the decision by King Tuheitia to endorse for the Hauraki Waikato seat the Tainui tribal leader Rahui Papa of the Māori Party.

By doing so he un-endorsed his cousin, sitting Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta. Labour’s reaction was to question the influence over the King of the Maori Party president, Tukoroirangi Morgan, a royal adviser, and to predict the King’s political influence was now on the line.

Radio New Zealand’s Mihingarangi Forbes examined the issue in depth after the King’s big call. 

Painting Morgan as some kind of King-whisperer manipulating support for his party, Labour has gone on the offensive.

Urban Maori advocate and former Alliance MP Willie Jackson has been drafted into Labour for a winnable place on its list and is not holding back.

He told the Media Take show, on Māori TV, that the next big name to be drafted into play by the Māori Party will be Mark Solomon, former chief of Ngai Tahu in the South Island.

“I think the Māori Party is besotted by the iwi leaders and the tribal elite.”

Jackson says he was made offers to stand for three parties, Māori, Labour and Gareth Morgan’s The Opportunity Party (TOP).

“I looked at all three and I wanted to see where best I could advocate for the people. I got a surprise when Andrew (Little) approached me.

“Labour have the right policies for our people and I was very impressed with what Labour want to do, particularly in the cities.”

Jackson has supported Māori Party initiatives and leaders in the past but said that party had had its time – when the Foreshore and Seabed issue was at its peak a decade ago.

“The time comes and the time goes. It’s not its time now”.

His focus on urban Māori, and Labour’s strategic decision to stand its current electorate MPs away from its list, are a bet against the power of the Iwi Leaders Forum and the King.

The Māori Party cannot use the tactic of telling voters they should vote for its candidate because Labour’s candidate will also make it to Parliament via Labour’s list, ending the ‘two-for-one’ argument.

Jackson agreed on Media Take that the Labour v Māori Party fight could be pivotal to the fate of the government.

“It is an important battle. I’m worried because we have had treaty settlements and we are not seeing the benefits for people in the cities. We have people living in cars. I can take you to 100 Māori, 1000 Māori, in South Auckland who have not seen a bean.’

While Labour’s Māori caucus stood with leader Andrew Little when announcing the seats-only decision, images of the press conference showed some solemn faces. Former NZ First and National MP Tau Henare posted a particularly glum image on social media, saying simply: ‘Not a very happy whanau here, ay?”

Mahuta has a 7000 majority and Labour will back her to overwhelm her first-cousin, the King’s, call – particularly in the seat’s southern Auckland urban constituency.

Kelvin Davis, the Tai Tokerau MP who once again faces Hone Harawira of Mana in an accommodation with the Māori Party, has a smaller majority but the party thinks his high profile in general political issues will help him return.

If Solomon does stand in the south, he could be the Māori Party’s lifeline in Te Tai Tonga.

The seat-only play will boost the chances of Jackson, profiled here by his ex wife Moana Maniapoto.

National meanwhile stands by as on one hand its ally, the Māori Party, has made peace with National’s former enemy Harawira, and on the other Labour is betting big to put Māori out of business for good.

It complains that Labour’s strategy is negative electioneering but the biggest negative could be for the fate of the Bill English government.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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