There was a clear air of self-satisfied smugness within the Labour Party when Dr Gaurav Sharma was expelled from its Caucus. A stroppy young MP had been firmly dealt with and his political career destroyed because he had dared challenge the veracity of the Prime Minister on how Labour dealt with internal staffing issues. Most people probably saw him as a self-centred troublemaker, not suited to the rough and tumble of politics, who by virtue of his Caucus expulsion would be despatched to political oblivion at the next election. And that would be the end of the story.
At best, Sharma was considered by Labour and the commentariat as no more than a generally minor irritant, who, once starved of media attention, would become a nonentity. However, his calculated resignation to force a by-election in his Hamilton West seat before the end of the year will have changed that perception. The short-term irritant has now become a major problem that cannot be brushed aside and ignored. One way or another, Sharma has derailed Labour's short-term political recovery agenda.
The last thing Labour wants in the next few months is a by-election in any seat it currently holds, especially one as marginal as Hamilton West. Starting election year smarting from a by-election loss was never part of Labour's plan for winning a third term. Yet, Sharma's resignation leaves them with few options to avoid it.
Labour could decide to hold the general election much earlier, enabling it to invoke the provision allowing a by-election to be avoided if a seat becomes vacant within six months of an election. That would essentially mean a general election by the end of April next year at the latest. But National’s agreement would be required for that to happen, and that is hardly likely in the circumstances. Also, it is far from clear what strategic advantage, if any, there would be for Labour in hurriedly bringing forward the election date, with the various unresolved problems besetting it at present, and before it can dole out any election sweeteners in next May’s Budget.
Nor was it ever likely that Sharma would heed Labour’s increasingly desperate-sounding pleas to reconsider his decision and avoid an “unnecessary” and “costly” by-election. It is worth noting Labour did not have anything like the same scruples when it came to the prospect of a by-election in the Rongotai seat had the sitting MP, endorsed by Labour, won the Wellington Mayoralty a couple of weeks ago.
Labour has no alternative but to get the Hamilton West by-election over and done with as quickly as possible – probably before the end of November. Its hope then must be that the onset of a long, hot summer break dims the memory of Sharma and a poor showing in the by-election he caused. Already, Labour has started talking down its prospects of retaining Hamilton West. Its line is that Sharma only won in 2020 because that was Labour’s high-tide year and that, given its status as a traditional bell-weather seat, Hamilton West was always going to be difficult to retain on a long-term basis. Comments by Ministers Robertson and Hipkins make it clear the lines to explain a likely ignominious defeat are already well-prepared.
Sharma is unlikely to win the seat as an independent candidate, given both the circumstances of his departure, and the lack of a party machine behind him. He will have residual local support, both from those who have worked alongside him in the electorate and constituents he has been able to help, but that will not be enough to save him. His biggest influence will be as the spoiler, and, given his attacks on the Prime Minister and other former colleagues, which will become more pronounced during the by-election campaign, he will do some serious damage to the government’s credibility. After all, he really has nothing more to lose in this campaign.
A clear National win in Hamilton West seems the most likely outcome at this stage, but it cannot be taken as a given. Nor can National treat, or be seen to treat, it as such. A lot will come down to candidate selection. Following the Tauranga debacle, National is under huge pressure to get it right this time round and select a candidate with not only the skills to serve the electorate well, but with no unpleasant skeletons lurking in the background.
The bigger question arising from the pending by-election will be its potential impact on the wider political landscape. Hipkins’ intriguing, candid, and accurate observation that Labour’s 2020 election victory was an extraordinary personal triumph for the Prime Minister, due to the pandemic, that will be hard to repeat in today’s more normal circumstances, raises interesting questions about where Labour might head in the future. A brutal thumping in the by-election will intensify these over the inevitable summer barbecue discussions.
Sharma may yet have the last laugh. Ironically, by leaving Parliament the way he has, he could well up end having a more profound impact on Labour’s future direction and fortunes, than were he to stay, or as is most unlikely, be returned at the coming by-election.
It is therefore hardly any wonder that Labour’s self-congratulatory smugness about how well it dealt to Sharma in the early days, is being replaced by anxiety, anger, and desperation about what may happen next.