National should be doing better.
That’s the verdict from MPs and supporters after a disappointing Newshub-Reid Research poll that showed the party essentially tied with Labour, but without the coalition partners necessary to form a government, thanks to leader Christopher Luxon’s decision to rule-out Te Pāti Māori from any government he leads.
MPs spoken to for this story were disappointed with the results from the poll, noting it was clearly disappointing that National had not been able to capitalise on a fairly dire couple of months for the Government, which included the sacking of Stuart Nash, the defection of Meka Whaitiri, and the resignation of Elizabeth Kerekere from the Greens.
Add to this Te Pāti Māori’s fairly un-bread-and-butter policy platform, its alleged “grandstanding” in the House, and a host of other, more minor ministerial transgressions, and you have what some National MPs believed was a recipe for a convincing poll lead over Labour and its “coalition of chaos” - a label Labour certainly did its best to earn in recent weeks.
But it wasn’t to be. Labour polled 35.9 per cent in the poll, with National just trailing on 35.3 per cent. Both were down on the last poll, which was taken in January.
The poll had more bad news for Christopher Luxon. His preferred Prime Minister ranking fell 2.4 points to 16.4 per cent, trailing Chris Hipkins who was up 3.8 points to 23.4 per cent.
The poll also found 47 per cent of people believed Luxon to be “out of touch”, compared with 35.6 per cent thinking the same of Hipkins.
MPs think a large part of the problem is with Luxon himself.
MPs look at National’s poll lead on key issues like the economy and cost of living and think the party has done the job of beating back Labour’s commanding lead on all fronts since 2020.
And while National has convinced much of the electorate that it might be a good idea to at least consider ditching Labour, the electorate clearly isn’t yet convinced by what National is offering. Part of the problem is that more than a year into the job, Luxon hasn’t established what motivates him in the way that someone like Jacinda Ardern drove home a passion for addressing things like child poverty.
Luxon seems to generally and genuinely want to make New Zealand a better place, but so do most of the 120 MPs in the House, and the hundreds more that crowd party lists and electorate contests. Who is he and why, of those 120 MPs is he the one who deserves the top job?
Despite this, there is no appetite to change leader now.
There is simply too great a transaction cost.
Changing the leadership now, they argue would simply feed into the chaos narrative National built for itself in recent years and which Luxon to his credit, has put a stop to. Even if there is a better leader in caucus (and there is some disagreement around this), it’s not worth the transaction cost of putting them in charge months out from an election, giving Labour plenty of cause to say that whatever its internal dramas, National is still in the lead when it comes to chaos.
Yes, the Hail Mary tactic for Labour and Ardern, but that was exceptional (and that transition was a clean one, in which one leader gave way to another - there’s no evidence Luxon would be willing to step aside, and unlike Labour in 2017, National’s polling is nowhere near bad enough to justify him being asked or forced to go).
There are two obvious scenarios for how the election may play out.
The deteriorating economic environment could drive voters away from the incumbent, even if they’re not sold on National. Luxon simply needs to sit tight and wait for Labour to be swept from office on a tide of high prices, average wage growth and gloomy employment prospects. But the more pessimistic scenario for National is if it cannot establish a polling lead by the time the campaign truly starts. When this happens, and politics becomes a presidential Chris-off, Labour would likely have the edge, given Hipkins’ convincing lead over Luxon on all polling measures of personal popularity.
The obvious replacement would be deputy Nicola Willis (who is not on manoeuvres). There is a rumour that has made it to caucus of Auckland business leaders gingerly trying to get Willis to step up to the plate. Just how true this rumour is remains unclear - no one would divulge the names of these business leaders.
While no one spoken to by the Herald backs a change at the moment, even people outside Willis’ liberal camp think she might neutralise some of the problems National currently struggles with by taking an even harder line on candidate selection and culture, and taking a more mainstream stance on abortion.
Luxon’s pro-life abortion stance is still a problem when it comes to reaching median voters.
This raises a broader, structural issue for National; The party is famously a “broad church”, being the home of social conservatives and liberals (although the liberal faction tends to be smaller). In an age in which positions on social policy like abortion matter more and more, and hang over MPs careers more than they might have done in the past, can a social conservative ever lead National to victory, or are these issues of such great importance to the median voter that the social conservative faction will forever be relegated to the passenger seat?