What is the point of conference?

It should not be about endorsing "what is", but planning what could be

This conference will reveal a party suffering from a schizophrenic disorder. There will be some residual relief that we won a third term but little in the way of the triumphalism you would expect following such a "historic" victory. In part that is a reflection of our terror-induced times, but mostly, for Labour Party members, it is a consequence of deeply held concerns about just where the government is going and how it intends to get there.

This may be the last conference under Tony Blair's leadership. The thought induces another level of neurosis. While most of the party would probably agree that the Prime Minister should go sooner rather than later, in an orderly fashion, a world without the winning comfort of Blair is still scary for some. While an alternative to Blairism has yet to be fully formed, many are reluctant to let go of the apron strings. The tension that haunts us is not just that Blair borrowed the party for his own ends, but that the party borrowed Blair in its desperate desire to regain power. A marriage willingly entered into is difficult to leave. This pact for power has slowly disfigured the landscape of the party - none more so than conference.

The annual gathering used to be the place where the dynamic driving force of left politics was played out, between the hunger for power and a belief in principle. The first conferences I attended were in the heady days of the early 1980s. Elections, votes, speeches and briefings mattered, sometimes desperately so. The contrast with the sterility of today's trade-fair-style conferences could not be more pronounced. Of course, one difference is that we lost elections in the 1980s and started winning them in the Mandelsonified 1990s. A sustaining myth of new Labour is that division - by which is meant any debate and difference - loses elections. We lost then, however, not because delegates rightly criticised the failures of the Callaghan years that had opened the door to Thatcherism, but because bigger cultural tides were turning against the postwar social democratic model. Now it is not a revolution that delegates want, nor the Labour government of their dreams: just a better Labour government.

It does seem strange that the Blairites do not understand the beast they have created. At the conference in 2003 Blair was sure his speech would be interrupted by anti-war delegates. He and his aides practised on the previous night, role playing denunciations from hecklers. In the end, Blair met nothing worse than polite applause. The delegates knew their place in a postmodern world, as a compliant backdrop to the leader's speech. They may not like Blair, but they are now conditioned to giving nothing to the party's media foes.

So does Labour still need activists to win? To be an "activist" requires a belief in something, held strongly enough to warrant sustained voluntary engagement. This is anathema to a neo-Labour Party intent only on securing the votes of a few swing voters in a handful of swing seats. Instead it has been intent on creating a new political model: "post-activism". Through triangulation - the strategy that squeezes out the political space of the Conservatives - reinforced by a central campaign run from TV screens and professional call-centres and paid for by businesses and rich individuals, it is attempting to supersede the traditional role of the party. It pretty much succeeded at this year's election.

Blair took the party seriously . . . for a while. Between 1994 and 1997 he needed to use a growing membership to demonstrate the growing popularity of the new Labour project. Since then the party has been allowed to wither on the vine, the enemy within the neo-Labour crusade. The leadership's attitude to conference now goes beyond parody. In recent years it has lost votes on the private finance initiative, rail renationalisation and council house sales, only to ignore what conference said. The "partnership into power" process which governs the relationship between leaders and led has become more Orwellian than the name would suggest. Yet it is not the fault of the system, which can be made to work for good or ill, but its subversion by the leadership that corrodes trust and creates cynicism.

Labour has lost almost half its members since 1997. Constituency Labour parties across the country are having to twist arms to entice delegates to attend conference - hardly surprising, when there is little on the agenda to galvanise them. And even if there was, their votes would be ignored.

Tony Blair is not ready to quit; Gordon Brown is not willing to push him and the seeds of party renewal have not yet grown. The old order is not yet dead; the new has not yet emerged. It is time to rebalance. A revived conference would speak to a different way of doing politics. It should be a forum not for endorsing the "what is" but for planning a world that "could be". It is the place to win new activists, not disillusion those still desperately clinging on. It should not be the United Nations that calls on the government to raise taxes to tackle poverty. That should be the job of conference. It should not be the judges that put us right on civil liberties, but delegates. This sorry state will change only when party members want it to.

Neal Lawson is chair of the democratic left pressure group Compass (www.compassonline.org.uk)