Back to the future. New Labour is not as new as it thinks. The Third Way is just the kind of guff that Ramsay MacDonald would have espoused. By David Marquand

George Lansbury: at the heart of old Labour

John Shepherd <em>Oxford University Press, 428pp, £35<

The current firemen's dispute provides a suitably ironic backdrop for a re-examination of the myth-encrusted relationship between the Labour Party of old and the "new" successor led by Tony Blair. Whatever else the firemen have or have not done, they at least demonstrate that the relationship between the trade unions and Labour governments has changed very little in 70 years. Labour governments enter office to the sound of fraternal hosannas from the unions. At last, the wicked Tories are out, and our own people are in. Then the harsh realities of the labour market reassert themselves, and the mood changes. The hosannas give way to cries of pain or even rage; and, as often as not, the government founders on the rock of trade union opposition. The TUC's refusal to countenance cuts in unemployment benefit brought down the second Labour government in 1931. Union hostility to a permanent wages policy made nonsense of the postwar Labour government's gingerly experiments in economic planning. Much more frenzied union hostility to Barbara Castle's attempt to bring industrial relations within the ambit of the law broke the Wilson government's back, and helped to lose Labour the 1970 election. Unofficial strikes against the effects of the Callaghan government's incomes policy helped to put Margaret Thatcher in power in 1979. In the light of history, what has been most surprising about the firemen's dispute is that it has taken so long for something of the sort to happen.

To the paladins of "new" Labour, I imagine, that sentence would be an abomination. In their eyes, history - labour history, at any rate - has been abolished. The iron laws of modernity have transformed economic relationships, turned the class structure inside out, revolutionised the political and economic culture and made necessary a wholly new kind of centre-left politics. In the brave new world of the micro-electronic revolution, consumerist politics, the feminisation of the labour force and the globalisation of markets and cultures, there is no place for the sort of collective action that the labour and trade union movements came into existence to practice and promote. "New" Labour has nothing whatever to learn from "old" Labour, except how not to behave. Or, as Tony Blair exclaimed, a few weeks after coming into office: "New, new, new, everything is new."

To which the only possible response is the Duke of Wellington's: "If you believe that, you'll believe anything." The Labour Party of 2002 is a very different animal from the Labour Party of 1952, and still more from the Labour Representation Committee of 1902. It would be odd if it were not. But the differences are incomprehensible if you refuse to acknowledge the similarities. As each of these three books shows in its own way, neither can be understood without a systematic and dispassionate look at Labour's past. John Shepherd's biography of George Lansbury, the least likely and most loved of all Labour's leaders, is a solid, unexciting, but scholarly and much-needed contribution to the historiography of the Labour left, and of the tension between conscience and collectivism which is part of the fabric of the Labour movement. The volume of essays edited by Kevin Jefferys on a variety of leading Labour figures from Ernest Bevin to Gordon Brown is as uneven as such collections usually are, but the peaks are high. As one would expect, Kenneth Morgan's affectionate but far from star-struck essay on Aneurin Bevan is perceptive, entertaining and superbly rounded. Edward Pearce on Denis Healey is equally perceptive and affectionate, but slightly too star-struck for my taste. David Lipsey on Roy Jenkins is impressively fair-minded, but I don't think he has caught the crucial Celtic side of that only partially Balliolised Celt. Robert Pearce's attempt to offer a revisionist account of Ernest Bevin, the most formidable of Kevin Jefferys's "labour forces", doesn't quite come off, but it is at least a gallant effort.

Both books show that the very notion of old Labour is misleading. At least 12 of the 13 "leading figures" discussed in the Jefferys collection would have to count as old Labour; and so would Lansbury. But a term lumping Bevin, Lansbury, Bevan, Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps and Roy Hattersley together is self-evidently preposterous. David Howell's magisterial study of the 12 hectic years between Labour's bemused emergence as His Majesty's Opposition, immediately after the First World War, and the disaster of 1931 rubs that lesson home. It is not an easy read. But this is a small price to pay for one of the most learned and authoritative contributions to 20th-century labour history I can think of. Howell has woven the details into a rich and compelling narrative. No one who wants to understand the Labour Party - new or old - can afford to ignore it.

The Labour Party began life as the "Labour Alliance" - a loose-knit, heterogeneous and, in many ways, ill-assorted confederation of trade unions and socialist sects. In different ways, all three of these books show that, although the terms of the alliance have fluctuated over the years, the basic structure has survived, more or less unchanged, for slightly more than a century. The axis between disparate trade unions and disparate socialist or social-democratic groupings has been fundamental to Labour politics ever since Ramsay MacDonald ran the infant Labour Representation Committee from a back room in his flat in Lincoln's Inn Fields; and despite all Tony Blair's efforts to get rid of it, it still is.

On one level, this is not news. But Howell, in particular, shows that the alliance was a much more complex affair than I, at least, had appreciated. The unions differed quite radically from each other in interest, aspiration and culture; and by a serendipitous paradox, the party benefited as much from these differences as it was harmed by them. Its extraordinary growth in the early 1920s, when it replaced the Liberal Party as the main anti-Conservative force in British politics, owed as much to the specificities of particular unions in particular places as to the class and ideological appeals that transcended sectional interests. Labour was not just the party of the working class or of socialism; it was the party of miners, dockers, railwaymen, boilermakers, lorry drivers, steelworkers and the rest. The contours of the party's heartlands still bear the impress of these divisions. In dealing with the firefighters' dispute, Blair would do well to reflect that he owes his rock-safe Labour seat to generations of stubborn and occasionally bloody-minded trade union activity in the Durham coalfield.

That is not the only continuity. Electorally, Blair is by far the most successful leader in Labour's history. The social coalition that has already given the party two landslide victories, and seems ready to give it a third, is his achievement, which is why the Tory tabloids hate him and will stop at nothing to destroy him. Yet the statecraft through which he forged his coalition is not as new as it looks. It is a modern version of the partly Whig and partly radical statecraft of Edwardian progressivism - of the statecraft that forged the Liberal-led coalition that governed Britain from 1906-14. Blair, in other words, has tunnelled through the 70-plus years between the end of the First World War and his own election as party leader, to return to the belle epoque of the British centre left. He has been able to do this because he himself is an Edwardian progressive in modern dress - apart, it must be said, from the religious faith, which is Gladstonian rather than Asquithian. But he is not the only Edwardian progressive to lead the Labour Party. So was Ramsay MacDonald; and in a host of ways, MacDonald's statecraft prefigured Blair's.

The vision of a broad-based progressive coalition, embracing organised labour, ethical socialists and what he once called "advanced and sturdy Radicals", was the leitmotif of MacDonald's career from the 1890s to the split of 1931. Before the First World War, when Labour was weak and the Liberals strong, he was willing to accept Liberal leadership. After the war, when the Liberals were in decline and Labour on the rise, his strategy was to drive the Liberal Party to the margins of politics, while coaxing former Liberals into a Labour-led coalition. In pursuance of that strategy, he talked a good deal of sentimental guff (as well as a lot more hard sense than he has been credited with), but no one who reads Howell's book can fail to notice the parallels between MacDonaldite guff and its Blairite successor. The Third Way is pure MacDonald, just as the high-sounding evasions of Labour's 1929 election manifesto were pure Blair. The only difference is that Blair has been better at winning elections. But if MacDonald had managed to get the 1931 spending cuts through cabinet and the party, as he might have, had the unions not put their collective foot down, the 1930s might have been a Labour decade after all.

David Marquand is the biographer of Ramsay MacDonald, and was a Labour MP from 1966-77