Pensioners poised for a pivotal role: Martin Whitfield finds the over-sixties' political influence on the rise

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The Independent Online
PENSIONERS are about to flex a few political muscles. Already being courted by commercial concerns, the over-60s could become the key to every general election success for the next 50 years.

Traditionally, the pensioner vote has been taken for granted. Although mainly Conservative, there is a minority of determined working-class pensioners who have voted Labour all their lives.

Demographics will ensure part of the prediction of growing influence as the number of pensioners increases by 50 per cent by 2024. But the old loyalties are also straining under perceived government attacks on the welfare state and on the declining value of the old-age pension.

The Christchurch by-election gave a hint of what is to come when a huge 23,015 Tory majority was turned into a Liberal Democrat victory of 16,427 partly on the back of pensioners taking revenge for the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel.

Andrew Bowden, Tory chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for pensioners and MP for Brighton Kemptown, is in no doubt about the danger to his party. The average age of a Conservative Party volunteer is 61. 'I have 20,000 pensioners out of 60,000 constituents. The pensioner is vital to the Conservative Party to win a general election,' he said. 'If the Tory party loses 1 million pensioner votes we would find it very difficult to win.'

Academics have a theory for what appears to be going on among the 9.2 million voters of pensionable age. Dr Gail Wilson, of the social policy department of the London School of Economics, said that accepted wisdom was being challenged.

'The two established theories are firstly that older people vote the way they have always voted and secondly that they become more conservative,' she said. 'But they may be becoming more conservative with a small 'c' and like to conserve the welfare state, for example'.

As the Government makes more and more changes to the structures of the welfare state, those that built it are resentful, even though they are normally the party's most loyal supporters.

The numbers and income of pensioners have not been ignored by the private sector, which increasingly gears its sales efforts to the specialised market. While about one- third of all pensioners exist on the state pension alone, many have comfortable earnings from occupational pension schemes and income from lifetime savings. According to Mintel, the marketing organisation, the 65 to 74 age group has average weekly expenditure per person of not much less than the 30 to 49 age group and are attractive to providers of leisure, financial and health-care products.

More than 500,000 copies of Saga Magazine, published by the group which specialises in holidays for older people, are distributed each month.

The growth of pensioners' influence as a lobbying group is shown by the spread of the National Pensioners' Convention, which has mushroomed into a body representing 1.5 million members in affiliated organisations.

(Photographs omitted)