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 Wednesday, 9 October, 2002, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Appealing to the voter's wallet
Theresa May's shoes, money and houses
A modern Tory dichotomy: Black suit and leopard-skin shoes

Those racy leopard-skin heels were a topic of conversation among the blue-rinse brigade on Monday in Bournemouth.

There were a few raised eyebrows on Tuesday too.

Fresh from meeting the UK's most needy, the Conservative's shadow work and pensions spokesman announced the Tory war on single parents was over.

The party wanted to support families, who came in all "shapes and sizes", David Willetts said.

You should be free to decide what you do with your savings

David Willetts, shadow work and pensions secretary

"There's no point twitching at the net curtains as our society changes around us," he added.

Mr Willetts' speech contained more than just a message for the party faithful that they must "engage with society as it is today" - it was a shift of focus that may have creased a few pinstripe suits.

But by high tea on Tuesday the talk had reverted more closely to the Tory heartland: taxation and property.

The Tories may have been down and out for the last two elections, but they still understand the power of the wallet.

With an economy beginning to chase its own tail, pensions in a mighty muddle, savings looking more miserable with every stock market meltdown - the issue of money is making a comeback.

Right-to-buy strikes back

For anyone who has become bored of cosy middle-ground politics, then look no further than the issue of right-to-buy, which allows council tenants to buy their own homes.

David Davis, Conservative housing spokesman
Conservative's Davis: Extend right-to-buy

The old Labour, old Tory, contention about Margaret Thatcher's flagship 1980s policy could be back.

David Davis, Tory spokesman on housing, announced on Tuesday a proposal to extend the scheme to allow more than a million housing association tenants to buy their own homes.

The money would then be used to build new low-cost housing.

This contradicts a move signalled in Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's address to the Labour conference.

Mr Prescott suggested that the right for council tenants to buy their homes may be halted in some areas of London and south-east England.

Other policy differences

All three political parties see the need to reform pensions and long-term savings.

But there are some differences.

John Prescott, deputy prime minister
Labour's Prescott: Signalled right-to-buy limits

Under current rules, people must convert their pensions saving into an annual income when they reach 75 years old.

The Tories have been beating the anti-annuity drum for some time - and Mr Willetts promised a "bold reform" in his speech.

Labour has consistently refused to abolish the need to purchase an annuity.

But it appears the Tory party has now backtracked over ending compulsion completely.

As well as promising a big reduction in red tape on pension funds, Mr Willetts unveiled a "Lifetime Savings Accounts".

This would take the form of a flexible pension - more or less a longer-term competitor to Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs), introduced by Labour.

Andrew Smith, Work and Pensions secretary
Labour's Smith: Under pressure over pensions

In the accompanying explanation to the Lifetime Savings Accounts, it says that a minimum level of income would have to be provided by means of an annuity.

"Beyond that, funds could remain invested in a range of investments, to provide income and growth."

Apart from annuities, it is difficult to compare Tory policies with Labour.

While Labour introduced low-cost stakeholders in 2001, no one knows what Labour's next big idea is on pensions.

Critics see Labour's green paper, expected shortly, as a major test.

What about tax and families?

While the Tories are ambivalent about setting out their personal taxation plans, there is some clear ground - if not ironic - between the parties on welfare reform.

Since 1997, the Treasury has set out on a bold project of social reform, using the tax system as its vehicle for change.

Mr Willetts praised Gordon Brown attempts to end child poverty.

"He is genuine in his desire to tackle child poverty. I admire him for it. "

That's the Tory way of helping poor people

David Willetts, shadow work and pensions secretary

But the adulation stops there.

In a twenty-first century tale of political role reversal, the Tories have become highly critical of means testing and ardent critics of tax credits.

From next year, more than half of all pensioners will be on means-tested benefit when the pension credit is introduced.

"We can have a better social security system that is targeted on real need without having more and more complicated means tests," said Mr Willetts.

"That's the Tory way of helping poor people."

What about the Lib Dems?

Steve Webb, shadow Work and Pensions secretary, concentrated on the Child Support Agency's woes and female pensioner poverty, in his two speeches to the Liberal Democrats conference.

Steve Webb
Lib Dems: Webb focusing on CSA and pensions

It wants the Child Support Agency (CSA) abolished.

"The CSA has been tried, failed and it must go", he said.

Mr Webb is a professor of social policy, and also another critic of the complexity of tax credits.

Waiting game

It's early days, but the political parties seem to have moved off the starting blocks.

The election is less than three years away, but it is clear there are some differences emerging between the parties.

Policy is one thing, however, economic reality is another.

If the housing market goes belly-up, the stock market worsens, and pensions and life assurance policies are cut further, translating the issues into policy will become even more important for the parties.

One BBC News Online reader recently wrote in to say his retirement savings had decreased by almost 100,000, but his property has risen by a similar value.

The net effect is he is neither better or worse off.

Which party will he vote for in the next election?

See also:

08 Oct 02 | Politics
03 Oct 02 | Business
30 Sep 02 | Politics
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