Birth Of A Salesman?

Michael Joseph Savage on the campaign trail.

Michael Joseph Savage on the campaign trail.
Michael Joseph Savage on the campaign trail.
MICKEY SAVAGE was a terrific salesman. In the critical election campaign of 1938 the little man criss-crossed the country by motor-car and steam locomotive on behalf of Labour’s product. And working-class New Zealand couldn’t get enough of it.

According to his biographer, Barry Gustaffson:

“Savage’s 1938 speeches to crowds of up to 30,000 were among the most moving and inspiring ever made in a New Zealand election campaign. Labour’s share of the votes rose from 46 to 56 percent.”

In Dunedin, thousands gathered at Carisbrook under typically plangent southern skies to hear his message. His avuncular catch-phrase, “now then”, could bring whole crowds to their feet.

Savage’s salesmanship was undoubtedly a bonus for Labour, but in 1938 it was hardly needed. Convincing voters about the worth of Labour’s policies required very little in the way of rhetorical skill.

It also didn’t matter that every daily newspaper in New Zealand (with the honourable exception of the staunchly left-leaning Grey River Argus) was urging its readers to vote the Labour Government out of office.

Working-class New Zealanders needed no guidance from the Tory press when it came to exercising their democratic rights. By 1938 Labour had done more than enough to warrant a second term. In the three years since 1935 unemployment had fallen and their daily lives had become a little easier. The Social Security Act – scheduled to come into force on the 1st April 1939 – held out the hope of even better things to come.

NO ONE WHO’S EVER HEARD David Shearer speak could honestly describe him as a great salesman. Even with a teleprompter and lots of practice, he comes across as stilted and over-rehearsed. But, if 1938 has anything to teach Labour’s current leader, it’s that outstanding presentational skills aren’t important if you’re selling something that people want to buy.

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That’s why Labour’s energy policy is such a great start. It offers the ordinary voter tangible gains in the form of lower electricity prices and an estimated 5,000 new jobs. More than this, however, the Labour-Green policy announcement signals a stepping-away from the neoliberalism that for nearly thirty years has trashed Labour’s brand.

And rehabilitating Labour’s brand is the key to winning in 2014. Getting the party’s core constituencies back into the polling-booths cannot happen without a clear and unequivocal admission from Shearer that neoliberalism isn’t the solution to New Zealand’s problems – neoliberalism is the problem.

It won’t be a hard sell. Most New Zealanders know in their gut that the current economic orthodoxy isn’t working. And were it not for all the equivocations and excuses pouring out of the Labour Party since 1984 they would long ago have trusted their gut and ditched it.

For thirty years Labour’s temporising and compromising have caused voters to hesitate. Since 1990, at election after election, the voter’s hand has wavered over radical parties like the NLP, the Greens, or the Alliance, only to tick, finally, the party whose policies they knew, deep down, offered so much less than what their country needed.

And every time they settled for – and received – second-best, their faith in the democratic process wavered. Until, by 2011, voter turn-out plummeted to the lowest level in a century. Nearly a million potential voters – most of them predisposed to support the parties of the Left – are currently located outside the purview of electoral politics, or, tragically, any kind of politics at all.

And who can blame them? When the party that had so effortlessly convinced their grand-parents and great-grandparents to ignore the fear-mongering of the daily press and turn out in their thousands for radical change (in 1938 92.8 percent of registered voters cast a ballot) was insisting that the neoliberal status-quo is as good as it gets, and that Labour is better at administering “as good as it gets” than National.

WHAT IT REALLY BOILS DOWN TO is this: Does David Shearer believe history is over? Is he convinced that what we’ve got is truly “as good as it gets”? Or, does he believe that David Shearer, the Labour Party, and progressive New Zealand can still make history? That a better world is possible?

Right-wing bloggers like Cam Slater, Cathy Odger and David Farrar all know how important it is for Labour, having taken its first big step, to advance quickly and in good order along the progressive track. Their political instincts tell them that “full-speed-ahead!” is always the way to go when your party’s ideology is under attack. It’s what they would do.

