Helen White will try to keep the red streak going in Mt Albert. Photo: Supplied, Wikimedia, Getty Images

As Labour’s unprecedented support from 2020 ebbs and National’s polls stay strong, there’s many a marginal seat across the country where a blue result is a safe prediction.

But what of the Labour strongholds – the urban and the working class swathes of the country that have reliably formed a red wall for decades?

READ MORE:
*
Electorates to watch: Tensions flare in Northcote
* Electorates to watch: National and Labour eye up Auckland Central

If the pendulum swings hard enough to the right this weekend, even Labour candidates vying for previously safe seats will be holding their breath.

Among these is Helen White. Following her defeat in Auckland Central in 2020 by the Green Party’s Chlöe Swarbrick, she’s turned her attention to her home suburb of Mt Albert.

The central Auckland electorate has been a dependable source of votes for the Labour Party since World War Two, with former Prime Ministers Michael Joseph Savage, Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern all having held the seat.

At 47th on the list, White can’t match the fame of her predecessors. And while the historical trend of a red Mt Albert is on her side, Labour’s poor polling performance in recent months and an active campaign from the Greens mean her victory is no foregone conclusion.

The slopes of Owairaka are no stranger to political battles between notable figures – Robert Muldoon, David Shearer, former TOP leader Geoff Simmons, Dakta Green and comedian Ben Boyce have all had a try for the seat.

In 2005, Act leader David Seymour and co-governance opponent Julian Batchelor, then a New Zealand First candidate, both received exactly 746 votes.

Mt Albert residents are used to having prime ministerial neighbours, so the question is whether former lawyer Helen White will summon the same level of support.

At her campaign launch last month, Labour volunteers suggested that lower profile may in fact be a feather in White’s cap.

“Jacinda was pretty busy these last few years,” one volunteer said. A small but impassioned group gathered to kick off White’s campaign at the Sandringham Community Centre, which included a speech by Helen Clark and pins personally designed by artist Dick Frizzell.

Helen White at her campaign launch in Sandringham. Photo: Matthew Scott

White said she was optimistic about her campaign and referred to her own bonafides as a “dug-in” local, having lived just off Gribblehirst Park for decades.

“Nothing beats local,” she said. “I remember when we had a competition for this seat in our own party and coming out the gate the day after I got it – the feeling of joy that I was walking out into a place that I knew so well, and I could represent.”

She said there’s been positive reception to her campaign from people who had benefited from half-price or free public transport or wanted publicly funded coverage for basic dental care (for under 30s).

“It’s a big vote winner with young people for good reason,” White said. “Most of us remember that we were in our 20s we didn’t get our teeth done. Most of us know we did some damage in that time.”

But if it’s dental care that’s attracted the undecided vote, White has to compete with the universal dental care promises Greens candidate Ricardo Menéndez March comes armed with.

Perhaps seeing this as their opportunity to strike, the Greens sent their candidate ranked eighth on the party list to contest Mt Albert with a big ground team and a slickly produced video by film-maker Julie Zhu.

Aside from two runs at the seat by Julie Anne Genter, Green candidates for Mt Albert have generally come from further down the list.

In 2020, the Greens were represented here by 18-year-old climate activist Taitoa Wihone, who received a fifth of the vote – around the same number as National candidate Melissa Lee.

With a higher-profile candidate who has been involved in both health and immigration advocacy for the party, the Greens will hope a good number of those Labour 2020 votes will come their way.

Menendez March has impressed on voters the fact Mt Albert is a progressive seat where National candidates have never exceeded 28.9 percent of electorate vote, and the Greens received higher party vote than National in 2020.

It seems to be an appeal to the historical fact that the Greens do quite well in Mount Albert – and a bid to stop votes shifting over to Labour just to keep a National candidate out.

Ricardo Menéndez March and volunteers. Photo: Instagram

Menendez March said he’s noticed a difference on the ground, and a contest for a seat that’s usually a foregone conclusion.

“It’s a vacant seat, and we’ve been buoyed by the number of people who say they are voting Green for the first time,” he said. “It’s been far more competitive than in the past.”

Menendez March has been throwing big numbers at the campaign – 9000 calls, 6000 door knocks, 5000 letters, around 100 billboards and signs, and just over 100 volunteers – and is confident he’s running the biggest ground game in the electorate.

But if there’s any candidate that might be buoyed by the back and forth of polls, it’s National’s Melissa Lee, who has run for Mt Albert consistently since the 2009 by-election sparked by Helen Clark’s resignation.

She’s long been an underdog in these parts, consistently pulling about a fifth of the electorate vote. But for the first time she’s got a contest where her opponent isn’t one of the giants of Labour. Will that make any difference?

Lee says she campaigns without looking at polls or statistics, and just “does what she needs to do”. That’s the usual mix of evening door-knocks and getting drenched on the side of the road doing human hoardings.

Melissa Lee door-knocking in her National Party get-up that she describes as "monk-like" in appearance. Photo: Instagram

However, people involved in other campaigns said Lee seemed was less visible on the ground.

When asked about her campaign strategy, she mainly spoke about issues like crime and cost of living, which she said had come up most frequently as the issues the people of Mt Albert cared about.

In Mt Albert, the murders of Lena Zhang, Tom Coombes and Janak Patel have put a spotlight on safety issues.

Lee said she didn’t feel secure walking around the electorate at night, and many she’d spoken to had echoed the same.

She sounded hopeful she could “dent the Labour stronghold” come Saturday.

All candidates running for a seat are obliged to sound hopeful, lest they create a self-fulfilling prophecy of doubt that tanks their chances.

At 13th on the list, Lee is almost definitely getting into Parliament. 

The same can’t be said for White. The latest Guardian poll from Wednesday morning gives Labour 39 seats – meaning without this seat, White would likely be out.

The legacy of Labour lies on her shoulders as she gives speeches to passing cars through a megaphone on the corner by the Kingsland shops.

Other candidates taking a stab at Mt Albert include TOP’s Ciara Swords and Young Act President Ollie Murphy.

23-year old Murphy said he was campaigning exclusively for the party vote, and hadn’t had much chance to get out on the ground. He’s employed as a part of Act’s national campaign and has been “working away in the engine room”.

Mt Albert has voted for a Labour MP for 77 years. On Saturday night, it will be big news if the streak is broken.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

Leave a comment