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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April 2005, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Gloucester and the grey vote

By Jill McGivering
On the BBC election bus in Gloucester

At 5.30pm, the tension in Gloucester's recently refurbished Gala Bingo Hall is building.

Pat Cleary from Ross-on-Wye
Pat Cleary says Labour have been "reasonably good" for pensioners

The first of the evening's 300 players are streaming in, crossing the hectic multi-coloured carpet to claim their favourite seats, greeting friends, pausing to push a few pound coins into the noisy slot machines on the way.

Most are pensioners.

Pat Cleary and his wife Joan, from Ross-on-Wye, come about twice a week, spending on average about 35 each per visit.

That is nearly half their total income.

He says: "It's a night out, sort of thing.

"It costs you money to get here and it costs you money when you get here but, tell me, what doesn't cost money?"

QUICK GUIDE

Mr Cleary, now 71, was a lorry driver and factory worker.

His wife worked in a psychiatric hospital. Three weeks ago Mr Cleary won 1,000 here. The memory is clearly fresh.

"Life will get a lot better if I win tonight," he grins.

I tell him if he does, he will give my article a great ending. He immediately worries I have jinxed him.

Political focus?

The focus here is on a full house, not politics.

But Mr Cleary does tell me he plans to vote Liberal Democrat, although he does not think they will win and says the current Labour government has been "reasonably good to pensioners".

BUS STOPS
Graphic of election bus on map of UK

I ask his views on the NHS.

He recently had a knee replacement at the local hospital, Gloucestershire Royal.

He says: "Everybody moans about the hospital but I got very good treatment there."

What about council tax?

"A very sore subject," he says, bristling.

His house is an end-of-terrace so in a higher valuation band than the rest of the street. He also complained about paying income tax, despite being a pensioner.

"If I do a bit of driving here or there, I'm taxed on it," he said.

His broad concerns - a call for better pensions and concessions on council and income taxes - were echoed again and again before the hall fell to a reverential silence and the main bingo session began.

Regular voters

Pensioners tend to turn out in high numbers to vote.

This election, they are being courted as never before by political parties eager to address their concerns.

BBC News website caught up with older voters in a Gloucester bingo hall.

"Money is always top of the list," said Linda Shepherd, a senior manager at Age Concern Gloucestershire.

"There have been improvements financially for older people, like help with the council tax last year and winter fuel payments, but there's quite a lot of resentment about the amount of money being poured into services for children and the lack of concern for the welfare of older people."

Pat Scannell, a former bank worker and spokesman for the Gloucestershire Pensions Forum, puts it more bluntly.

He told me: "Pensioners are fed up listening to the government throwing everything at children. We're fighting for a reasonable pension without any strings, not freebies at Christmas."

He cites other industrialised countries which offer more perks to older people, like free travel on public transport.

"We're one of the richest countries in the world but they don't seem to be looking after pensioners," he says.

Tony Eagles agrees. A former Korean war veteran who was awarded an OBE, his blazer gleams with military medals.

Like many local veterans of the now-merged Gloucestershire Regiment, he is angry about further plans to amalgamate English infantry regiments, a move he describes as "the rape of the army" and an insult to former soldiers.

Pensioners in the UK
11 million people of pensionable age, of which
6,976,000 are women (aged 60 and over)
4,038,000 are men (aged 65 and over)
Age Concern, 2004 statistics

Immigration is also an emotive topic.

"Genuine asylum seekers, fine," he says.

"But I'm not too keen on Islam. We've given them a home and accepted them into our society but they're biting the hand that feeds them," he adds.

He feels just as strongly about pensions. He started work on his 14th birthday and paid taxes throughout his working life.

Even when he was a prisoner of war, he said, the government deducted two shillings and tuppence a month from his soldier's pay.

If he did not have extra income from war disability and occupational pensions, he doesn't know how he would manage.

"My pension went up 75p one year but my council tax went up from 41 a month to 60. I don't know how other people get through on the pension the government gives," he says.

Ron Bishop
Ron Bishop laments the "rape of the army"

Ron Bishop served with the former Gloucestershire Regiment for 27 years.

"Give the pensioners a proper pension," he says.

Extra allowances that require extra applications and paperwork can be too baffling for older people, he adds.

"Pensioners should have respects, not hand-outs."

Elsewhere, breaking news was coming in from the bingo hall where the evening was drawing to a close.

Mr Cleary had won nothing at all, he told me breathlessly, until the very last "full house" game of the night.

He and another player had taken the big prize, sharing 300. He sounded flushed with glory.

Would an election result spark quite such enthusiasm, I wondered - or even leave him as materially better off?

We shall see.





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