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Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK
Pensioner power: The new old protesters?

Are pensioners the next militant group waiting to emulate the success of the fuel tax protesters? BBC News Online looks at the might of grey power.

As the government totters to regain its footing in the polls following last week's fuel crisis, commentators are eyeing the next big issue which might get the masses mobilised.

What 75p can buy
Almost a litre of petrol
One-way bus ticket
Two pints of milk
Big bag of peanuts
Saturday newspaper
The smart money appears to be on pensions - those past retirement age are already angered by the 75p rise in the basic state pension awarded in April.

People aged over 60 already make up about 20% of the UK's population - and with the baby-boomers fast approaching retirement age, the number of potential recruits for the grey power cause is only going to swell.

This is the generation that helped build the welfare state, paying into the state coffers throughout their work lives.

Today, the state argues that it cannot afford to put more money into the basic pension.

Rally in London, 1999
Pensioners take their protest to the streets
Professor Robert Worcester, the chairman of the market and opinion research company Mori, says the greying generations wield considerable political clout.

"One-third of the electorate are over-55s, and they are twice as likely to vote as young people."

Yet this is the group that Peter Mandelson advised the Labour Party not to bother with in the build-up to the 1992 election.

"Now there are more people in the over-55 group dissatisfied with Tony Blair than in any other group."

In last May's local elections, three-quarters of the Labour councillors who lost their seats said pensioners, angered by the paltry increase, had largely contributed to their defeat.

A Mori report for Help the Aged found that 41% of the likely voters in 125 marginal seats are aged over 55.

"These voters could mean the difference between a Labour majority and a hung parliament in the next election," Professor Worcester says.

Common cause

He likens public opinion to an 800lb gorilla: "Most of the time it's asleep and very benign.

John Taylor
John Taylor fought 'sexist' winter fuel payments
"But when it gets angry, you'd better speak to it in very soothing tones. This government hasn't learned how to speak to the savage beast."

Although charities and lobby groups could gain political capital by working together, Professor Worcester says there is little point in setting up a single-issue "pensioner" party to contest the next election.

"Do they want to be the Green Party, or do they want to exercise their influence on the main parties?"

In the United States, elderly activists have earned the name the Grey Panthers, having modelled themselves on the black revolutionaries who challenged authority in the 1960s.

They have taken direct action against forced retirement at 65 and hit out at cuts in health spending.

Tony Booth
Tony Booth: Taking swipes at son-in-law's policies
The original Black Panthers, now greying themselves, have re-emerged to fight for better education and health care.

But this time around, they plan to work within the system - ex-panther David Hilliard, 56, is standing for an Oakland city council seat.

Continental Europe once boasted several parties representing the elderly.

At the height of their powers in 1994, the grey power parties won parliamentary seats in the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and more than 100,000 votes in Belgium.

Scrapped by Tories

At the upcoming Labour conference in Brighton, campaigners led by Dame Barbara Castle and Jack Jones, the former trade union boss, will try to force a vote to commit the party to restore the link between pensions and earnings.

Baroness Castle: Introduced the earnings links in 1974
This connection was scrapped by the Tory government in 1980. The value of pensions compared with wages has fallen ever since.

The basic state pension currently stands at 67.50 a week. Activists claim that had the wage link not been broken, the pension would now be more than 97 a week.

The actor Tony Booth, who is the prime minister's father-in-law, has become one of the most vocal advocates for pensioners' rights.

This week, he helped launch a Daily Express campaign to boost the pension. In an article for the tabloid, he said of the 75p increase: "Rarely has such an act provoked so much anger".

Although direct action campaigns in the past have attracted several hundred supporters at most, the campaigners hope to echo the success of the farmers and hauliers who protested against high fuel prices earlier this month.

Professor Worcester says it will not take much to get the elderly on the streets.

"The Chancellor seems to have mobilised this group for them when he insulted them with a 75p rise."

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See also:

20 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Lib Dem pension revolt fails
14 Sep 00 | Scotland
Pensioner power takes to the streets
19 Sep 00 | UK
Not the retiring kind?
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