Labour and the Tories are reshaping their campaigns after identifying "baby boomers" as the crucial group that could decide the outcome of the next general election.
The generation born after the Second World War, which grew up with the Beatles and the Vietnam War, will be at its peak of its influence at the election expected in 2009 or 2010.
The Tories believe the group can be won over because they are worried that the prosperity they enjoy will not be passed on to their children, who may struggle to get on the housing ladder and enjoy less generous pensions. But Labour regards them as natural supporters because many have progressive values and favour spending on public services rather than tax cuts.
The battle for the baby boomers' vote began when David Willetts, the shadow Education Secretary, made a little-noticed speech at a Tory conference fringe meeting this month. Among those who did notice were Labour cabinet ministers, who have begun discussing how to woo the critical group.
Mr Willetts, who turned 50 this year, described the baby boomers as the "biggest, most powerful, most prosperous group in Britain today". He admitted: "We baby boomers haven't just bought our houses cheap and written off the borrowings with high inflation. We've then pulled up the ladder behind us by restricting the supply of housing as well, further pushing up prices."
The Tory frontbencher said the decision by many companies to close their final salary pension schemes to new members would mean the next generation would enjoy much less generous pensions than the baby boomers. It would also have to pay off debts from Labour's "spend now, pay later" schemes such as the private finance initiative. He added: "A young person could be forgiven for seeing Britain's economic and political structure as nothing less than a conspiracy by the baby boomers in our own interests."
While insisting it was not a conspiracy, he said the Tories should put "a fair deal for the next generation" at the heart of all their policy work.
His speech has been seized on by John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who believes the Tories have scored an "own goal" by trying to turn one generation against its parents as part of David Cameron's pitch to young voters. Mr Hutton has acknowledged the potency of the baby boomers as an electoral force. In a memo to Hazel Blears, the Labour chairman, he said: "Older voters counted for more than 40 per cent of the turnout at the last general election. By 2009, that total is set to increase in three quarters of the seats in Britain. In many of our marginal seats, the way baby boomers choose to vote could make a decisive difference at the next election."
Mr Hutton, who is 51, said Labour had a unique opportunity to appeal to baby boomers because it had outlawed age discrimination in the workplace, allowing them to work longer, and would boost the pensions of women in their 50s who had interrupted their careers to bring up their children.
He told Ms Blears: "I believe that David Cameron had made a major strategic error by getting his party to attack the baby boomer generation in an attempt to appeal to younger people. Cameron's strategy of trying to appear all things to all people will inevitably mean that he will try to strike a different tone at some point. But the Tories have nailed their colours to the mast with this group of voters now - we should not let him wriggle away."
Mr Hutton rejected the picture of the baby boomers painted by Mr Willetts, who suggested they were "not quite selfish" but had used their great numbers to create a world that reflected their culture and was shaped around their economic interests.
He said: "Caring more about the environment and world poverty is far from being selfish- in many ways, the baby boomers are actually the altruistic generation. It is no wonder they are hacked off by what the Tories have said."
Who are they?
There are 7.6 million 'baby boomers' in Britain, according to the Government. And they vote in large numbers - unlike younger people. The term, most commonly used in America, refers to people born during the period of increased birth rates in many Western countries after the Second World War.
The history books will say they opposed the Vietnam War, had a relaxed attitiude to sex and drugs and tried out more liberal methods of parenting. They are accused of being the "greediest generation", whose excessive consumption has speeded up the threat to the planet from climate change.
Baby boomers are symbolised by Bill Clinton, who turned 60 in August. In the United States, there are different definitions of the age group covered. Baby boomers are normally defined as those born between 1945 and 1957, with "shadow boomers" born between 1958 and 1963. Their children are known as "echo boomers."
In Britain, the turnout at last year's general election was 72 per cent among those in the 55-64 age group, compared with 61 per cent overall. Market research suggests baby boomers are lilkely to be demanding and imaginative consumers of products and services as they get older - and will refuse to be defined by their age group.Reuse content