Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 12:47 UK

Going for the grey vote

By Kerry McDermott
BBC News

In 1997 a small city in the West Midlands was home to the type of voter that was said to have swung the election in Tony Blair's favour.

"Worcester Woman" was aged between 35 and 44, married to a skilled tradesman, and a prime target for both Labour and the Conservatives.

Thirteen years later, the power to swing the upcoming election is thought to lie in the hands of a different voter.

Pensioners by the sea in Dorset
Older voters could be key to the outcome of the general election

With research predicting that four out of 10 potential voters will be over 55, the so-called "grey vote" could be key to winning the election on 6 May.

The "grey voter" holds particular sway in English coastal towns like Clacton in Essex or Christchurch in Dorset.

The combination of sandy beaches, rolling countryside and picturesque villages have helped to make Dorset one of England's retirement hotspots, and in Christchurch itself more than a third of the population is of pensionable age.

Pensioner popularity

Research commissioned by the charity Age UK predicts the town will have the highest percentage of older voters - 70.9% - turning out to cast their ballot on 6 May.

Christchurch's popularity among pensioners is not lost on the candidates fighting to represent the constituency in Parliament.

However, Conservative candidate Christopher Chope said: "I think it's a mistake to be condescending towards older people by thinking somehow they have different interests from voters in general.

"As far as I'm concerned every voter is important and every vote counts," said Mr Chope, who is hoping to be re-elected in the seat he has held since 1997.

He said the Tories had a series of policies that were geared towards helping older people, adding that the party's proposed two-year council tax freeze was likely to go down particularly well in the constituency.

"One of the biggest problems older people here in Christchurch have is very high levels of council tax," he said.

'Income worry'

Liberal Democrat candidate Martyn Hurll said his party's policies addressed many of the concerns of pensioners.

"Income is a worry for older people, as well as good healthcare.

"In terms of the NHS, we are definitely committed to maintaining frontline services," he said.

Christchurch
More than a third of people in Christchurch are of pensionable age

Mr Hurll said the Lib Dems' pledge to restore the link between the state pension and earnings would also resonate with the older population.

The party has said it will link annual increases in the state pension with either earnings or prices - whichever is the higher.

Labour candidate Rob Deeks, 30, said he was "very conscious" of the fact that the town was home to a significant number of older people.

Labour finished third behind the Liberal Democrats in Christchurch in the 2005 election, but Mr Deeks said he was confident he could win the support of older voters.

"I find it quite surprising that Labour hasn't fared that well in Christchurch in the past," he said.

"The Labour government brought in winter fuel payments and free TV licences for people over 75.

"We have lifted almost a million pensioners out of poverty since 1997.

"And we've also got the right policies going forward."

David Williams, who is standing for UKIP in Christchurch, said: "We have a lot of voters in the town who fall into the older category.

"I want to represent Christchurch in parliament and I would certainly speak up on their behalf."

'Real blot'

Olga Trotman, 78, who lives in a retirement complex in Christchurch, said she believed politicians of all parties had failed to pay enough attention to older voters.

"I've heard quite a few people of my age group saying they don't think they'll bother voting for anybody," she said.

"I think the expenses scandal has put a real blot on this election.

"Especially when a lot of older people really struggled to pay their heating bills over winter."

Despite feeling disillusioned with politics Ms Trotman said she still intended to cast her vote on 6 May, but added that none of the parties had managed to impress her during the election campaign so far.

"We haven't seen a soul around here so far," she said.

"I've got a lot to think about before I decide."

The candidates announced for Christchurch are: Conservative: Christopher Chope; Labour: Robert Deeks; Liberal Democrat: Martyn Hurll; UK Independence Party: David Williams.



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