THE PROBLEM with Jim Bolger’s sagacious intervention of last Sunday was that it diagnosed National’s disease, but supplied no remedy. It is all very well to tell National’s new leader, Christopher Luxon, that he must articulate a clear “vision” to the electorate. Who would disagree? Much more helpful, however, would’ve been some indication as to what that vision might be.
The nearest Bolger got was a suggestion that the new Leader of the Opposition might like to “reimagine capitalism”. Now, as a man of the Left, I have to say this was a pretty startling piece of advice. Most of those on the centre-right of politics struggle with the idea that there is anything about capitalism that requires “re-imagining”. What Bolger’s radical diagnosis appeared to be saying, however, was that National’s longstanding mistrust of political imagination might just lie at the heart of the party’s electoral difficulties.
Fair enough. But asking Luxon to re-imagine capitalism strikes me as a rather tall order for someone who’s only just celebrated his first year as an MP. Tall, but not impossible. Because, as Newsroom journalist Nikki Mandow reminded us on Monday morning (29/11/21):
“[I]t was Luxon who first introduced former KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy to the high engagement, high performance management model.
‘He’d been using it for a couple of years at Air New Zealand and was getting great results in terms of engaging frontline workers and their union to improve productivity’.”
Does this “high engagement, high performance management model” count as an example of reimagining capitalism? Maybe it does. It certainly counts as persuasive evidence that Luxon isn’t afraid of new ideas, new ways of working, and – wonder of wonders for a National Party politician – that he isn’t afraid of interacting productively with workers and their unions.
And that lack of fear is likely to prove crucial to Luxon successfully hauling National out of the rural and provincial swamp in which his predecessor, Judith Collins, had allowed her party to become mired.
Because, if there is one fact that National’s new leader must make his colleagues understand, it is that there simply aren’t enough farmers, small businesspeople and conservative Christians living in New Zealand to carry their party to victory. Nor is it any longer the case that a middle-aged White male, with a background in business, can expect to be automatically deferred to by centre-right voters – let alone centre-left converts.
Not that I’m suggesting a business background is a handicap, merely that it’s not enough. Not with half the workforce made up of women. Not when the blue collars of New Zealand’s proletariat are, increasingly, fastened around brown necks. Not when a growing proportion of New Zealand’s population grew up in powerful and active states, for whom the planning and implementation of economic development remain core government functions. (As was once the case right here in New Zealand!)
If Luxon’s caucus is unwilling to exercise their collective political imagination upon these electoral and cultural fundamentals, then National’s future is bleak. Eventually, Labour – which understands, at least theoretically, that these key transformations must be acknowledged and responded to – will work out how to make change happen.
Luxon’s tenuous – and presumably temporary – advantage is that Labour has yet to master the art of turning theory into practice. If, while his political opponents continue to faff about, Luxon reaches out, like Boris Johnson, to that part of Labour’s traditional working-class base that is no longer quite sure whose side Jacinda Ardern and her government is on, then National can begin to amass the additional numbers it needs to reclaim the Treasury Benches.
Outlandish? You reckon. Impossible? Well, it certainly won’t be easy, but it should not be forgotten that National has done it before. Luxon could do a lot worse than to set about rehabilitating the reputation (and some of the policies) of Rob Muldoon. Not the whole shebang, mind, but, at the very least, Muldoon’s willingness to reimagine, and reconfigure, capitalism in the way ordinary New Zealanders wanted it.
Because there really isn’t any other way that National can win. Luxon, like Muldoon, needs to go fishing where there are fish to catch. Using what for bait? Simple. A solemn promise to halt the upward redistribution of wealth among the sort of highly-educated, middle-class bureaucrats who get paid for telling working people what to do.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 December 2021.