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Last Updated: Monday, 2 April 2007, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
Palm trees and pensioners in Torquay
By Lucy Wilkins
Political reporter, BBC News

After a lifetime of seeing politicians and governments come and go, pensioners find their worries have also changed. But what gets them stirred up, if anything?

Sign in Torquay
Torquay - palm trees and pensioners

With a pleasant climate and sea air, Torquay has attracted a lot of white-haired folk who want to enjoy part of the self-styled English Riviera.

The hotels, yachts and fish'n'chip shops on the waterfront show it to be a typical British seaside resort, with numerous residential care homes and retirement apartments dotted further inland.

The town has an above-average proportion of elderly residents - just over 22% of its population is aged over 65, compared to 16% across England, according to the 2001 census.

A recent small survey - just under 800 responses - in the local Herald Express newspaper asked senior citizens what they were worried about.

Like people of any age they said council tax increases were the most troubling, with 88% picking it as their top concern, but other issues come up too.

Again like any householder throughout the country, gas, electricity and water bill increases were also worrying.

Alan Walker, chairman of the Torbay Senior Citizens Forum, said the results showed that it was the cost of living which concerned older voters, particularly when bills rise above the rate of increase in their pensions.

"Pensioners are not as laid back as younger people. If something goes up 5% but the pension only goes up 3% then they suffer."

Alan Walker
We are always being told that there are more police, but where are they?
Alan Walker
Torbay Senior Citizens Forum

And they have long memories. "They want to know what the national government is doing for them. They went through the war feeling that the country owes them. I was born as the war started so I know about it because I went through it and my parents went through it."

And if they flex their grey vote at the next election in the direction of their local MP it could be a close call.

Liberal Democrat MP Adrian Sanders' election results could never be described as a landslide.

He won one of the narrowest victories of the 1997 election when he was declared the winner in Torbay after three recounts, with a majority of just 12 votes.

In 2001, his majority surged to over 6,000, but in 2005 there was a swing of 4.9% to the Conservatives, with his majority reduced to just 2,000. The UK Independence Party got more than 3,000 votes.

He has taken on board the financial stress that household bill increases cause pensioners, introducing a bill to cap water bills.

But even that is not enough to encourage Mr Walker to change his vote from Conservative to Lib Dem.

"I don't dislike Adrian Sanders but I don't think they have the strength in Parliament. When it comes to decision-making, it is either Labour or Conservatives."

He is even content for Tory leader David Cameron to stay on the quiet side for a while.

"I don't expect him to say anything until the next election. Things change, the economic climate could change between now and then, so I would be worried if he was making promises that he couldn't fulfil."

Harbour at Torquay
The harbour side at night was intimidating for Torquay's older people

The newspaper survey also found that crime, particularly "not enough policemen visible on the street" and concerns about "visiting the harbour side in the evening" (where the town's bars and clubs are located) were in the top five issues.

As a 67-year-old retired policeman, Mr Walker adds his criticism to a lack of police - things were very different in his day as a bobby on the beat.

"I don't think police control the streets. We are always being told that there are more police, but where are they? And this is happening throughout the country."

Fellow resident and pensioner Doreen Hartland agrees - and has some policies she'd like to see reintroduced.

Waiting at a bus stop she struggles to recall the name of her local MP and definitely doesn't know which party he belongs to. Nonetheless she "always" votes - as a Conservative, but believes that none of the political parties are "tough enough on crime".

You know what they should do to make more room in the prisons - bring back capital punishment
Doreen Hartland
Torquay resident

She wants more police on the streets and harsher punishment for the younger people who "get hauled off to the magistrates", with parents and schools and the banning of smacking all contributing to an increasing lack of discipline, she says.

"You know what they should do to make more room in the prisons - bring back capital punishment. Not hanging, but an injection, for crimes like murder...or maybe a pill. That would clear up some space".

And off she goes on the bus.

While she doesn't seem particularly concerned with pensions, Michael Thompson is so angered by the low amount of state pension that he stood as an independent candidate in the 2005 election.

'Political ineptitude'

His strong views on the "ignorance" and "political ineptitude" of British people, and what he sees as a lack of support from his fellow pensioners, has not diluted his ambition to get into Parliament. Neither has his tally of only 199 votes from Totnes voters.

"I'm totally against all political parties, but the three main ones in particular," he said. Once a member of "old" Labour, he said he would not vote for anyone at the next election - except himself.

His aim is to encourage younger people to care enough about pensioners to support his call for an increase to 250 a week pension.

Other residents conveyed no sense of the electoral "illiteracy" about issues that he is up in arms about.

Lights in Torquay
Lib Dem Adrian Sanders has represented Torquay since 97

One couple, who preferred not to be named, walking their dog on the waterfront, had plenty of opinions about politicians and policies both local and national.

They too feel pensions are always of concern to pensioners, for the oft-repeated argument that if other costs go up at a higher rate than the pension, then people will struggle.

The 66-year-old woman voted for Adrian Sanders, mainly because he was a local man, but thinks the Conservatives will get her vote next election. Her husband will remain a "die-hard Conservative voter".

However, it won't be because of David Cameron. The Tory leader is "dreadful, a disappointment".

"He was going okay, until he said 'hug a hoodie'. How the hell do you expect us to do that?" the woman says, looking around as if a "hoodie" might appear to demonstrate her point.

Mr Cameron may not actually have uttered the words "hug a hoodie" but it is clear that the media interpretation of his speech urging more understanding of hoodies has caused ripples on the south coast.

Sixty-nine-year-old Alan, looking out at the still, grey bay, would like to see less coverage of politics.

'Shout louder, Ming'

Asked if anything particularly concerned him, for example education, health, crime, pensions, he replied: "All of them".

"It's easy to get worked up about all these things because we are so drowned in politics the world over. Years ago there was much less coverage, and what they're saying about the economy now, they were saying the same thing 40 or 50 years ago."

He's reluctant to say who would get his vote at the next election. "No matter who you are voting for, you're voting for the same party. I think instead of having extreme left and extreme right parties, it's better if they closer."

But he does have some words of advice for Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell. "Ming needs to shout a bit louder."


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