Beware National’s New Caring Face

Christopher Luxon’s first National Party caucus retreat, held in Queenstown was a curious affair. More than curious, it was characterised by strange connections, decisions and utterances.

TV One News reported Luxon as saying that “his party should care about people, not just the economy”, that “what we have to demonstrate to the New Zealand people is that we care deeply about them”.

National had “reset the party”.

As some in the media pointed out, rebranding Nationals as the party of the people in a surprising tilt to the left, seemed counter-intuitive in Queenstown. The international resort town is not exactly known for its working-class enclaves and marginalised poor.

Former New Zealand National Party Prime Minister, Sir John Key has bought a new section at the nearby Gibbston Valley Resort, and just happened to be down there to hit the first ball on the site of its nine-hole golf course on the Friday before the caucus.

Just a co-incidence, perhaps.

But the strangest decision of all was the National party’s choice of guest speaker to address the caucus gathering – the disgraced and humiliated former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortuitously for Luxon), Cameron had to bow out due to being Covid-infected. In his stead Cameron’s friend and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne stepped in to do the honours.

Choosing either of these two Brit ex-pollies to rev up National as it seeks to rebrand itself as the caring party seems politically tactless or perhaps just arrogant. Both were born with a silver spoon in their mouth (Cameron is descended from King William IV), and together they presided over a five-year austerity plan that brought misery to millions. Worse still, Cameron’s hubris and incompetence led to the Brexit plebiscite which resulted in Britain leaving the EU, with a raft of dire economic consequences.

A 22 December 2021 Bloomberg article, headlined, How a year of Brexit thumped Britain’s economy and businesses reported,

“As of October, U.K. goods trade with the EU was 15.7% lower than it would have been had Britain stayed in the EU’s single market and customs union”,

and

“Since the U.K.-EU free trade deal came into force, the decline in trade volumes means Brexit is on course to cause a 4% reduction in the size of Britain’s economy over the long-run.”

Guess who is suffering most thanks to Britain leaving the EU – the British people.

Not exactly shining examples of careful stewardship or caring leadership.

But, and there is a but which, if you delve back into the UK’s political history you might possibly, with eyes squinted and political radar recalibrated, see why Cameron and his replacement Osborne were honoured by Luxon and the National party with an invitation to fill the guest speaker role.

In July 2009 the New York Times published an article titled, Can David Cameron Redefine Britain’s Tory Party?

In it, Christopher Caldwell wrote:

“A pragmatic kind of communitarianism runs through a lot of Cameron’s policies. His advisers, particularly the party’s shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, argue in defense of local institutions, from schools with competitive enrollments to small post offices, whose contributions to community cohesion don’t appear on the bottom line and are often invisible to orthodox Thatcherites.

Cameron’s advisers have concentrated on making conservatism more widely appealing and marketable.”

Cameron took over as leader of the Tory party in late 2005, succeeding John Major. By then Tony Blair’s Labour Party had been in government for over eight years and the Tories had just lost their third general election in a row. David Cameron believed the Tories needed a major make-over if they were to regain power.  

The Britannica entries for Cameron and Osborne provide context:

“Together, Cameron and Osborne set about modernizing the Conservative Party …… They wanted to rid the party of its right-wing image and its reputation for not caring about public services or people with average and below-average incomes. This meant modifying the party’s long-standing ambitions to cut taxes. Osborne promised to stick to the Labour government’s spending plans on health and education and to delay tax cuts until they could be afforded.”

“Cameron …. announced that economic stability and strong public services would take priority over tax cuts in the next Conservative government. Under his leadership the party grew in popularity and placed first in the 2006 local elections; it was the Conservatives’ best showing at the polls in some 15 years.”

Doubtless it’s this part of Cameron and Osborne’s political history, aligned with the Tory party’s successful rebranding 17 years ago that National is channelling. The clues are easy to spot in Luxon’s comments to reporters in Queenstown:

“We care deeply about the vulnerable and the poor that are consigned to welfare for the rest of their lives,” Luxon said. “It just can’t be that we are the party for the economic stuff.”

According to Luxon, the party needs to reinvent itself, “we cannot be an old, crusty National Party”.

What can we take from Christopher Luxon’s comments? Is he being genuine? Can the National party really change its core beliefs and ideology?

For answers and insights, we need to return to Cameron and Osborne and the Tory party in opposition in 2005.

