Although leader Menzies Campbell will face difficult questions over his leadership over the next few days, it was Gordon Brown’s leadership of economic policy over the last 10 years that was under the spotlight this morning.
Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable gave over most of his conference address to a fierce attack on the Prime Minister, blaming a complacent Government, overpaid executives and ‘lax, indulgent’ banking regulation for the problems epitomised by the recent events at Northern Rock.
The respected economist admitted to delegates that he was no ‘mystic Vince’ but said history shows bubbles burst and Gordon’s ‘day of reckoning cannot be far off’.
The attack follows harsh words on the subject from the Conservatives over the weekend with David Cameron claiming Brown has presided over a huge expansion of public and private debt without showing awareness of the risks involved.
Cable also continued a familiar tirade against the Government over its policy on private equity tax breaks and non-domiciled status.
He called on Brown to make public the Government’s 2002 report into the abuses of non-dom status which Cable says it is trying to suppress by rejecting freedom of information requests for its findings.
In a rebuke of several LibDem names who have, or are considering, joining Brown’s political ‘big tent’, Cable said they were being asked to believe Brown was responsible was all the economic successes of the past decade but none of the long list of failures that Cable then went to the trouble of reading out.
Cable said LibDem policy would focus on a “simpler, fairer and greener tax system” and called on more regulatory attention towards ‘reckless lending’.
Away from the main conference, the fringe has already thrown up an interesting debate around a potential future clash of the generations.
At a Help the Aged and CentreForum event, sponsored by LV=, Help the Aged head of public affairs Mervyn Kohler said much of this debate has focused on false media stereotypes of the ‘selfish’ baby boomer generation who have had it all.
He said 30 per cent of those over 65 do not own a property and the average price of those that do was between £175,000 and £200,000, “not an enormous amount”.
He also said only around 60 per cent of this generation had received a form of final salary pension, with women in this category much lower, and only around 5 per cent had gone to university.
He also said state funding for the older generation was roughly in line with the money this segment of the population pay into the Treasury’s coffers.
LibDem Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Danny Alexander agreed the clash may not be between generations but perhaps between those of the older generation who have saved and accumulated assets and those that have not.
He said the current means testing environment exasperates this issue and that the LibDems’ policy of a Citizens’ Pension would be the best way forward.
LV= chief executive Mike Rogers said there was a huge opportunity for the financial services industry in this area but issues of liquidity, both through assets tied up in property and restrictive pension rules, needed to be addressed.
He said work was needed from both the industry and the FSA to ensure consumers felt they could access equity release products in a safe way.
He praised the growing number of flexible annuity products on the market, both from new entrants and established names, and said both the industry and Government could do more to open up this avenue and benefit those approaching retirement.
Elsewhere over the next couple of days, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso will address the conference along with Alexander and Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Julia Goldsworthy.
Financial services debate is likely to focus around issues associated with the credit crunch and pension reform, setting the industry up for the Conservative and Labour conferences over the next few weeks.