|Back in the 1990s, Tony Blair rebranded The British Labour Party as “New Labour”, to try and draw a line under past failures. It’s as if Christopher Luxon is attempting to follow suit, and launch “New National” at the moment – a party that’s fresh-looking, has made some big breaks from the past, but is still recognisably conservative.
The National Party’s weekend conference – the first with Luxon as leader – was relatively successful in breaking with the past and modernising. But there were still plenty of recycled policies on show.
A successful, boring conference
There was nothing particularly interesting on show at National’s 2022 annual conference, but in a sense this is what the National Party wanted from the event – especially after a turbulent few years of extremely interesting and divisive conferences and caucuses.
National Party activist Liam Hehir put this well today, celebrating the fact that “No bold or exciting policies were announced”, explaining that “An exciting or even interesting conference is not something a political party should generally wish for. When a party’s annual meeting gets interesting the result is usually something of a disaster.” He points to the recent Green Party AGM, in which co-leader James Shaw was rolled, as an example of what should be avoided.
Other political journalists and commentators are in consensus that the fact that the conference went off without a hitch made it a success, and as a result National is looking the best it has for years. Political journalist Richard Harman went to the conference and noted that “National has come a long way in 12 months. It hasn’t seen such a cohesive and positive party conference since probably 2016.”
Harman also drew attention to the record 700 delegates at the conference and suggested that they left the weekend buoyed by a new unity and purpose: “you could almost hear their sighs of relief. After four years of turmoil over the leadership of the Caucus and the party organisation, National was finally able to present a settled face to the world.”
Similarly, the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan commented on the unity surrounding the new leader: “For the first time in years, National party faithful leave their annual conference assured their current leader will probably take them to the election. Luxon has clearly stamped his name on the party. Members might not always agree with him, but there seems to be a near-unanimous belief that he has a good chance of winning the 2023 election so they might as well get behind him until polling day at least.”
Coughlan also says that although he didn’t witness any Jacindamania-level enthusiasm for Luxon, the overall mood was positive, with higher levels of energy than usual.
Modernisation of the National Party
Party leaders are determined to show that National is under new management, and so new branding and slogans have been launched which reinforce this. The darker blue that Judith Collins used while leader has been replaced by a more subtle and traditional look.
RNZ political editor Jane Patterson comments: “The magenta wash shot through the true-blue National branding is one way Christopher Luxon is making his mark as party leader”. Likewise, Stuff political editor Luke Malpass says the “branding has changed, with a subtle bit of purple now in the mix, gently dialling down the very definite blue livery.” And Coughlan suggests a return to the past: “a light magenta that bleeds into deep blue. It’s a little closer to the lighter, brighter colour scheme of the Key years”.
The slogan of “Taking New Zealand Forward” might at first appear extremely bland and anodyne. But it’s something of a dog-whistle, making use of the word “New Zealand” to contrast with parties such as Labour and the Greens that have replaced or complemented that word with “Aotearoa”. A critique of attempts to change the country’s name is hinted at with this slogan, without launching a full “culture war” that might alienate potential voters. It speaks to a more careful approach under Luxon, compared to Collins’ time as leader.
Luxon is seeking to take on what some National voters see as Labour’s “woke” agenda, while also positioning the party as modern and liberal. In his keynote speech he was careful to talk about the Treaty and multiculturalism in a positive way but, on the other hand, promise “one standard of democracy, equal voting rights and no co-governance of public services.”
National and Luxon also made it clear in the weekend that the party was prioritising the need for diversity in the party. Harman reported: “A clear message seems to be circulating through the party ranks that more diversity is wanted, and there was a notable number of Indians, Chinese, Pasifika and even Maori at the conference.”
Getting rid of party president Peter Goodfellow was related to this, with insiders saying Luxon forced him to step down. In his place, is new party president Sylvia Wood – described by Harman as “a mild-mannered employment relations consultant”.
