FRANKLY, I thought the National Party would poll a lot higher under its new leader, Christopher Luxon. For the past week or so I have been shocking family and friends by predicting the first post-Luxon poll would put National/Act about 5 percentage points ahead of Labour/Green. To my surprise, however, David Farrar’s Curia Research has informed its client, the Taxpayers’ Union, that National/Act continues to trail Labour/Greens by 7 percentage points. Not the result that either National, or Act, was hoping for.
Sure, National has shot up by 6 percentage points to 33 percent. The problem, however, is that Act’s support has fallen by 5 percentage points. In other words, the elevation of Luxon has churned the Centre-Right vote, but it has not grown it. Well, not yet anyway.
That was not supposed to happen. The idea behind putting Luxon – as opposed to Simon Bridges – into the top job was simple: to lure back a substantial number of the 413,000 former National voters (mostly women) who defected to Labour in October 2020. Luxon, as a middle-aged, obviously successful, professional manager was intended to signal to all those other managers and professionals out there in “Punterland” that “National is back”. Back from where? Back from the bizarre electoral cul-de-sac into which its past three leaders had, either inadvertently or deliberately, driven it.
Farrar’s numbers make it brutally clear that, so far, this plan has failed. Luxon has yet to say or do the things necessary to shake loose sufficient support to make a Centre-Right government a believable proposition. Winning back that substantial chunk of Act support that represented little more than Centre-Right voters’ sheer exasperation with National’s seemingly incurable political ills is an important first step, but it does not take the party all that far.
In this respect, comparing Luxon’s first moves with the first moves of his mentor, Sir John Key, is instructive. Whether it be his speech to the Burnside Rugby Club, or his bold foray into McGeehan Close – situated in the heart of Helen Clark’s electorate – Key’s direction of travel was unmistakable. Alarmed National hardliners dubbed their new leader’s politics “Labour-Lite” – completely failing to grasp that this was exactly the message weary Labour supporters were supposed to take from his actions.
To all those New Zealanders alarmed by how close Don Brash came to winning the Treasury benches on the strength of his controversial Iwi/Kiwi campaign, Key was determined to present a very different political narrative.
Highlighting the years he spent growing up in a state house in working-class Christchurch. Deploring the growth of a Māori and Pasifika “underclass”. Visiting the state house tenants of McGeehan Close and inviting one of their daughters, Aroha, to join him at the 2007 Waitangi celebrations. All of these moves were calculated to persuade potential supporters that it was okay to vote National again. Sparking a devastating race war was well-and-truly off the agenda.
There has been little sign, so far, that Luxon understands that if he’s to narrow the yawning gender gap that has opened up between Labour and National, then he’s going to have to do something very similar. Indeed, the new National leader’s declaration that the voters he’s most keen to woo are farmers, businesspeople, and the middle-class, strongly suggests that he simply doesn’t get it.
Okay, farmers and businesspeople are definitely worth having, but there’s not the slightest doubt that National and Act already have them – and they are nowhere numerous enough to carry the nationwide Party Vote.
What’s more, Luxon’s statement shows scant understanding that the “middle-class” has for several decades now been bifurcated between what the French political-economist, Thomas Piketty, calls the “Brahmin Left’ and the “Merchant Right”. Once again, Act and National have got the Merchant Right wrapped up. And, as before, there just aren’t enough of them to guarantee an election win in 2023.
From somewhere, Luxon has to recruit his own variation on Key’s “Waitakere Man” and (more importantly) “Waitakere Woman”. The sort of voters who thought Key and the working-class, self-improving solo-mum, Paula Bennett, were their kind of Nat. Attracting the support of that kind of voter will not be made any easier by Labour’s caricature of Luxon as the sort of Bible-Basher who gets off on telling other people – especially women – what to do with their own bodies.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 December 2021.