Saturday’s win for centre-right mayors doesn’t seal the deal for National at next year’s general election. But it does send a big wake-up call to Labour, writes political editor Jo Moir.

Local government election results for the left and right ebb and flow as much as the general elections do, and more often than not they aren’t in sync with each other.

Helen Clark’s prime ministership saw her having to work with John Banks as Auckland mayor while John Key’s time in power coincided with Len Brown and Phil Goff in the job.

Wayne Brown overwhelmingly defeated Labour-endorsed Efeso Collins on Saturday and mayoralties held by the left swung right in Rotorua, Whanganui, Christchurch and Dunedin as well.

It’s been a long and miserable winter for many in New Zealand dealing with the Covid hangover, a cost-of-living crisis and gloomy economic forecasts ahead.

You’d be hard pressed to find many in the 40 percent of eligible voters who bothered to fill out their ballot papers who were feeling optimistic about the state of the world or their own backyard.

For precisely that reason the tide has always come in and out on political parties’ success at local government elections – sometimes people are just fed up and want something that looks and sounds different.

National will be celebrating the swing toward centre-right mayors but with another 12 months until the general election there’s also time for some of the negativity and cynicism to subside.

National could yet also suffer some potential backlash over the urban housing intensification that its deal with Labour for a bipartisan law helped spawn – forcing councils to accept multi-storey, dense residential buildings across their territories and making them argue for any limited exceptions.

That doesn’t mean Labour has nothing to worry about – messages would have been running hot between senior Cabinet ministers over the weekend trying to get a read on what it is exactly that voters are sick of.

There will no doubt have been plenty of “you’ve got to be joking” messages exchanged in the Labour caucus when the Wellington results revealed not only had sitting Labour MP Paul Eagle lost to a candidate even further to the left, but he’d come fourth in a race he was tipped to win long before he even announced.

That result seems less about a message to Labour and more a clear signal sent to Eagle.

It was Covid that won Labour the election in 2020 and in an ironic twist it seems like the hangovers of the pandemic could be the thing that stands between Ardern and a third term.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw has spoken before of the conditions needing to be right to bother to try win a seat in a general election and the same can be applied to local government.

The incumbent not standing is a strong starting point, yet the unknown Green Party-endorsed candidate, Tory Whanau, went up against Mayor Andy Foster and won – beating a Labour MP and former deputy mayor with huge Wellington name recognition in the process.

Until a year ago most of Wellington had no idea who Whanau was. The result is either proof she ran one hell of a campaign or Eagle basically didn’t run one at all – the answer is most likely both.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern left it until the final days of the campaign to publicly endorse Collins and Eagle, who both ran as independents endorsed by Labour.

Given how little endorsement had been given to Eagle by his Labour caucus in the lead-up to Saturday, Ardern could have simply said nothing at all on the basis they were both running as independents.

Instead she has been criticised for a half-hearted endorsement and now the embarrassingly big losses on both counts have allowed conclusions to be drawn as to what it says about her own star power.

To be fair, even those in Eagle’s own campaign team were starting to doubt his motivations and principles before voting even closed.

On Three Waters, it’s more likely the Government will look to just rip the band-aid off and ram the legislation through as quickly as possible.

What the local government results do tell Labour is that some of their work programmes might be more hassle than they’re worth in the next 12 months, especially if energetic centre-right mayors ready to make their mark are fighting them at every turn.

Three Waters is becoming a headache for the Government, as is co-governance and the RNZ/TVNZ merger – all are seen as big projects with a confused purpose that have a huge bill to come with them. Expect to see some back down on at least two of them.

Strangely Ardern has never really made a case personally for any of them – it’s like a repeat of the cannabis referendum in 2020, where she decided to leave it for people to make up their own mind and ended up just leaving a vacuum for misinformation.

Nanaia Mahuta has been carrying the can on Three Waters while Willie Jackson is bearing the weight of the co-governance and merger fallout.

Ardern seems to have decided she doesn’t want to attach her political capital to any of them.

On Three Waters, it’s more likely the Government will look to just rip the band-aid off and ram the legislation through as quickly as possible.

The criticism from councils is often coming from a place of self-interest depending on what part of the country you’re in and the debate has become more about representation (the co-governance issue) than the actual mechanics of it all.

Much as former Prime Minister Sir John Key did with selling off parts of State-Owned Enterprises despite huge public backlash, he pushed on in 2013 and by the time it came to the election in 2014 voters had forgotten and overwhelmingly returned National to power.

The quicker the current Government deals with Three Waters the further back in people’s memories it will be when the election rolls around next year.

There’s a summer between now and the election, which will include fully open borders, international travel and the entertainments of old – remember festivals?

It was Covid that won Labour the election in 2020 and in an ironic twist it seems like the hangovers of the pandemic could be the thing that stands between Ardern and a third term.

Wellington’s mayoralty race is a lesson for National and Labour in what to do as much as what not to do.

National will be looking to take a leaf out of Whanau’s book and hope an unknown Luxon can resonate with voters and run a winning campaign.

Labour can’t afford to be complacent, or arrogant, and needs to work out exactly what it’s selling to the electorate if it wants to avoid a defeat of Eagle-sized proportions.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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