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15 October 2014

Party conference season: a summary

Party conference season: a summary

The autumn conference season – the last before the election – has come to an end. It was an opportunity for party leaders to offer a fresh and inspiring vision, rally the troops for the upcoming election and set the stage with their key policy commitments.

Amongst all the fanfare and side shows that inevitably occur during conference season, party leaders were tasked with the serious business of convincing voters that they have the vision, leadership and policy that will see the UK and individuals flourish. The question is, were they able to deliver?

The New Statesman's George Eaton commented that Labour's six national goals are, "worthy acts of long-termism of a kind that Cameron has too often neglected". Unfortunately these goals were overshadowed by Miliband's embarrassing error in forgetting to discuss the economy as well as his inability to rouse the party – crucial in the run up to a general election. Miliband's poor performance has served to further weaken his already weak grasp on the party and saw them arguably fare the worst out of conference season.

Labour's six national goals include rather vague promises to reward hard work and ensure working families have their fair share in the growing wealth of the country. The goals also include meeting the housing demand, becoming a world leader in green technology by 2025, increasing the up-take of apprenticeships to match university up-take and transforming the NHS with improved GP access, better preventative care and more staff.

At UKIP's conference there was a significant media presence despite parliament being recalled to debate whether the RAF should join air strikes against IS in Iraq. This spoke volumes. UKIP's strong performance in the EU and local elections in May, notable Tory defections as well as their strong results in the polls means there is no choice but to take them seriously. Douglas Carswell's successful bid for the Clacton seat further strengthens this as UKIP enter the UK parliament for the first time.

Party leader Nigel Farage's key note speech saw a change in strategy as he took aim at Labour rather than the Conservatives. Until now UKIP had set their sights firmly and almost exclusively on winning Tory seats from disaffected voters. However they have shrewdly recognised there are just as many disaffected Labour voters. The recent Heywood and Middleton by-election which saw Labour hold off UKIP by only a few hundred votes suggests this may be a winning strategy.

As with the Conservatives and Lib Dems, UKIP announced they would raise the income tax-free threshold. They pledged to cut income tax from 40p to 35p for people earning up to £55,000. Those earning more would be taxed at 40p with the additional rate scrapped. Farage said these tax cuts would be funded by leaving the EU and cutting UK foreign aid by 85 per cent.

The Tory conference was marred with Brooks Newmark's resignation and Mark Reckless's high profile defection to UKIP, as well as overarching ideological struggles. Cameron sought to rouse the party faithful with a speech that set a hard line again IS militants and promised sweeping tax cuts in the form of raising the tax-free threshold and raising the threshold for the 40 per cent income tax rate. Possibly in response to voters' positive reaction to UKIP's anti-EU position, Cameron pledged to overhaul Britain's EU ties for our benefit. Further announcements included reducing the 55 per cent tax rate on what is left of pension pots when someone dies, a two year freeze on working age benefits, the introduction of a benefits card scheme, help for first time home buyers and access to GPs seven days a week by 2020.

As the Liberal Democrats languish in the polls, Nick Clegg delivered a speech crafted to convince voters that the Lib Dems are the only party rooted in the sensible and safe space of the centre. He strove to lift the spirits of party members, saying the Lib Dems will go into the next election with their "heads held high". As he attempted to present himself as the only man to take on so-called "increasingly extreme" political parties, Clegg also took the risky move of addressing his main personal weakness of untrustworthiness on account of his U-turn on university tuition fees.

Clegg announced the first national waiting time targets for people with some mental health illnesses. This is a coalition government policy although the Lib Dems pledged extra money to introduce similar targets for illnesses such as bipolar disorder and eating disorders.

He also announced that the Lib Dems would cut increase the tax-free threshold in April 2016 from £10,000 to £11,000, insisting this would be funded by raising taxes on the wealthy in the form of capital gains tax. And revealed plans for five new green laws on carbon reduction, green space and energy efficiency. Clegg suffered a setback as party members rejected his calls to relax opposition to airport expansion in the south-east of England.

Conference season has highlighted the challenges facing political parties, namely gaining traction in the polls, remaining relevant and inspiring voters with their plan for the future. The unexpected success of UKIP in an electoral system that doesn't traditionally reward small parties highlights that British politics is in a state of flux. In the lead up to polling day, our politicians need to address the frustration many voters feel toward the status quo if they have any hope of electoral success.