Leading article: Party time is over, Tony

AT THE Labour Party conference at Scarborough in 1960, Hugh Gaitskell famously said that he would "fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love". For all the mixed feelings Tony Blair sometimes arouses, no one who has followed his career could call him a man with no stomach for the fight. He has indeed fought, fought and fought again, with breathtaking tactical and electoral success. As Labour gathers again today at Blackpool, the question many people - and not only old Left or "unreconstructed wankers" in the Prime Minister's own vivid phrase - will be asking is this: just what is the party Mr Blair loves, and what does it mean? He has said, irritably and almost comically, that people who can see what distinguishes New Labour from old seem less able to recognise what distinguishes New Labour from the Tories. He might ask himself if this is altogether surprising.

After 17 months in office, the Blair government has many achievements in which it can take pride. The economy remains in impressive shape. Tory politicians and press will call that an inheritance from the previous government. It might be truer to say that the ability of any national government to control the macro-economy diminishes by the year, and that any improvements come as much by luck as by judgement. Nevertheless Mr Blair and Gordon Brown have not made any obvious mistakes, which is cause for congratulation in itself. There is further cause in the areas of education, of Europe - where the new government may have meant as much a change of tone as of substance, but a very important change of tone - and most of all in Northern Ireland. Even Tony Blair's personal loyalty to Bill Clinton, which clever commentators were condemning a few weeks ago as a sign of poor judgement at best, doesn't now look so stupid.

The question remains, however: what is New Labour for? We know that Mr Blair performed a brilliant feat when he took over and transformed his party, making it electable once more. But vacuous rhetoric about communitarianism or the Third Way only heightens suspicions that Blairism is a kinder, gentler form of Thatcherism; or, in the lethal phrase of the American writer Joe Klein, a cunning device dreamed up in order to enable a group of technocrats to persuade themselves that they have not after all become middle-aged conservatives.

Such suspicions can, indeed, only be increased by Mr Blair's interview in yesterday's Independent. He has a point, or more than one. Tony Benn's criticisms of the Government are fatuous, coming from the man who was responsible for "the longest suicide note in history" and for the party's electoral catastrophe in 1983. It is not unfair to remind Roy Hattersley that when Labour (and he) were last in power, they had to cut public spending and run to the IMF for help. And Mr Blair makes sense when he describes the danger of "believing that once you had excised the cancer of ultra- leftism, the task was done. In fact, all the ultra-leftism did was disguise a deeper malaise, which is the fundamental necessity for modernising social democracy."

But it is not only ultra-leftists or old Croslandites who will grimace when Mr Blair returns to his constant refrain that there will not only be no tax increases but that he wants tax cuts as soon as possible. He acquired this obsession in 1992, when he was convinced that John Smith's tax-and-spend platform lost the election for Labour. Since then it has been one of his deepest convictions that he would not, as party leader or Prime Minister, be identified with high taxes.

And yet there is much evidence that people - including the prosperous middle-classes, keeping whom "on-side" is another Blairite talisman - are ready to listen to politicians who tell them honestly that the country needs social services, which must be paid for by taxation.

In the end, not only principle but prudence and calculation demand a more radical approach from Mr Blair. Before long, the economy is bound to veer off course, possibly into serious recession. At that point the Labour Party may come out of the hypnotic trance which Tony Svengali has wrought, Labour backbenchers may cease to be quite so to supinely obedient and Rupert Murdoch may prove a fairweather friend.

Mr Blair fires a shot across Paddy Ashdown's bows when he says that electoral reform can only be introduced "on the basis of the interests of the country". But what if his undoubted personal distaste for even the moderate reforms Lord Jenkins will soon propose alienates the Liberal Democrats, just as his own party rebels, a rebellion of which Barbara Castle's contemptuous criticism of the conference is a portent? Before long, the Prime Minister and his entourage will have to learn that the tides of politics cannot be held back forever by control freaks and spin doctors, and that fighting is not enough: the party you love must stand for something.