Liberal Democrat Party conference (Bournemouth, 19 – 23 September 2009)
Last year, the Liberal Democrat conference was somewhat overshadowed by global stockmarkets going into freefall following the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers. The same week, HBOS and Lloyds TSB announced a government-brokered deal to merge the two banking groups. This year, the main story emerging during the conference was Vince Cable’s so-called ‘mansion tax’.
Cable, the Treasury spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, unveiled his party’s plans to tax owners of £1 million-plus homes an annual levy of 0.5%. The tax, he said, would raise £1 billion to help people on low incomes. It is estimated that around 250,000 homeowners, mainly in the South East, would be hit by such a tax, with the average owner paying £4,000 each year.
The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg later pledged to only tax properties worth £2 million or more – and increased the levy to 1%.
His party will also raise the income tax threshold to £10,000 – a move Clegg said will put £700 back into the pockets of the vast majority of taxpayers and take millions out of having to pay income tax at all.
During the conference, Clegg confirmed his party would cut public spending. However, he admitted his party would backtrack on plans to scrap university tuition fees if such a move was deemed too expensive.
Labour Party conference (Brighton, 27 September – 1 October)
Just hours after Gordon Brown delivered his conference speech, The Sun announced its defection to the Conservative Party. The front page of the tabloid newspaper, which has supported Labour since 1997, read “Labour’s lost it”.
However, Labour fought back: equalities minister Harriet Harman said: “Let’s face it, the nearest [The Sun’s] political analysis gets to women’s rights is Page 3’s news in briefs.” Meanwhile, Tony Woodley, leader of union Unite, was rewarded with a roar of applause after he ripped up a copy of the paper.
Gordon Brown unveiled a number of new policies in his keynote speech, such as providing free childcare for a quarter of a million parents, and reiterated some old ones, such as giving the Post Office a greater role in the banking services sector.
Both Chancellor Alistair Darling and the prime minister promised to bin the banking bonus culture, which many believe played a large part in the reckless trading that led to financial meltdown.
Bonuses, said Darling, should be tied to the long-term performance of banks. Meanwhile, Brown told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that he will force banks to act in a more responsible manner.
On another tack, work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper announced cold winter payments will be preserved at current levels for people on low incomes.
Conservative Party conference (Manchester, 5 – 8 October)
During the Conservative conference last year, the world was transfixed by the collapse of Bradford & Bingley and the sight of the US Congress rejecting a $700 billion bail-out bid.
But this year, it was the Tories that were making most of the headlines with several controversial proposals that sharply divided public opinion.
David Cameron’s speech called for a “big, bold” shake-up of the welfare system, cutting benefits and introducing medical tests for people claiming incapacity benefit.
He also promised to create 10,000 additional university places, funded by a 10% student loan discount for students who repay early.
Meanwhile, George Osborne put forward plans to raise the state pension age for men to 66 within the next seven years. He claimed this would help cover the cost of restoring the link between earnings and pensions.
The shadow chancellor also said a Conservative government would freeze public sector workers’ pay, with exceptions made for people earning less than £18,000 a year and those serving on the military frontline.
He promised his party would tax bank bonuses and crack down on Whitehall salaries. However, he ruled out backtracking on the current government’s plan to introduce a 50% tax for people earning more than £150,000.
Osborne said families earning more than £50,000 a year would no longer be entitled to receive tax credits, while access to child trust funds would be restricted to the poorest third in society.
On the other hand, he also pledged his party would preserve child benefits, the winter fuel allowance and free TV licences for pensioners.