Rooker scuttles off after a bruising encounter with singing pensioners

The anthems are usually reserved for the finale at party political conferences in Blackpool's Winter Gardens but the pensioners treated the Social Security minister Jeff Rooker to an early rendition before he appeared in front of them. It was a jingle for the Secretary of State for Social Security, Alistair Darling, and would not have sounded harmonious to his junior minister.

To the tune of "Oh My Darling Clemantine", an audience of at least 1,000 at the fifth annual Pensioners' Convention burst into: "Oh my darling, oh.., oh.. Alistair/ We're in action for decent pensions/ And improvements in health. Talk to Gordon, talk to Tony, talk to all the Cabinet/ Tell them we're a growing movement/And they ain't see nothing yet."

Mr Rooker did not linger for last night's pensioners' ball, for which "Who do you think you are killing Mr Rooker?" was also apparently being prepared. Encountering a scale of fury which he did not seem to have anticipated, here, over the Government's 75p minimum pensions increase and refusal to link them to earnings, he twice needed the convention president Jack Jones to rescue him from slow handclaps before scuttling back down south.

It was an old-fashioned ambush, and Mr Rooker will now know why this new, militant force is fast earning the soubriquet of "the Saga louts".

As the minister arrived in shirt-sleeved, Tom Perkins, a gentle and courteous 70-year-old, combed his hair back and took a deep breath before talking pension statistics with him. Molly Harman had spent nine and a half hours on the bus from Great Yarmouth to Blackpool on Sunday in the hope of telling Mr Rooker that the free TV licences he has granted to the over-75s are no use when you're 69 and "might be dead before you get them".

Unwisely, Mr Rooker had provided advance copies of his speech. The pensioners called in economic analysts to dissect it and prepare a detailed crib-sheet for delegates.

When he started speaking, he barely got through the jokes before the first slow handclap began. The minister soldiered on with an old-fashioned socialist message: the greatest pension increases must be reserved for the poor. "It might be a dirty word for some people but that's what socialism is all about," he said, but his statistics showing how the gap between poorest and richest pensioners increased under the Tories were engulfed in more handclaps.

Mr Jones reminded the pensioners that most of them were "good working people who give a good hearing and expect a generous one back".

Mr Rooker made a valiant fist of things and his impromptu Birmingham grammar won a clap from the working folk. "When I started off in a boiler suit I was not entitled to a company pension," he said. "They were for them in the offices." His party had put all that right.

"Give us back some dignity," said one of the most eloquent questioners, a Pakistani. "Why do you think we abstained from voting last week?" More than the anthems and the handclaps, his words cut to the quick.

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