The Tory dilemma at that time is perceptively described by Christopher Caldwell in the 2009 New York Times article:

“Even after the Tories picked up a few seats in 2005, with the help of public disillusionment over Blair’s Iraq policy, they faced a basic problem that lacked an obvious solution. They could not embrace Thatcherism, because it lost elections for them, but they could not discard it, because it was their intellectual lodestone. It still motivates the mightiest ideological constituency within the party.

For a decade until Cameron arrived, the Tories’ strategy was to split the difference. They would hew to the painless, popular, focus-group-tested parts of conservatism and keep mum on the parts that would require sacrifices from the public. Tories have stressed crime, immigration, high taxes and other old reliables. Voters do side with the party on many such issues, but they don’t think the party makes contact with the main challenges confronting high-tech, multiethnic, globalized, posthierarchical (or rehierarchized) Britain.”

 Cameron offered a daring, risky strategy,

“like an audacious chess player sacrificing pieces to move relentlessly toward the opposing king, Cameron has jettisoned much of what his base liked best about its own party to make it a bit more like Labour’s election-winning machine”.

To an extent it worked.

Although not all the Tory faithful were convinced. As Caldwell wrote,

Older Thatcherites generally look on Cameronism as merely a set of clever public-relations stunts“modernizing” is a word used to bamboozle the party faithful while sacrificing conservatism to the opinions of London-based, Guardian-reading elites.’

‘Cameron aides counter that the new approach has allowed the party to make conservative arguments that in the past would have been misunderstood or misrepresented. They can now talk about welfare reform without being called heartless, immigration without being called racist and marriage without being called prudish.”

As it happened, the Tory party did not have to contort itself into a knot of ideological contradictions.

After Tony Blair resigned the leadership in June 2007, Labour struggled under Gordon Brown and the debt-laden aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. Their popularity declined, further exacerbated by the parliamentary expenses scandal and Brown’s bungled election decision.

As Mark Garnett wrote in his review of Cameron: The Politics of Modernisation and Manipulation by Timothy Heppell, Manchester University Press, 2019:

“Osborne and Cameron had sought modernisation not for its own sake, but as the inescapable prelude to election victory. Now, thanks to Brown’s bungling, it suddenly looked as if their ultimate goal could be secured even if the Conservatives were less than fully refurbished. This is not to say that modernisation was abandoned completely, but rather that it became a secondary consideration and never regained Cameron’s full attention even after the election scare passed away.”

In May 2010 the Tories under Cameron were back in government, albeit in partnership with the Liberal-Democrats, the first coalition since WWII. It required some deft political footwork by the new PM .

In his review of Heppell’s biography of Cameron, Garnett writes:

“Heppell shows that Cameron’s manipulation of the broader political debate had three objectives: making Labour seem culpable for the financial crisis which erupted almost as soon as Brown had decided to ‘bottle’ the snap election; staving off the challenge from the centre-left by endorsing as many Liberal Democrat policies as his party would allow him to get away with; and heading UKIP off at the pass by parading Eurosceptic credentials which he had borrowed for the purposes of winning his party’s leadership in 2005.”

To secure government under New Zealand’s MMP system, perhaps faced without a majority, one can imagine the National party under Luxon, from a centre-right political position sounding out the Greens and the Maori party while distancing National from the far right and more extreme ACT followers. That could give National more options and a chance to reclaim those who deserted National for Labour.  

There are other similar narrative lines that can be drawn between the Tory position in 2005 – 2010 and National’s between 2022 – 2026.

Luxon is already telegraphing his punches:

The Otago Daily Times reported on 1st February that Luxon was,

 “particularly critical of Government spending — an increase of 68% over the past five years — and said if the current trajectory continued, austerity measures would be required.

“The people that get hurt the most are the poor and vulnerable as a consequence.

“We’ve got a situation now, we have inflation going twice the wage growth.

“It’s going to become the pre-eminent problem, I put it to you, over the next year for the New Zealand people.”

Despite contradictions in Luxon’s argument (how do austerity measures help the poor and vulnerable, one might ask?), it mirrors tactics adopted by Cameron and Osborne.

Back in 2009, Cameron blamed Brown for allowing Britain to become what he called “the most indebted country on the planet.” He backed Brown on the rescue of banks but attacked him on his plans for stimulus, on the grounds that Britain was too indebted to afford one.

Replace the GFC with Covid-19 and the National/Tory strategies have clear parallels.

