TOMORROW is the first day of what was to have been the Labour Party's last conference in Blackpool: the symbolic end of the party's nostalgic regard for a place which is impracticable for most people to get to and unappealing when they do. No wonder the old left likes it so much.

Not for the first time, the managers of Labour's internal affairs managed to bring about the opposite of what they intended. Earlier this year, they announced that they were de-selecting Blackpool. Some ill-considered snooty remarks led to a reporter from the local paper confronting Tony Blair with a stick of rock. Confronting a populist leader with a well- loved local speciality is like offering an alcoholic a triple Martini, or President Clinton a glimpse of thong. Mr Blair rediscovered his love for Blackpool.

But there are ghosts there: spectres of a past that is never quite dead. The traditional setting for clashes between the left and right of the Labour Party is staging a faded revival of hostilities. A slate calling itself "centre left" is bidding for posts on the National Executive Committee. That's centre-left to the same extent as the German Democratic Republic was democratic. But fair's fair. The very existence of such a challenge to the authority of Mr Blair is what a number of the revolutionary candidates would doubtless call a "historical necessity".

His great achievement is to have left the Labour Party while taking the vast majority of its voters with him and adding a lot more. He has treated his activists with a kind of sovereign disdain, adapting to the role of Prime Minister far more readily than that of party leader. The only time I have seen him look genuinely moved in the present of the subscription- paying masses was when, on the eve of the last election, an old man in his constituency came up to him and cut through the gaggle of squawking groupies with the words, "It's been a bloody long time, Tony: don't let us down."

We underestimate the feat, having witnessed Mr Blair easing himself so naturally away from Labour while continuing to run it. If you doubt the Prime Minister's brutal brilliance, look at the heavy weather his German counterparts are making of a similar transition. They have been arguing up to election day about the extent to which the party should shed its devotion to old certainties. Even Gerhard Schroder, who privately feels about the SPD the way that Mr Blair feels about old Labour, has balked at speaking openly about this and blurred the edges of his electoral message as a result.

Having won the Stalingrad of Clause IV and the endorsement of the nation for his own free-wheeling brand of post-Labour politics, Mr Blair's attention wandered. He allowed his attention to wander too soon from the uncompleted task of cleaning up the rotten boroughs and shoring up support in Labour's ranks for a different kind of centrist politics.

So when Kirsty Milne first pointed out in the New Statesman that an alternative slate had not only got organised enough to make plans in a restaurant together - and for a bunch of people who make up for in tribal mutual loathing what they lack in numbers or policies, that is no small achievement - but had cannily planned its assault to emphasise the Blairites' authoritarian tendencies, party managers were aghast.

Hence the last-minute recall of Neil Kinnock to denounce all ideologically suspect interlopers. As leaders go, Mr Kinnock is a photo-negative of Mr Blair. He was a hit with the party: it was just the voters who did not take to him. But the failure to use Mr Blair or even Gordon Brown or Robin Cook, who have deeper links to Labour tradition, for this task, betrays the leadership's concern that the balance of old and New Labour supporters in the membership has shifted since the election in the former's direction.

Tomorrow Mr Brown will make his most difficult speech yet. Unlike Mr Blair, who wouldn't much care if no one applauded at all, as long as it didn't show up on The Nine O'Clock News, the Chancellor is anxious about his reception at conference. In recent years, it has provided the psychological fillip he needed to bear another year of not being as important as Tony Blair.

But with an economic downturn or even a recession looking more likely by the week, the role of Iron Chancellor is unenviable. This epithet, invented by his aides, is easy to wear when you don't have to be iron about anything much, but an awful strain when you do.

Mr Blair has carefully apportioned responsibility for the economy to his Chancellor and speaks less on economic matters than any other leader in living memory. The Prime Minister knows that he would survive even a full-blown recession in office. Can the same be said of Mr Brown? The Chancellor has tumbled to this risk. So forget the Generous Gordon, purveyor of spending largesse, of three months ago. That was summer madness. Here comes a more sombre, autumnal Chancellor. Expect a lecture on how governments cannot control global changes, but only help people to cope with them when they threaten our mortgage repayments. Expect, too, a homily on the need to be prepared to be flexible about where and how you work. Norman Tebbit recorded the first punk version of this, a raucous and controversial number entitled "On Yer Bike". Mr Brown will perform a cover-version, albeit with a more harmonious soul voice and gentler orchestration.

It is all strangely reminiscent of conferences gone by - Tory ones. The competition among senior cabinet members to talk toughest about the trade unions is reaching comic proportions. Peter Mandelson, who will also speak tomorrow, is itching to say that the Government's Fairness at Work proposals have to be watered down, especially with jobs already vulnerable to the aftershock of the Asian crisis and the high pound.

A colleague of Mr Brown's railed loudly to me at the foolishness of "tossers in the unions" regardless of the fact that he used to be one himself - a union man, that is. So Labour in Blackpool will continue to break the hearts of many old members and a few young romantics and appeal instead to the heads of voters. It is a party at ease with the country far more than it is at ease with itself. The latest party broadcast implores us to take out a subscription, while reassuring us that this does not mean having to attend meetings or involve ourselves in party business - other than NEC votes. A great thing, the Virtual New Labour Party. Join and receive the leader's personal pledge that you will never, ever have to meet anyone else in it.

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