If the Government remains unpopular it will lose the next election, no matter how National rates. Labour’s attacks on Christopher Luxon are more about boosting the morale of its campaign workers heading into a tough campaign

Opinion: For someone who was not even there, Christopher Luxon’s shadow seemed to darken last weekend’s Labour Party conference. The golden rule of politics to never give an opponent credibility by even acknowledging them, let alone criticising them directly, was quickly turned on its head as Labour ministers focused so much attention on him, suggesting a real fear of the threat he poses next year.

But is this apparent preoccupation justified? Although the centre-right bloc has been consistently ahead of the centre-left bloc for most of the year, according to the polls, the lead is not yet commanding, and Luxon still trails Jacinda Ardern on the head-to-head ratings. While Labour looks down at present, it is still far from out, so why the obsession with Luxon?

The answer is simple – fear. A growing, gnawing fear that the post-Covid cost-of-living crisis, which the Prime Minister now says will get worse next year, will overwhelm the Government, and see it tossed from office. Labour spent its first term shackled to, and hampered by, New Zealand First and the pandemic. The way it handled the pandemic delivered Labour an unprecedented absolute majority in 2020, but, despite that, its second term has still been heavily constrained by the pandemic. Labour now desperately wants a third term, free of such hindrances, when it can at last be the type of Labour Government the Prime Minister says she wants.

It is now all about legacy – something this government has yet to establish. Its performance to date has been uneven, for reasons not always of its own making, and far removed from the “transformational” approach the Prime Minister promised originally. As a step towards establishing a legacy, Ardern’s speech to the Labour Party conference focused heavily on what she considered were her government’s achievements to date. She was seeking to use these as a platform for the future, although there was little detail about the Government’s possible agenda, should it gain a third term. Even the showpiece childcare subsidy announcement was tame.

But clearly and understandably, Ardern wants a term where she can focus on achieving a lasting reputation for her government, even if what that means in practice is still very vague. The problem is Luxon increasingly looks like standing in the way, hence the near obsession Labour ministers have with ridiculing him whenever they can.

But is Luxon yet the threat Labour fears? His performance in the year since he became leader of the National Party has been something of a curate’s egg – good in parts, but indifferent to poor in other areas. There have been gaffes – such as the initial handling of the Sam Uffindell affair – but Luxon has shown himself to be a quick learner, as recent candidate selections are showing.

The hopelessly divided National Caucus he inherited now seems more disciplined and unified than at any point since 2017, with spokespeople looking more focused in their portfolio areas. Doubts remain, however, about the capability of some of them to step up to ministerial office in the event National becomes the government. Moreover, potentially difficult post-election negotiations with ACT lie ahead in the event the two parties have the numbers to form a government after the election. However, these are issues for the future and there is no reason to believe that when the time comes Luxon will be unable to deal with them efficiently.

A bigger concern is that National has yet to reveal much in the way of new policy – apart from limited tax cuts – although it is still early in the election cycle. By getting its tax policy out early, National clearly wanted to sow an early seed in potential voters’ minds, but, in the absence of any supporting policies in the areas of family assistance, it has been very easy for Labour to portray National as a limited, one-trick pony, and a selfish one at that. Nor has National been helped by the humiliating Liz Truss fiasco in Britain, which has allowed Labour to home in mercilessly on the very idea of tax cuts at all.

This free hit for Labour will continue until National shows its full hand on wider family assistance measures such as Working for Families Tax Credits and support for beneficiary families. A comprehensive tax reform and family assistance package will be far harder for Labour to ridicule than just limited tax cuts by themselves. Armed with such a policy, Luxon would be a more serious threat to Labour, especially as the cost-of-living crisis deepens.

Overall, his impressive business background and relatively smooth handling of National so far notwithstanding, Luxon has yet to overcome public wariness. While he is slowly gaining public support he does not have the easy public manner of Sir John Key, nor the public relatability of Jacinda Ardern. He still looks too much like the businessman trying to do politics, which leaves some people feeling uncomfortable. And he is untested in a political crisis – something Ardern with her successful responses to the terrorist attack, the volcanic eruption, and the pandemic behind her has already started to highlight.

None of this suggests Luxon is yet the direct threat Labour is trying to paint him as. But there is more to it than that. Labour knows full well Oppositions seldom win elections, but governments frequently lose them. Ultimately, if the Government remains unpopular it will lose, no matter how National rates. Labour’s attacks on Luxon now are therefore more about boosting the morale of its campaign workers heading into a tough campaign.

Come election day, these barbs will count for nothing. If people feel the Government has not looked after them sufficiently during the cost-of-living crisis, they will vote Labour out. That is Labour’s biggest fear – losing power after all the challenges they have endured, before they were able to be the government of transformation they promised.

Christopher Luxon is the convenient current whipping-boy for that growing fear. 

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