In my youth the old Liberal Party could squeeze into Margate or magnificent Scarborough

For those of us who have attended more party conferences than we care to recall, the highlight of the 2006 season is not the fate of Tony Blair's premiership or David Cameron's increasingly daring dress sense. It is the prospect of a major party conference being staged in Manchester instead of by the seaside.

It is the sheer size of both the conference hall itself and the number of available hotel rooms, that dictate that modern conferences, including even the Lib Dems', are held at one of the three Bs, Brighton, Blackpool or Bournemouth - otherwise known as BoMo, according to one modernising advertising campaign.

In my youth the old Liberal Party could squeeze into Margate or magnificent Scarborough, at least it did until the Lib Dems fell out with Scarborough town council over gay Liberals using conference hotel rooms. My, how times change! Talking of which, I drove to my first ever conference at Scarborough in the car of a fiery Young Liberal activist called Peter Hain. Whatever happened to him, I wonder.

I am looking forward to Manchester. Labour will be in the world's first industrial city, now thoroughly post-industrial, for the week of September 24. It will be my first visit since Manchester got its facelift after the IRA bomb, the sort of service the RAF used to provide for German cities. 'Have you been to Dresden before?' a visiting Lib Dem peer is said to have been asked by the city's burgermeister. 'Only by night,' admitted the much-decorated veteran of bomber command.

The move from Blackpool is tinged with sadness. It wasn't deemed smart enough for the brave new world of New Labour, which told it to pull its sandy socks up. That achievement may depend on beating the Greenwich Dome to be the site of that super-casino, to which we are all looking forward.

Yet I remain stubbornly fond of the plucky Lancashire resort, a triumph of hope over experience every autumn, as Glaswegian holidaymakers wearing kiss-me-quick hats battle against gale-force winds to enjoy the famous illuminations. Unlike the NHS, the illuminations have not had a facelift, let alone been taken over by a firm from Las Vegas where they do neon and casinos, and, probably, hospitals for addicts.

But will the NHS debates illuminate the conference season this year? Some years they do, but some years - not often - health is sidelined or dull. This year Labour ministers are braced for trouble from party activists and the big health unions - led by Unison and its rivals for membership - over 'creeping privatisation,' the focus of excitement last year after then NHS chief executive Sir Nigel Crisp's e-mail in late July frightened primary care trusts.

Fuel has been added to the fire in recent months by the trust budget crisis and consequent cuts in some services - mental health and lifestyle issues so beloved of Number 10 - and, of course, in staffing numbers, some real, some notional. In recent days the£1.6bn contract agreed between the government and the German parcel company DHL to run NHS Logistics for 10 years has further enraged the unions.

'NHS Logistics has scarcely had a reputation for efficiency and helpfulness. I'm not sure the supply of paperclips is going to set the Labour party conference on fire,' one Labour ex-health minister told me the other day. 'There are no job losses involved, it's part of the TUC gripe against creeping privatisation. It's purely ideological. Who cares?'

With even NHS managers saying the NHS could end up being a mere brand I am not that sure it is wise to be that complacent. There will be angry accusations at the rostrum.

More intriguing for outsiders analysing the mood music in Manchester - thinktanks, city fund-managers, VIPs in the conference gallery - will surely be what the unions and others make of the imminent arrival of Gordon Brown as party leader and prime minister.

He is sceptical about choice in healthcare - the consumer lacks the information to make effective market choices, he has said. But he is an enemy of inefficiency. Will he give any signals? If so, which ones?

The Tory agenda for Bournemouth (1-4 October) is still not finalised. But we know that David Cameron has wisely taken the advice of his now-veteran health spokesman Andrew Lansley, and junked predecessor Dr Liam Fox's patient passport plans, which Labour enjoyed using to scare voters. Mr Lansley wants to go further in the deployment of markets and is happy with Mr Cameron's stress that properly funded public services are more important than premature tax cuts.

Mr Cameron's teenage sidekick, shadow chancellor George Osborne, stresses the need to 'share the proceeds of growth' - ie not expand public spending faster than growth as Mr Brown has been doing but intends to stop doing.

But there is some pressure from the John Redwood right to change that priority.

Any signs of tension will be strangled in BoMo, Mr Redwood dropped off the pier in a weighted sack (it is handy for the conference centre) if necessary.

All I can glean from provisional plans is that health and education may be yoked together this year to allow a joint statement on the needs of children, ranging from good GCSEs to good diet. The party will also want to stress the role of the 'third' - ie voluntary - sector.

That leaves the Lib Dems, the only party whose conference agenda is already on my desk. On day three in Brighton, September 20, Lib Dems will be demanding better hospital grub, better staff training and the creation of national standards on nutrition. That slightly contradicts the party's hostility to what it regards as Labour's tendency to centralise and its illiberal fetish for health targets, but never mind.

Health spokesman Steve Webb, a leftie by Lib Dem standards, will still have the energy to attack those cuts and creeping privatisation.

As with all conference speeches and debates, it is the overall tone which busy voters register, not the finer points of policy or detail which cause the rival policy wonks alone to fret or chortle.

When the Lib Dem conference once got on Fleet Street's page one for a week, wanting to legalise pot and attacking the monarchy, it was not deemed a successful conference by the party leadership.

What they want - all of them - is a riot-free conference which looks good on TV and shows them in a positive light. Labour in the '70s and the Tories in the '90s showed what havoc a destructive navel-gazing conference can wreak.

Hence their efforts to de-fang controversy, neutralise debate and introduce slick sofa show set pieces, which has indeed made the three Bs safe for TV in the past decade or so: so safe that TV no longer bothers to cover them properly.

The TUC, first to meet as always (in Brighton this year), suffered that fate first and the big boys are not far behind. Live on TV or not, the speakers will all be live on the huge screens which are now a permanent fixture of all conferences, along with colour-coordinated sets.

And from what we know of party conferences down the years one feature is guaranteed: the impassioned doctor, nurse or hospital ancillary who rages with passionate sincerity about the beloved NHS and how the other parties are poised to ruin it. I always enjoy that moment.

Michael White is assistant editor (politics) of The Guardian and a regular HSJ columnist.