Most people have now forgotten: but what happened was that 17 years ago, Labour won the Greater London Council elections. The Labour majority promptly dislodged their moderate leader Mr Andrew (now Lord) McIntosh, replacing him with Mr Ken Livingstone. As things turned out, Mr Livingstone was not very extreme and, indeed, was an almost wholly beneficent force. If he was not the best leader produced by London politics since Herbert Morrison - as he may well have been - he was certainly the best known.
In particular, the Conservative attempt to demonise him failed. Margaret Thatcher had to resort to the vindictive and arguably unconstitutional course of abolishing the GLC to rid herself of this turbulent newt-fancier.
Here Mr Blair is, as in so many other areas, trying to imitate Lady Thatcher. He is set on preventing Mr Livingstone from contesting the mayorship of London. (In a typical piece of New Labour chicanery, the Lord Mayor of the City of London is to remain.) Anyway if Mr Livingstone stands, whether as a Labour or an independent candidate, he is assured of my vote.
But this column is not about Mr Livingstone, disappointing though that may be to him. It is about the difficulty the Opposition has in dealing with Mr Blair. In 1994-97 it was not contemplated in Conservative circles that some sinister character would suddenly emerge from the panelling to supplant the young prime minister, as Mr Livingstone had supplanted Lord McIntosh. That would have been too absurd for the imaginations even of the Saatchi brothers, who now seem, by the way - with that desire to cleave to power which people like them unfailingly possess - to have discovered hitherto hidden virtues in the Government.
No, the idea was that all the soothing talk issuing from Mr Peter Mandelson and his young friends in Millbank was so much soft soap for the middle classes before they slipped Mr Blair into No 10. Afterwards, ugly heads would be reared, lurches leftwards made, taxes duly raised: the same old story, business as usual. In fact no Labour government ever has moved left, though every single one of them has been involved in a financial crisis of one sort or another. The present government's crisis is different from previous ones, and may be depicted as the ascension of the pound, represented by Mr Eddie George, with Mr Gordon Brown, Mr Charlie Whelan and Mr Ed Balls as angels supporting him in his heavenward progress.
Far from reds appearing from under the bed, they are nowhere to be seen, whether in government or, perhaps more surprisingly, on the back benches. Mr Alastair Campbell has exterminated them all with Rentokil. This is the most moderate, least innovatory government of modern times, save in one area, constitutional reform. Even here Mr Blair has done no more than he said he would.
There is one exception: the House of Lords. Progress here is stalled for two reasons. Many people will be upset - and Mr Blair does not like upsetting people. And Labour did not really have any idea of how it wanted to reform the upper House apart from abolishing hereditary peerages which, as is now evident, is not going to be nearly enough.
But abolishing Blackpool is even more significant than abolishing hereditary peerages. That Labour will no longer hold conferences there is the most important piece of political news of the past few weeks. It demonstrates that, while the party is as conscious as ever of the susceptibilities of its new voters in the South-east (who seem to be a notch or two above Lady Thatcher's famous "C2s"), it is not worried at all about the finer feelings of its old supporters in the North and elsewhere.
I do not want to sentimentalise the place. It was once described by A J P Taylor, who came from Birkdale nearby, as the greatest seaside resort in the world. Still, I do not think he spent his holidays there. The then political editor of the Daily Mirror was once staying at a huge barracks of a hotel to the north of the town. Having breakfast in the dining-room (breakfasts were, by the express orders of the management, not served in bedrooms), he sat as his coffee was poured with an unsteady hand by a waiter who looked as if he had done a postgraduate course at the University of Life. Most of it ended up in the saucer or on the tablecloth and only just missed him.
"That's no way to pour coffee," he said.
"You'd be glad to have any of it if you'd come from where I've just come from."
"Where was that, then?"
If the service economy has any real existence, which I have always doubted, it is certainly not located in Blackpool. Nevertheless, I regret the town's expulsion from the People's Party. The Opera House of the Winter Gardens is the finest auditorium for conference speakers in the whole country. The adjoining smaller halls, the bars and the corridors are similarly spacious, recalling a more generous architectural age. When a party spokesman said that Labour was leaving Blackpool partly because the conference facilities were "too small", he was simply not telling the truth. On the contrary: they are built on a more ample scale than anything in Brighton or Bournemouth. Mr Blair says that Labour is visiting these southern towns for the next three conferences after this one on account of some cut-price deal and then it will be back to Blackpool. I doubt it.
Whether the spokesman who falsely accused Blackpool of being too small was Mr Campbell, I do not know. One should be wary of accusing him of not telling the truth. When annoyed, he is liable to resort to fisticuffs. Robert Maxwell was proprietor of the Mirror when Mr Campbell was its political editor (not the one, incidentally, who encountered the waiter from Strangeways at his hotel). On the day Maxwell fell off his yacht, Mr Campbell was accosted by Mr Michael White of the Guardian, who volunteered: "So it's Captain Bob, bob ... bob, bob, bob." Whereupon Mr Campbell struck him a violent blow and what is called a fracas ensued.
Mr Campbell has presumably learnt to control himself more rigorously. One hopes so. But the Conservatives cannot complain about any bullying on his part. They are, as the lawyers say, estopped owing to the latitude they allowed Sir (as he then wasn't) Bernard Ingham, who anticipated Mr Campbell in most respects and went further than he does in others.
Lady Thatcher, however, was never as frank as Mr Blair on Wednesday: "There is one reason why the Opposition attack the press spokesman: he does an effective job of attacking the Conservative Party." But that, as we old constitutional hands know, is not what the No 10 spokesman is paid to do. He is paid to be a servant of the state. Alas, it is doubtful whether Mr William Hague will be able to clarify the distinction for the benefit of the voters or, if he can, whether they will take a blind bit of notice: yet another example of the difficulty in dealing with Mr Blair.Reuse content