Secretary of State for Equality Harriet Harman attacked Tory attitudes to gay couples in her closing speech to the Labour party conference yesterday.

In an address to the party faithful that set the tone for a general election widely tipped to be called next week, she called the Conservatives the “nasty party,” a phrase first used by Tory frontbencher Theresa May.

Attacking the opposition party’s plans for a tax system that rewards married couples and civil partners above single or unmarried parents, she said:

“They don’t need Tories “sending a message about marriage.” What does that really mean?

“It means saying to children whose parents have divorced or who are being brought up by a mother or a father on their own, it means saying to those children, there’s something wrong with your family. And we will not stand for that.

“It means saying to the gay couple or the lesbian couple who have loved each other for years – there’s something wrong with your relationship. And we will not stand for that either.

“Because that Tory message about marriage is just the same old back to basics. And the truth is that until they drop it, the Tory party is still the nasty party.”

In July the Conservatives advocated changing the tax system to reward marriage and civil partnerships by introducing a married couples tax allowance, worth around £20 a week, aimed at making it easier for one parent to stay at home.

The tax rebate would apply to married couples and civil partners regardless of whether or not the couples have children.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, the Conservative Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, defended his party’s family policy.

“Individually we can all think of people where single parents have done a good job but, generally speaking as an issue, marriage works,” he said.

“Gordon (Brown) is deeply out of touch with what is happening in many of our communities where broken families and social breakdown are causing enormous distress and poverty and affecting the life chances of many of our children.”

Ms Harman’s crowd-pleasing closing address did nothing to quell election fever, as she told delegates that “every constituency in every part of England, Scotland and Wales there are people whose hopes for the future depend on a Labour government.”

She said the party was “so proud” of Gordon Brown and confident of their record.

Yesterday Labour was reported to be asking people to start work on the election on Monday, another sign that Gordon Brown might go to the country as early as next week.

Such a move would take press attention away from the Conservative party conference, which begins in Blackpool on Sunday.

However, some political analysts regard the heightened expectation of an election to be a mere tactic to frustrate Tory ambitions to dominate the news agenda in the coming week, and that Mr Brown will wait until May 2008 to call an election.