So far, so kind-of-understandable to invite Cameron, then Osborne as his replacement to address the reinvented National party.

But as we know, things did not end well for either Cameron or Osborne. Neither is in politics any longer and both suffer the opprobrium of having taken Britain down a disastrously painful path to chaos.

In a New Statesman article headlined Cameron’s legacy of chaos, published in the 11 September 2019 issue, Jason Cowley wrote:

“When the end came it was brutal for him: he removed himself from Downing Street with indecent haste because he had lost a referendum he expected to win comfortably. He was humiliated and defeated and, much worse for the country, had done no contingency planning for a Brexit process that, since the summer of 2016, has consumed, divided and radicalised the people of these islands.”

Michael Portillo, a former Conservative minister and Brexit supporter, wrote in 2016,

“David Cameron’s decision to promise a referendum on British membership of the EU will be remembered as the greatest blunder ever made by a British prime minister.”

Cameron displayed monumental lack of judgment. Jason Cowley summed it up thus:

“Cameron believed that he could remake the Conservatives in his own image, as a moderate party of centre-right liberalism: pro-market, tolerant and cosmopolitan. But like Ed Miliband, he misunderstood the present and misread the forces in play after the financial crisis, seeking to govern a country that did not exist. He could not or refused to understand the effects of prolonged austerity on the small cities and towns. Nor did he understand why Nigel Farage’s anti-immigration rhetoric appealed to so many working-class voters. And so he held a referendum during the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War and was appalled by the xenophobia it encouraged.”

The issues facing New Zealand over the next ten years or more are very different but still the question for the New Zealand electorate is, does Christopher Luxon truly understand the forces at play in a world irrevocably changed by a global pandemic and the looming crisis of climate change? Are he and the National party capable of re-aligning their values and policies, of changing their ideological spots?

Spool back to 2008.

The Britannica entry for George Osborne:

“When the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, Osborne led the Conservative attack on the Labour party for having mismanaged Britain’s finances.”

And,

“In October 2010 Osborne introduced a five-year austerity plan that would reduce spending by more than 80 million pounds sterling. The plan included cuts to welfare entitlements, public-sector layoffs of up to 500,000 employees, and a stepped-up introduction of the raising of the age of pension entitlement from age 65 to 66.”

Police, road maintenance, libraries, courts, prisons and housing assistance for seniors all suffered cuts.

Local governments suffered a plunge in revenue.

The consequences were horrific:

  • The use of food banks almost doubled between 2013 and 2017.
  • Between 2012 and 2019, 600,000 children lapsed back into “relative poverty”.
  • During the same period, the number of children requiring food handouts from the country’s largest network of food banks, more than tripled.

According to one UN expert, austerity was “entrenching high levels of poverty and inflicting unnecessary misery in one of the richest countries in the world.”

So much for Cameron and Osborne’s communitarianism and their commitment to changing the Tory party’s “reputation for not caring about public services or people with average and below-average incomes’, and ‘modifying the party’s long-standing ambitions to cut taxes.’ Or Osborne’s promise to, ‘stick to the Labour government’s spending plans on health and education and to delay tax cuts until they could be afforded.”

In May 2021, The Guardian published an article by Observer columnist Will Hutton under the title, Cameron, Alexander, Osborne, Clegg: how the austerity ‘quad’ sold their souls.

Hutton wrote:

If Cameron’s glibness and lack of judgment are now obvious to all, they were also on display when he embraced the proposition after the financial crisis that, because the threat of debt was allegedly existential, the country had to accept numbing austerity, despite the servicing of public debt being at 300-year lows. The resulting devastation of communities and public services were important causes of the strength of the Leave vote and now the stubborn pockets of Covid in those areas stricken by a decade of cumulative and unnecessarily deep cuts.”

National’s modelling themselves on the supposed Tory party rebrand under Cameron to a more caring, people-rather-than-the-economy political philosophy, ignores or airbrushes away the catastrophes, divisions, hardships and heartaches that followed Cameron and Osborne’s calamitous term in office.

So – what does Christopher Luxon really believe?

That National needs an existential change of heart and character, substantive enough to match the times and challenges ahead?

Or, that it’s all about getting back into power, whatever it takes? Like Cameron, does he believe in his superior skills and experience to fix whatever problems present themselves, that some “clever public-relations stunts”, a bit of play-acting and posturing are just part of the game?

As history has shown, the latter could be a deeply fraught and dangerous strategy for all of us.

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