It likely comes as no surprise that I’m reviewing another Jesson book, I get the feeling I may end up reviewing all of them. I can certainly think of worse ways to spend my time. At some point I also intend to review Only Their Purpose Is Mad and The Fletcher Challenge, but they will have to wait while I dig away at work that’s started to pile up around me.
Bruce Jesson’s Fragments of Labour was released toward the end of 1989 in the aftermath of Jim Anderton’s New Labour splitting from regular Labour, to which Jesson became an early (and rather prominent) member. It serves as an insightful analysis of historical motion; ideological and intellectual change; the personalities and the webs of power that went into the contradictory and bitterly divided Fourth Labour Government. As with much of his writing, Jesson is capable of tackling both the interpersonal relationships within the party hierarchy and the deeper more abstract processes at play with an eloquence that is neither alienating nor overly simplified. He treats with both an analytical eye and a wry cynicism the development of libertarian theory not only among the leadership but at an institutional level within the Labour Party, Treasury, and Reserve Bank. It is in a truly extraordinary level of detail that he narrates the formation of the cabal of future cabinet ministers that would be pivotal in backing David Lange’s two pushes in 1980 and 1983 for the leadership of the Labour Party. From the initial meeting of individuals like Roger Douglass, Mike Moore, Michael Bassett, Phil Goff, and others; to the influence of libertarian purists in the business community and middle to upper echelons of the public services; to the factions that developed and operated within Labour over the course of Lange’s government; all are given their due in their historical context.
Beyond the people involved, Fragments of Labour provides a great analysis of how the internal structures of Labour changed over the 1970s to 1980s, which fill in an often overlooked gap in the history of the period. The changing class characteristics of the membership, the rebuilding efforts undertaken by Jim Anderton when he was party president, the influence and strategy of the powerful Women’s Caucus. All usually left untouched in examinations of Rogernomics, all are given a critical but even handed treatment in great detail. Both asides and integral to his overall argument, Jesson takes the time to flesh out his theorem of ‘intellectual colonialism’ and its effects on the anti-intellectual outlook of New Zealanders with respect to political culture. For Jesson, it is a vital aspect of why the fightback against Rogernomics was so unsuccessful, even as victories were scored (like the failure of the Douglas wing to make gains at party AGMs). The following passages alone are illuminating on the seeming ease with which Labour succumbed to an ethos fundamentally alien to its own.
“Lange’s weaknesses were symptomatic of those of the Labour Party as a whole. The social welfarist Labour tradition was exhausted by the early 1980s, and had been undermined by economic crisis. But in the pragmatic, anti-intellectual milieu of Labour politics there was no prospect of a political renaissance. The Labour machine existed for power for its own sake, and was a convenient vehicle for policies emanating from other sources.”
“The collapse of the Labour Party opposition was not simply a product of expediency; it was also a matter of intellectual paralysis. It was related to the widespread ignorance of economics in the party, an ignorance which most party members were quite happy to acknowledge. They couldn’t produce the arguments and the alternatives to what the government was doing.”
The economic analysis Jesson offers is competent, especially compared with the usual simplistic narrative of Rogernomics being an extreme but necessary reaction to the growing economic crisis Labour inherited upon entering government. Though his analysis is at times dented by a typically left nationalist focus on the ‘financial vs productive’ in which the latter is given an overstated importance. His best contribution on this issue is a deconstruction of how the economic policies of Douglas and Treasury developed from the later 1970s, in terms of both theory and underlying philosophy. Nowhere more so than the two Treasury reports Economic Management and Government Management, which formed the ideological backbone of the reform years. He further highlights how Douglas himself proved oddly ideologically malleable from more traditional Labour origins, to his Economic Policy Package, to a full embrace of Treasury doctrine. Of further interest is the discussion of alternative economic plans put forward such as After the Freeze, New Zealand Labour Perspectives, the Federation of Labour’s Alternative Economic Strategy, and New Zealand at the Turning Point from the 1976 Task Force on Economic & Social Planning.
In short, Fragments of Labour is another book I put in the ‘must read’ section of the New Zealand left’s library. While not always analysis I’d agree with, the view Jesson gives of the economic, social, structural, and philosophical change is engaging and easy to read. This is not only the definitive text of the Fourth Labour Government and the rise of Lange, but one of the definitive histories of the Labour Party overall.