That’s why, with post after post about nationalising the supermarkets and forcing down the price of petrol, they’re frantically trying to double-bluff Labour into hesitating and, hopefully, retreating from its new position. They’re relying on the argumentem ad absurdum tactic to spook the more conservative elements of Labour’s caucus into demanding a u-turn.

That would, of course, be fatal. Labour must hold firmly to its new energy policy and not be afraid to add more and more progressive policies to the excellent beginning it has made.

But, even more important than building a winning manifesto is telling New Zealanders over and over again – until they believe it – that the Labour Party has come home; and that the betrayals of the past are both acknowledged and condemned by David Shearer and his colleagues.

This is the product Labour needs to sell – and the buyers are already lining up.

That history has not stopped. That a better world is possible. And that, just like the Labour Party of Mickey Savage, the Labour Party of David Shearer is going to take us there.



  1. New Zealand’s been voting for a change from neo-liberal policies for years and years. That’s why they voted in MMP. But whatever they voted, they always got another neo-liberal government.And now they have the most feral right wing government in living memory. Let’s hope we finally get a government who understands this and gives the majority of New Zealanders what they really want.

    • I voted for MMP but support right wing economic policies. I think your conrelation hypothesis is weak.

        • Because I, and many other people who support right wing policies, voted for MMP because it tends to lead to a very stable political system with little chance of radical change. This is evidenced by what happened in Germany.

  2. Your road to Damascus over Mr Shearer seems sudden Mr Trotter. As one who always thought he needed time let’s give it to him. Some of the wailing fron the left seems to be that he wasn’t the left’s version of Key. What I want, is someone who is measured, does the rounds of the constituents and builds consensus over policy, which has to be decided at conference, and is a better than a glib salesman. (Apologies for the sentence structure.)

  3. What a good question!. I’ve not yet read the post and will do so forthwith, but I’m picking that Shearer has determined that it’s just that – the end of history! Taken it all in, formed his opinion and ideological stance (albeit the inclusion that private armies et al are Okey Dokey to justify an end), signed up for Labour – being the closest in a comfort zone, and we’ll go from here!]

    • I’ve now read it, and none of it convinces me that a party Labour vote is preferable to a party Green vote.
      The MRP/asset sales initiative is great for sure, but when you line Labour’s shifters and shakers up (some refer to them as the ABC club – but whatever they are, or pretend to be), they’re still clinging to a neo-liberal agenda as long as they can dress it up in drag and pretend they aren’t.
      Maybe Chris, its just that you’re a little younger than I and need to witness yet another episode of Labour shooting itself in the foot and wasting opportunity, but for me – they’ve had a lifetime (my lifetime) in which to prove themselves. They did pretty well until the 1980’s, and in Helen’s 1st and 2nd term.
      As a voter, its up to THEM to convince me they’re worthy. Thus far, the MRP initiative is but a first step – hopefully the first of many. The rehabilitation of Labour’s ‘brand’ is going to take a little more effort before I’m ever going to give them a party vote again.

      • Question Chris:
        Are you really convinced that the ‘stilted’ Shearer leading Labour is capable of MAKING history?
        The co-Green initiative is a start – but show me something that defines Labour as a brand in its own right, that isn’t still desperate to cling to the old neo-lib paradigm

  4. One swallow does not a summer make.

    The fact that a swallow exists is marvellous.

    Crediting Shearer with its existence is a bit rich.
    That cabinet cabal would hate to offend their free market cronies.

    Methinks it is a realpolitik cabal riding on green coattails.

    This jury member is still out.

    • Shearer would not be alone in that. The same could be said of John Key and bill English; of Julia Gillard, David Cameron, Barak Obama and just about every goddam politician on the planet who still believes the utter balderdash purveyed by Neo-Classical economists, whose crackpot … ‘theories’ … still have their masters’ ears.

