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Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 13:09 GMT 14:09 UK
Parties electioneer over grey vote
A post office
The image of only 75p extra a week has damaged Labour
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Day by day voters are getting a clearer picture of the issues the next general election will be fought on - the latest being pensions.

Tony Blair has spent much of his time in Downing Street so far trying to limit the ground on which the Tories can gain an advantage.

The economy and taxation have effectively been neutralised and, until recently, law and order appeared not to be fertile territory for the Tories.

The one big issue everyone knew would be at the heart of the campaign was Europe with Mr Hague eager to woo the anti-single currency vote.

But over the past few weeks the Tory leader has seized on other areas to exploit what he believes are Labour weaknesses.

Powerful force

First of all it was the bogus asylum seekers allegedly "flooding" into Britain.

Next, in the wake of the Tony Martin affair, it was self-defence against burglars.

That was swiftly followed by demands for a change in the rules on double jeopardy which prevent anyone being tried twice for the same crime.

Now Mr Hague has felt the mood of pensioners who are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the government and its refusal to give them large rises in their basic payments.

Britain's 11 million pensioners are a powerful and growing force and all parties want to keep them on side.

But, while the previous issues raised by Mr Hague have clearly stuck a chord with voters, it is not so clear his suggestion on pensions will have the same effect.

He is suggesting that the cash that currently goes on the Christmas bonus, winter fuel allowance and free TV licence should be redirected into the basic pension.

Opportunism claim

That has already seen him accused of opportunism by Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling - suggesting the government may have been rattled by the policy.

But, more importantly, the suggestion has been dismissed by pensions campaigner Jack Jones, admittedly a former union boss, as "robbing Peter to pay Paul".

And there is likely to be a heated debate over whether or not Mr Hague's figures actually add up and whether all pensioners, rather than just the most well off, will benefit.

Labour suffered badly at the recent local elections with ousted councillors claiming they had been tackled time and again on the doorstep about the 75p-a-week pension increase which many described as an "insult."

Many pensioners are angry that Labour has not restored the link with earnings, which they had hoped for.

But they have also not forgotten that it was a Tory government that abolished the earnings link in 1980.

None the less, Mr Hague has now mapped this out as key issue for the general election campaign and will continue to drive home his attacks on government policy.

So many in Westminster are now predicting that Chancellor Gordon Brown will produce another rabbit from his spending hat this summer and target some extra cash on pensioners.

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24 May 00 | UK Politics
Hague plans pensions boost
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