In her videotaped introduction to Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s speech, Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said, “We have been dreaming of annual party conferences”—a sure sign she has never attended one. The last time Labour held its conference here was 1925, when the party nearly split on a motion to ban communists from membership (the motion passed). In those days Liverpool, with a growing population of more than 850,000, was a thriving port whose prosperity, like so much of British wealth, had derived from slavery. Decades of imperial decline, and the continental shift in British trade that followed entry into the European Common Market, have long since hollowed out the city, leaving a postindustrial theme park of barely more than 400,000 people. Attractions like the Tate Liverpool, the Beatles Story museum and the International Slavery Museum do their best to replace the scuttled ships and shuttered factories that, according to Nathaniel Hawthorne, US consul here in the 1850s, kept the city enveloped in “a sea-cloud…of fog and coal-smoke.”

These days the Labour Party is also a shadow of its former self, with membership falling from a high of 407,000 in 1997 to less than half that figure. Most fled after Tony Blair took the country into war in Iraq, but Miliband’s attempts to reverse the decline have so far been uncoordinated and unconvincing. Although Britain endures crippling levels of unemployment—and popular resentment at the government’s program of deep cuts to social programs and fast-track privatization of education and healthcare was at least a contributing factor to the summer’s brief spate of riots—Labour remains little more than a bystander, reminding voters that it would have cut much more slowly, and perhaps with more of an eye to the most vulnerable, but never offering a coherent alternative to the austerity narrative that unites Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

On many issues, from university tuition to nuclear power to nuclear weapons, Britain’s governing coalition can seem little more than a marriage of convenience. But when it comes to austerity, both parties are true believers, more likely to cling together than to part company as the economy continues to sputter. Unemployment here has reached 2.5 million—nearly 8 percent of the workforce, with youth unemployment approaching 20 percent. Yet on the eve of the party conference Labour still languished behind the Tories in the polls.

Austerity-lite just isn’t selling. And though Miliband’s refusal to endorse a strike by the civil servants union in June may have made sense tactically—elected party leader thanks to the unions’ bloc vote, he needed to show he was his own man—his arm’slength approach to a much more broad-based one-day strike of public sector workers set for November 30 risks making him look ungrateful, or indifferent. The loudest applause I heard in Liverpool came after union leader Dave Prentis, a key Miliband supporter, warned, “If we vote to strike…millions of public service workers and our union will expect the support of their party and its leadership.”

Last year, when Labour met in Manchester, wishful thinking said that the coalition would soon collapse, and with the Lib Dems discredited by their dalliance with the Tories, voters would return to Labour. It was a recipe for passivity, and playing it safe, and for quite a while it looked like Labour policy. Listening to delegates in the bars and coffee shops around Liverpool’s Albert Docks, you could still hear predictions that when the eurozone founders and drags the British economy down with it, Chancellor George Osborne will respond with the same kind of harsh austerity measures being imposed on Greece, prompting the Lib Dems to jump ship. “We’re betting the ranch on a double-dip recession,” one MP told me. Further evidence for this view came when shadow chancellor Ed Balls pledged that if a Labour government sold off its stake in Lloyds and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), banks it had been forced to partly nationalize during the financial crisis, the proceeds would be used to pay down the country’s debt rather than to rescind Tory cuts.

But there were also signs that for all his youth and diffidence, Ed Miliband is beginning to gently nudge his party in a new direction. Though his keynote speech promising to put Labour on the side of “the producers” rather than “the predators” was slammed by the right-wing papers as a lurch to the left, “all parties must be pro-business today,” he acknowledged. Instead, by focusing his fire on villains like Blackstone, the American private equity firm that looted the Southern Cross chain of nursing homes, leaving thousands of elderly and their families in turmoil, he seemed to be trying to articulate values that might once have been called socialist but in any case speak to widespread public disgust with arrogant bankers and ruthless financiers.

Admitting that “as a country we have been neutral” in the battle between “wealth creators” and “asset strippers,” he called for government to put its weight behind manufacturers and responsible businesses. “We shouldn’t have given Sir Fred Goodwin [the disgraced former head of RBS] that knighthood, either,” he added.

The temptation to blame the poor, or immigrants, for society’s ills will always be with us. But this was not a speech Tony Blair could have made. Indeed, Miliband himself seemed stunned by the applause that greeted his declaration, “I’m not Tony Blair,” even as he went on to say that Margaret Thatcher had been “right to let people buy their council houses” and to force unions to hold ballots before strikes. He even seemed to say that in allocating public housing, workers would be given priority over the unemployed. Identifying and articulating a genuine—and just—left version of populism won’t be easy.

But when he took on Rupert Murdoch over the summer, Miliband did more than break what he called “rule number one of British politics.” In finding his voice, and his courage, Miliband, and Labour MP Tom Watson, whose cool cross-examination caused both Murdochs so much discomfort, showed that sometimes politicians really can hold corporations to account. In that brief moment, Labour began to define a set of standards—and a sense of outrage—that if applied more broadly just might challenge the complacency of Britain’s real rulers, in boardrooms as well as in Parliament.