      That is what has to be broken – that link. Discredit Neo-Classical, so-called Neo-Keynesian economic discourse for the complete garbage it is. Then the Neo-Liberals will stand exposed either for the sheer incompetent nincompoops they are and have been for thirty, forty, … fifty solid years; or else for the unprincipled thieves, mass murderers, rapists, thugs and hired assassins they are and have been for as long.

      • Go on then. Discredit Neo-Classical, so-called Neo-Keynesian economic discourse for the complete garbage it is then. I look forward to seeing you do that when no left leaning political party in the West has achieved the same thing over the past 30 years.

        • It is being done – but very slowly. I did say the NC/NK Economist have the ears of the world’s rulers. They have to big journals. They have the Nobel Prize panel in their pockets.

          But check this out. According to Neo-Classicals such as Paul Krugman (a relatively left-leaning Neo-Classical, mind you), debt has no role in economics; has no role in an economy. I am not making this up. He (they) say so explicitly. I loan you $100 means a drop of $100 in my spending power; and increase of $100 in yours. But as you will pay it back anyway, even that net effect really amounts to no effect.

          I’ll bet already you can see what is wrong with that picture. But I’ll lay it out for you.
          1. It assumes the loan will be repaid.
          2. It assumes that, in effect, it will be repaid the instant I lend the money (actually, my ‘in effect’ qualifier is a courtesy, so bald is the assumption).
          3. It completely ignores how banks really work.

          That is just for starters. Yet on its own it, so elementary are these assumptions, NC/NK Economics can be written off as total tosh.

          You would think that the Global Financial Collapse of 2008 never happened, eh? Gee, says your NC/NK economist: wonder what could have caused that? Spare me.

          • That’s it???? That is you devastating dissection and destruction of neo-classical/keynesian economics is it? Something along the lines of debt is bad. Wow. I mean truly wow. You do realise debt predates neo classical and even traditional keynesian economics by several thousand years don’t you?

          • By the way the fact you may or may not pay back the debt is irrelevant to the equation. That still means there US the same amount of money in the economy, all other variables remaining the same. There is no assumption about being repaid immediately. The rest is your problem with fractional reserve banking obviously. Try selling that to people I dare you.

          • The GFC was caused by a traditional asset price bubble (which again predates both neo classical and keynesian economics) and miss pricing of risk. Nothing strange or unusual about that state of affairs.

          • Mr Gosman, Mr Gosman: I did say it was for starters. I should have thought, however, that the refutation of something so basic, so fundamental to the edifice that calls itself Neo-classical economics, would at least have given you pause. Heh, heh…. Nope.

            No surprises there.

            To give you chapter and verse, I would have to write a book. But the books have already been written. Tell you what, why don’t you get up off your right wing chump and do some research of your own.

            Now, run along. There’s a good little right wing lad…


          • ‘By the way the fact you may or may not pay back the debt is irrelevant to the equation. That still means there US the same amount of money in the economy, all other variables remaining the same.’

            And that is the absolutely fundamental mistake, right there. Suppose I borrow $1M from the bank, and so do you. Where does that $2M come from? Does the bank delve into its reserves and give us the money?

            It does not. Its reserves have already been lent several fold. Why do you think a run on the banks would be a disaster? A bank with reserves of, say, $10B (OK its a small bank) may well have debtors to the tune of 10 times that. Yep: it has lent $100B on its $10B reserves. That’s how banks work. Every bank on theplanet does this, and the 10-fold loans to reserves ratio is a conservative one. They create money. And that money is in the form of debt. Paul Krugman can not see this, so blindingly obvious it is.

            Obviously, having obtained your $1M you will spend it – no doubt upon some productive emprise. But the money you are spending has been conjured out of nothing (more or less).

