Parties fight it out for vital 'grey voters'

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The three main parties were vying for the "grey vote" with Labour claiming that Gordon Brown's Budget sweeteners would reach almost three million more pensioners than the Tories' proposals.

The grey voters are being wooed as never before because they could hold the key to the outcome of the general election.

According to figures from the House of Commons library, women aged 60 and over and men over 55 will make up almost half of the electorate by May - 49.3 per cent - and that 80 per cent are likely to vote.

The Liberal Democrats and Labour accused the Tories of focusing their appeal on their core vote, the better-off pensioners who stand to gain the most from the Conservatives' council discounts. Labour privately admitted it was being hurt on the doorsteps by the Tory offer of up to £500 off the highest council tax bills each year for five years.

"It's not making any difference in the opinion polls, but it is a factor on the doorsteps according to our canvassing," said one senior Labour strategist. Frank Field, the former pensions minister, said the offer of up to £2,500 was the "biggest bribe since the anti-corruption Act under Gladstone".

A key Tory strategist said Conservative polling showed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had failed to make an impact with the grey vote before the Budget. "Normally Blair and Brown appeal to different audiences, but they don't offset each other with the older voters.

"Blair's big mistake was Cool Britannia and courting youth and pop stars. They have made the pensioners feel, 'We don't fit into Tony Blair's Britain'. He got heckled at the Women's Institute. And pensioners also remember that Gordon Brown increased the state pension by only 75p in 1999. That was a terrible mistake for the Government." Pensioners' groups criticised the Chancellor for not putting more money into raising the state pension for all.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, the independent analysts, said it was "hard to see" how the Budget plans for a £200 cut in council tax was worth more than the Tory or Liberal Democrat proposals. Mike Brewer, the director of tax and welfare at the IFS, said: "The Government's proposals may benefit more pensioners but it is hard to see how they are worth more than those of the other parties."

The Tories and the Liberal Democrats believe Gordon Brown's obsession with targeting aid is his Achilles heel. Downing Street also has been sceptical about the Chancellor's preference for complicated means-tested tax credits rather than universal benefits that also help middle England.

Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has hinted that after the election he will be seeking to put more emphasis on the basic state pension for all. Mr Johnson wants more help for women who have lost out on the state pension because they have not kept up their "stamps" on national insurance contributions while they have taken time off from work to raise their families.

The Liberal Democrats estimated 1.2 million pensioners do not claim the Chancellor's pension credit and say Mr Brown's cut in council tax fails to match their offer to pensioners who need a lift in the basic universal state pension.

"It's really important not to patronise pensioners with gimmicks like subsidised incontinence trousers," said a Liberal Democrat strategist.

Charles Kennedy, the party leader, said: "The Chancellor still has done nothing to fundamentally fix this tax. Under our plans, six million pensioners will not pay local income tax and an average single pensioner will benefit by £209 a year."