Harman suggests Luxon is responsible for much of the old guard in the party organisation also being pushed aside: “He seems to have now got the party organisation onside, in part because there has been a near-total cleanout at the party’s Pipitea Street headquarters.” Important new functionaries include William Durning as general manager, and Jo de Joux as campaign manager.
Luxon’s new welfare policy
Luxon’s keynote speech to the party conference was generally seen as doing the necessary rebranding, and gained good media coverage. He resurrected a traditional National policy, on a welfare issue that will resonate with many – youth on the unemployment benefit long-term at a time of severe labour shortages.
More conservative voters will appreciate the benefit-bashing element of the policy, and it’s very much a recycling of traditional true-blue values. And the fact that Luxon has launched the policy during a time of low unemployment will certainly bring condemnation from the left and opponents. And it’s hard to see how this is one of the biggest problems in the country at the moment.
From Luxon’s point of view, the number of 18-24 year olds on the Jobseeker benefit has increased significantly in Labour’s time in government, and so he’s providing a solution to a mystery problem. Others will suggest that this is actually a result of the Covid pandemic, and to focus specifically on this group as being to blame is to scapegoat them.
Leftwing commentator Gordon Campbell explains today: “It appears to have escaped National’s attention that the pandemic has demolished a lot of jobs in sectors – hospitality, tourism – that have traditionally hired lots of 18-24 year olds, even if only on the minimum wage and/or in part-time jobs that offer no career prospects. Currently, the recovery in those sectors remains tentative at best.”
Campbell suggests that Luxon’s weaponisation of moral concern about this group is “loathsome”, and many will agree. But it also has to be acknowledged that Luxon’s so-called “carrot and stick” approach is significantly more carrot than stick at the moment. This will make the policy much more attractive to many who voted Labour in 2020.
Under this policy, National would give more resources to help the long-term unemployed in this age group to find employment – in particular by paying for a “job coach” and individualised plan to help them into the work force. And once in a job for 12 months, these former Job Seekers get a $1000 incentive payment.
Luxon is selling this as a continuation of Bill English’s “social investment” approach, and therefore as a type of “compassionate conservativism”. Of course, there are many questions about the practicalities of the scheme. And it’s likely that there really isn’t any ability for a National government to truly sanction beneficiaries by taking away their benefits. Such a sanction causes more problems than National would be solving. And this is probably why Luxon failed to give any real details on this element of the policy.
Is National becoming the “nasty party”?
Critics will be keen to paint National as playing to their base, and being out of touch with ordinary voters – in effect shifting further to the right. And yet there were interesting elements in the weekend that contradict this.
For example, although Luxon is focusing much of his rhetoric on “Labour government wastage”, his party continues to talk about the things they will spend more on. For example, Gerry Brownlee was reported as arguing for more spending on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
In the big-spending area of health, National is also promising to spend more. Luxon had problems during the week with his confused position on whether the party would inflation-protect spending. But he ended up recommitting to spending billions more. And during the weekend, the party’s health spokesperson Shane Reti spoke about how the country’s health crisis meant that considerably more would need to be spent on health professionals.
Other parts of the welfare state might also be significantly bolstered by a National Government – especially in terms of early childhood education. Richard Harman reports: “delegates enthusiastically approved a remit calling for 20 hours of free Early Childhood Education hours for pre-schoolers.”
Despite some of these policies showing that National might not be the austere party of radical right that some critics want to believe that it is, there are still some policies that are starting to make National more distinctive under Luxon’s leadership. As political journalist Sam Sachdeva says today about National’s shifts: “It could be the start of an election campaign fought on sharp ideological contrasts”.
Similarly, Luke Malpass says National’s critiques of Labour are becoming clearer and stronger, and this is “setting the stage for the most sharply ideological election in a very long time. On many issues there are sharp differences: over tax, how centralised public services should be (three waters, health, polytechnics), immigration.”
Many of National’s policies seem under-developed, and it’s not clear how they will be paid for. But at the very least, the public should appreciate that with Luxon’s “New National” we are finally being offered a better contest of ideas than we’ve had for a long time.