What a strange party conference season this is turning out to be. Last week the Liberal Democrats were enjoying themselves in Birmingham, exuding relaxed confidence even as they faced the possibility of electoral oblivion. Labour are ahead in the polls, and they are the only alternative to a creaky coalition that rules erratically. Yet in Liverpool their mood is defensive and nervy.
The level of defensiveness is easily measured by the debate about how much senior figures should apologise for the policies of the previous government. A related, negative question asked of the party leadership by right-wing commentators and their ideological soulmates in the Shadow Cabinet is whether Labour can be credible on the economy. Future half-formed politicians, sheltered for more than a decade by the overwhelming Blair-Brown duopoly, utter platitudes at fringe meetings: "We must not move from the centre ground","We are about the big society and an active state", or "We must be honest about the past". In the city of the Beatles, a lot of nowhere words are going nowhere.
Take a step back and the actual context is not too bad for Labour. In the build-up to the last election, many commentators predicted civil war. The same people now express lofty disapproval that Labour is not much further ahead. In truth, if the party were led by a charismatic titan untainted by the past and yet magically steeped in ministerial experience, voters would not notice. A big lead in the polls was never a likely occurrence after 13 years of power wielded largely by two individuals who are now nowhere to be seen, at least in Liverpool. But Labour are not miles behind as the Conservatives were for years after their defeat in 1997.
That is partly because of their opponents. Questions about economic credibility should apply more urgently to George Osborne, who has staked all on a Plan A that was never going to work, but from which he cannot escape. Last week Nick Clegg said the economy was too serious an issue to play politics with. He is right, but Plan A was and is deeply political – spending cuts made quickly and shaped by an electoral timetable.
The only political figure to make an unequivocal warning a year ago about what would happen if Osborne pressed on was Ed Balls. Instead of praising the Shadow Chancellor for his foresight, Osborne's many admirers in the media and Balls's enemies in the Labour Party are even more dismissive. They do not apologise. Instead they want more apologies from Balls and others. They demand a detailed alternative economic strategy at a point when the greatest economists in the world are not entirely sure what will happen in the next hour, let alone what the situation will be by 2015.
In this topsy-turvy world, parts of the media, and internal critics, urge a more centrist approach from the Labour leadership when it is the Coalition that pursues an ideologically risky course, cutting more quickly than any economy in the Western world. In contrast, Balls is a centrist, urging a more cautious approach to cuts while blocking most attempts by Shadow Cabinet members to make spending announcements.
His speech yesterday and the announcement about the cut in tuition fees at the weekend were classic early New Labour, possibly too much so. The cut in fees would be paid for by a popular tax on bankers. The only tax highlighted in the run-up to the 1997 election was a popular tax on the privatised utilities. Balls apologised at length for the light regulation of banks and some of the spending decisions of the last government. But, rightly, he refused to fall into the trap of accepting that spending had run out of control under Labour. He does not believe it. Nor does Miliband. David Cameron and George Osborne were calling on them to spend more at the time. Tony Blair's priorities were also expensive in his final years at the helm. But they and others will soon be calling for more apologies.
Already I wonder whether the headlines about apologies will reassure voters or reinforce a view of incompetence. "Sorry we screwed up the economy – Vote Labour" is not a winning slogan. I can't recall Margaret Thatcher apologising, or being called to do so, in the build-up to the 1979 election when she was Leader of the Opposition and promising to sort out the unions. There were no pompous demands for her to say sorry for being in the cabinet that presided over a three-day week. She strode on, incrementally building up support for an alternative to the failed consensus of the 1960s and 1970s, working with those still stuck in the past in her party until she was strong enough to dump them.
Miliband has the chance to do the same. He does not look prime ministerial, but nor did Thatcher after a year as party leader. He has dissenting Shadow Cabinet members uttering lazily obvious criticisms. Thatcher faced similar internal dissent, apparently strong but actually outdated. Perhaps Miliband will not have her strength of character or her populist touch, in which case he will fail. For sure he has yet to develop a fully authentic public voice, choosing instead to hide behind too many Blair-like mannerisms. But in one respect there is common ground between Thatcher in the 1970s and Miliband now. He has a clear idea of what he would like to do with his leadership, much clearer than Cameron who remains a blur of tonal warmth, pragmatism and lurches towards right-wing radicalism.
In the same way that Thatcher seized the collapse of the old, failed, corporatist model to move Britain rightwards, Miliband hopes to turn the crisis of light-touch regulation into an opportunity for radical reform. He has a tougher task than she did because most of the media regards his instincts as dangerously left-wing. But like Thatcher then, he will attempt to frame the debate as a response to the existing values of voters and not an attempt to drag them leftwards. He did not spend virtually his entire adult life in New Labour without being aware of the need to at least appear to be speaking "for the many and not the few".
When Miliband delivers his speech today he does so in reasonable political circumstances, a leader in a hung parliament, facing a coalition where internal tensions surface, and in economic times that at the very least raise questions about the orthodoxies of the past few decades. Perhaps he will not be up to the impossibly demanding tasks of leadership. Possibly at the next election the voters will blame him, Balls and the rest of them for the economy. Maybe the south of England is lost for Labour for decades. But such outcomes are not yet inevitable. That means, at the very least, a discovery of self-confidence and clear thinking to replace a pessimism that in politics is bound to become self-fulflilling.