National Party leadership: Here is what the new leader will have to deal with

Dr Shane Reti speaks to media after the National leadership spill, saying the caucus had 'concerns' about Collins' press release on Simon Bridges.

OPINION: Labour could lose the next election. That almost goes without saying, as each election is contestable, but up until a couple of months ago it looked like any hope the centre-right parties of ACT and National had were in a galaxy far, far away.

Now the gap between the centre-left of Labour and Greens and centre-right is down to about six points on public polls. It’s still a lot of ground to make up, but it is within the realm of possibility. It will also have a bearing on the National Party leadership. Running with a good chance of winning is one thing; making up the numbers is quite another.

After Judith Collins’ self-immolation, the new National Party leader, whoever he is (and it is most likely to be a he), will face some serious challenges ahead. Rebuilding and uniting a party that has been riven by division for nearly two years, and getting match-fit for a competitive showing in 2023, are clearly the first tasks.

There are a number of contenders to replace Judith Collins. (L-R) Simon Bridges, Mark Mitchell, Christopher Luxon, Chris Bishop
There are a number of contenders to replace Judith Collins. (L-R) Simon Bridges, Mark Mitchell, Christopher Luxon, Chris Bishop

But sitting underneath that is a much deeper question about what the National Party is. Unlike Labour, which has its historical and current links to the trades union movement and various ideological commitments that are slow to change, National tends to be more heavily shaped by its leader.

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The party is committed, more or less, to freer enterprise than the Labour Party, and to more individual liberty, but that waxes and wanes with each subsequent leader. As with Labour, the party has become steadily more socially progressive over time on matters of personal choice and morality.

But in order for National to win power, it needs to come up with its own version of what middle New Zealand is, what issues matter to those voters, and how it will appeal to them. Crucially, the definition need to be broad enough to convince a lot of New Zealanders it is worth voting for.

Each successful prime minister does this; it is how they win office. And the look and shape of middle New Zealand changes with time and circumstance – that’s why a campaign that worked in 2005 won’t necessarily work in 2021. Think Don Brash’s Orewa speech: would it work again? It is hard to say, but probably not.

Once the new leader makes a pitch for what those things are – and Simon Bridges already started making noises about this on Thursday: the economy, inflation, cost of living – they can then start to build a story around it.

One of the problems with Judith Collins – and it wasn’t all of her own making – was that, small business aside, it hasn't often been clear what National was really for. One day she was doing a deal with Labour over high-density housing, another week she was attacking He Puapua and iwi co-governance arrangements, and another week she was railing against the Green Party removing a portrait of Winston Churchill from its part of Parliament. Three Waters and the health reforms were on-again-off-again topics.

The party has some key and pressing challenges it needs to confront to make itself electable.

ACT leader David Seymour
Braden Fastier/Stuff
ACT leader David Seymour

The first is the ACT Party. Consistently polling in the mid-teens, Collins spent significant time this year going after a whole pile of issues that ACT was campaigning on. This was strategic folly.

With the right leader, it should be expected that some of that vote will come back from ACT. But the fact is that, with no other coalition dance partners, an ACT that sits around 10 per cent is good long-term news for National, even if it smarts in the meantime.

ACT, and its leader David Seymour, is relentlessly pursuing its voter universe – about 33 per cent of the total voter pool that the party reckons would consider voting for it. This means it can go hard on a lot of issues around law and order, culture wars, Labour wokery, and so on.

National, a broad-based party, has to calibrate its message differently. Put simplistically, spending much time going after ACT voters requires a shift to the right where fewer voters are, at the expense of the political centre, where a far greater number of voters live. A bit of culture wars stuff would probably work quite well, but it would need to be limited, and well-chosen.

National also desperately needs to modernise the look and feel of its front bench to quickly fix another problem.

According to the most recent Taxpayers’ Union Curia poll, only 14 per cent of those under 40 would currently vote for the party. That figure would have to rise for the party to have a chance at government. It also points to the fact that National needs generational renewal to get more younger and female voters in tune with what it has to offer.

More generally, according to the same poll, while National is popular in towns – polling towards 45 per cent – in other places it is struggling massively.

In Wellington, an urban centre with high incomes, it is currently polling at 7.6 per cent. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that Wellington is full of government-salaried lefties who always vote Labour. That 7.6 per cent figure is half the proportion of the party vote that National won in one electorate, Wellington Central, in 2020. Go back to 2017, and National won 30 per cent of the vote in Wellington Central, 41 per cent in Hutt South, and 45 per cent in Ōhāriu​.

Wellington is only one place, but clearly that drastic cratering needs to be fixed.

National is currently polling highest in the lowest socioeconomic areas. That means policies aimed at cost of living should have resonance among potential voters. Next year, the costs of Covid produced both by Government policy here and the situation overseas will likely present plenty of opportunities.

Overall it is about imbuing voters with a sense that National understands their problems. Whether or not that means a totally fresh leadership team will be decided by the caucus on Tuesday.

After all, even with sliding support, National will still be poorly resourced and up against an ascendant Labour machine and popular prime minister.