            I’m not saying this practice is a bad thing. It worked well when the productive sectors were doing most of the borrowing. But, here’s an adage I coined many decades ago: ‘The Devil finds work for idle capital.’ With the decimation of consumer buying power, came a decline in the productive sector – especially manufacturing – which has been eviscerated in places like the US, the UK, Australia, even. and, yep, even l’il ol’ Kiwiland. With fewer buyers, production has no incentive to expand, therefore few causes to borrow – whoop de do, what will banks do for a crust?

            Bingo. Got it in one. Finance will be used to finance finance.

            Here’s a question for the chocolate fish. What would happen if, for some reason – any reason at all – a large percentage, say 25% of these debtors could not repay their loans? Remember, it was an economist (not a Neo-Classical) who observed: A loan that can’t be repayed, won’t be repaid.

          • So what you are essentially stating is that discrediting neo-classical thought is quite complex and beyond your capabilities to do so in any meaningful way. Good oh. I can accept you lack the ability in this area. I’m still wondering what the heck that whole debt rant of yours was about though.

        • I was about to post a link to an address given by an economics professor to the Australian Treasury in Canberra. This same professor talked to the New Zealand Treasury last year.

          However, as you found even my straightforward and simple explanation beyond your comprehension, I doubt you’ll get much out of it. Still, it’s really up[ to you, isn’t it?


  5. Most New Zealanders know in their gut…

    Ae, compadre. And irony of ironies, there beaming into kiwi lounges this very week is at last the public flaying of the Douglas traitor and the crowing of the sensible landed gentlemen TSB tories of Taranaki who knew mammon in their gut like the back of their hands. The inadvertent anti-Labour IV conservators of the Savage mantle.

    Confused relics who would still no sooner sell 49% of their golden ill-gotten dirt than they would masturbate in public, but now helping shatter the Key myth of the times.

    And they know not just in their gut that their brief reign is over. That the respite gained by the Brash racism, the bought woman-Helenhate and the combo benny-bash, now withers in the dust of their own departing spawn.

    And deep in their gut they don’t mind a whit. They’ve betrayed their own heritage on the altar of greed and left their children nothing; just an obscene snapshot of bloated hatemongering crushed in the eye of the needle.

    Time to rebuild, kids. Sleeves up. Bulldoze the debris of the thirty-year plague and forge a clean path for your own.

  6. I reckon you’re right: Labour has to grow a pair – hairy and with heft – and swing them mightily. That Party has no chance, else.

    But whether indeed ‘most New Zealanders know in their gut’ anything at all is not so easy to fathom. You still hear, in surprising places, the Neo-Liberal cant advised by soi-disant Neo-Keynesian drivel being trotted out in support of Tory … policy.

    A lot of hope rested on David Shearer, whose credentials seem to lie in directions far different from Micky Savage’s rhetoric, or John Key’s common touch. Quite what they are, I haven’t been able to discover.

    For quite some time I was wondering whether Labour’s immediate plan was to sleep walk to defeat. Maybe they see the next election as a good one to lose (I wondered that about the last one, actually).

    I don’t see the Labour ‘brand’ as resurrectable, frankly. I was a regular Labour elector until 1987, but not since, my vote changing variously from Green, Alliance, Labour and on one occasion a blistering scrawl across the voting paper in disgust at the piss-haggard options available.

    And here’s the kicker, and really the point I get from Mt Trotter’s article. For 20 and more years now, I have never felt able to vote for anything. Even voting Green I was really voting against the two major parties, both of whom seemed to me a slew (slough?) of self-serving place-seekers far too ready to betray the payers of their salaries for their own profit – or that of their already over-bloated mates – to sell the freedoms of others for the sake of their own security; to sacrifice New Zealand’s sovereignty at the altar of their Cargo Cult mentality.

  7. Now, just perhaps, try to ponder, how much the polls in support of Labour may have moved up by now, had Labour even appointed a skilled and articulate “salesman” leader by now, on top of smart policies.

    But we have this situation now, just with one not so stupid policy announcement, and real challenge to the Nats, that even a David Shearer is able to “sell” something to the public.

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