Is Christopher Luxon's leadership of the National Party starting to run out of steam?
When he took over as leader late last year National was languishing in the polls, far behind Labour. Following Luxon's accession, National quickly closed the gap with Labour, and since about May has been looking well placed to be able to form a government with ACT after the next election. Luxon's personal ratings were on the rise, and he was beginning to close the gap with Jacinda Ardern in the preferred Prime Minister stakes.
But all that may be changing. While National and ACT still lead the Labour/Green bloc – just – in the rolling average of polls, that lead is slipping, leaving the next election currently too close to call. Luxon's own personal ratings have also stalled and are starting to decline.
The turning point seems to have come around the time of his “Today I am in Te Puke” social media post while he was holidaying with his family in Hawaii. Since then, there have been the controversies surrounding his youth unemployment policy announcement to the otherwise successful National Party conference, the continuing speculation about his stand on access to abortion, and the allegations against new MP Sam Uffindell.
Each of these has raised questions about aspects of Luxon’s judgement and has led to questions of whether all that much has really changed after all in the basic culture and style of the National Party under his leadership. His political experience has also been called into question, with a view in some quarters that his reliance on corporate-speak and solutions is off-putting to many of the voters National needs to reclaim from Labour to return to government.
However, does it all matter that much at this stage of the electoral cycle? After all, Labour's ratings are falling like National's, with Ardern slumping more sharply than Luxon, even though she remains comfortably ahead in the preferred Prime Minister ratings. Is it not just a case of the mid-winter blues, brought on by the continuing run of bad weather, the uncertainty caused by the looming economic recession, and the lingering spectre of the pandemic affecting both the major parties equally?
While there is an element of truth in this, National must nevertheless be concerned about the dip in Luxon’s fortunes. Although there is no suggestion – serious or otherwise – that his leadership is under threat, National strategists will be turning their minds to how he can better connect with the public. They will have noted enviously the Prime Minister’s well-received natural warmth and empathy, demonstrated yet again this week in her visit to storm-ravaged Nelson, even though she had very little to offer in the way of practical assistance.
National should be concerned that despite the government’s failings, and the deteriorating overall situation, it is still running only neck-in-neck with Labour in opinion polls, when it should be well ahead. Moreover, the response to the Prime Minister’s “charm” visit to Nelson this week is a powerful and ominous reminder of her ongoing appeal to people and the consequent challenge that poses to Luxon to attract favourable public attention.
Of course, the controversy surrounding now expelled MP Gaurav Sharma and Labour’s handling of it will have hurt Labour, and perhaps restored some of National’s fortunes for the meantime. However, National still awaits the completion of the independent QC’s inquiry into the Uffindell matter, and it remains to be seen how Luxon will handle its findings. So far, his approach has been crisp and decisive, but he will need to continue with that approach once the inquiry has been completed, whatever its outcome.
Luxon cannot compete with Ardern on the empathy and compassion fronts – nor should he try. But there is more to leadership than empathy and compassion. So, his best option is to present himself as the calm, decisive and clear-thinking alternative, with practical solutions to offer, just the thing the country needs as it moves out of its current economic and pandemic related uncertainties. But he must learn to present himself in a way that demonstrates that convincingly to the voting public.
National’s and Luxon’s current poll stumbles are not terminal – but they are clear reminders that while voters may be turning off the Labour Government in droves, they are still far from convinced about National’s ability to lead a capable government to replace Labour. While they may have liked what they saw of Luxon in the early months of this year, they are now less certain about him. They do not see him as the new Sir John Key as the National Party would like to promote him.
Luxon needs to quickly put his recent stumbles behind him and present a clear picture to the public of just who he is, the type of leader he will be, and his ambition for New Zealand. He needs to follow that up with four or five significant new policies which sharply differentiate National from Labour, that he and the party can campaign on relentlessly until the next general election.
Without those changes, Luxon’s currently spluttering bandwagon risks coming to an early and unfortunate halt.