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banner Monday, 2 October, 2000, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
Going for grey
Grey power, and the electoral damage it can wreak on the election hopes of the two main political parties, was raised on the Conservative conference fringe in Bournemouth at the Age Concern discussion on "Older voters: the key to victory".

With around 11m pensioners in the UK, they made for a hefty, potentially decisive slice of the electorate - and one whose antipathy to the government's 75p increase in this year's state pension was making New Labour pay dearly in the opinion polls.

Baroness Sally Greengross, chairing, opened by noting how pensions had become a much more salient issue politically than had previously been the case.

Shadow social security spokesman David Willetts told the meeting that while the Tories' plan to roll together various existing benefits and abolish the new deal for lone parents in order to give pensioners a straight increase had great virtue in its simplicity.

Currently, the system was just way too complicated; pensioners did not know what they were getting or when.

Because of the variously available benefits, "you can do a mutliplicity of calculations" as to by exactly how much extra Tory plans would leave individual pensioners.

The amounts will vary, he told the meeting, "but all pensioners will be better off".

Mr Willetts also issued "a small plea" in defence of the chancellor . "Poor Gordon Brown" "has had all the flak for the 75p", he said.

But the reason it had gone down so badly shouldn't be laid at his door alone.

The reason for an apparent backlash against the government was that Tony Blair had been more concerned with presenting his government as "'cool Britannia' - it's trendy Britain, it's young Britain, that he's fighting the forces of conservatism, that it's a young nation, that he wants pop stars at Number Ten, that he can't be bothered to turn up to the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain".

"Hear hears" from the audience greeted that last point.

"It's because Tony Blair's philosophy and politics and rhetoric was coming across so clearly, that Labour did not respect and value pensioners, and the 75p from wretched Gordon Brown was just a confirmation of what pensioners were already picking up, in the rhetoric that Labour was choosing to employ," said Mr Willetts.

Guardian journalist and social policy commentator Polly Toynbee told the meeting she had spoken at an Age Concern fringe at Labour's annual conference in Brighton the previous week.

She hoped this meeting would be unlike that one, "where warfare broke out", with pensions minister Jeff Rooker facing vigorous heckling from angry pensions.

Ms Toynbee said she thought the policy of previous Tory governments of allowing the state pension to "wither on the vine" was "probably the right direction to go", and she certainly supported his consolidation idea.

"I agree with what David has suggested about rolling up the winter fuel payments and all of that," Ms Toynbee said. "I do hope that maybe the chancellor will take up that idea, I don't see any reason why you shouldn't take good ideas from wherever they come.

She was in favour of means-testing - "putting that money to those who need it most".

Mr Willetts basked in the Guardian journalist's praise by her side, nodding vigorously as she said of his consolidation plan: "I think it's the right thing to do."

She disagreed strongly, however, with Tory plans to pay for their mini-boost - a less than 1 increase - to pensioners by axing the new deal for lone parents.

Ms Toynbee pointed out in that in many seats, 25% of those who vote are pensioners, because "they are better citizens, because they are not selfish... I think they are on the whole rather selfless voters and I don't think they can be easily bought."

Whatever their motivation, psephologist Professor Paul Whiteley set out some of the hard demographic realities of the pensioner vote.

While Labour was having problems with the grey vote, the Tories could not rest easy either. He pointed out that the Tory share of the retired vote dropped from 49% to 37% between 1992 and 1997 - a significant shift to Labour

The reason for the fall in support appeared to be that pensioners felt the Tory government had allowed them to slip behind the rest of society in terms of their relative standard of living, and felt it had not proved trustworthy.

In addition, in 1997 73% of retired voters believed the Tories had broken their promises.

Add this to the fact that whereas in 1970 the percentage of the electorate that was retired was 9%, compered to a projected 21% by 2001, and the issue of older voters and what the political parties were willing to do to win their support could well be here to stay.

"You can see a picture is building up of retired voters feeling left behind, blaming the government and then finally thinking that it broke its promises.

"That's the problem that the Conservatives have to overcome in the electoral dimension," said Mr Whiteley.

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