We're here to fight not plead, say pensioners

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They had everything in place for the pensioners' lobby at Westminster Hall: the pensioners, the petitions, the placards, even the hastily organised portable loos outside. The only thing missing were some MPs.

They had everything in place for the pensioners' lobby at Westminster Hall: the pensioners, the petitions, the placards, even the hastily organised portable loos outside. The only thing missing were some MPs.

"He had better turn up. A lot of us have come a long way to see him, and we do have votes," said 78-year-old Audrey Stevens of her MP, Tony McNulty. "He is sitting on a majority of 9,000, so he thinks he doesn't have to bother. Well, he may have a shock coming."

That was very much the mood as grey power came to the capital yesterday. Around 1,200 people came from all parts of the country for a mass rally calling for the restoration of the link between pensions and earnings. They presented a petition at Buckingham Palace and then met Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in a spirit of defiance.

Mr Brown is expected to announce an increase of £5 a week in the basic state pension for a single person, rising to an extra £8 for couples. But the Chancellor is not, it is believed, going to link pensions and earnings.

Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, maintained that current Government policy was a better way of combating pensioner poverty than restoring the earnings link.

Ministers' long-term pensions strategy was to build on the basic state pension, encouraging more widespread and efficient second pensions, he said. "You can either give an across-the-board increase to everybody, rich and poor alike, or you can give more than an earnings link for those people who are on very low pensions."

A survey for the TUC found that 58 per cent of the public want Mr Brown to boost pensions, compared with 37 per cent who would prefer lower fuel prices.

Jack Jones, the president of the National Pensioners Convention, declared they were on their way to a famous victory. "Make no mistake, our campaign has been successful; it has had an impact on the Government and we should see that tomorrow in substantial increases. But our goal remains pensions linked to earnings."

Earlier, speaker after speaker at the rally declared they were no longer prepared to plead for a rise in their pensions, they were demanding it as their right. The numbers present, said the organisers, would have been five times greater had it not been for the havoc caused by the weather and the rail cancellations.

"But there are enough of us here to give Tony Blair a fright. He will just have to look out of his window to know the strength of feeling here," said Joey Corrigan, from Liverpool, a 69-year-old former docker and lifelong Labour supporter. "He has enough trouble on his plate without taking us on."

The tone had been set by that most combative of pensioners' champions, Baroness Castle. "Let's have a bit of fighting policy, shall we? We are not going to whinge any more. We are going to demand and we are going to fight for it," she said. "If you set your sights too low, the Chancellor will meet it. So let's raise our heads and sights high and make it legally binding for the Government to give pensioners yearly prizes."

Tony Booth, Mr Blair's father-in-law, was also present anddrew huge applause as he poured scorn on the "listening government". He said: "I am often asked if it's embarrassing that the Prime Minister's father-in-law is at a pensioners' protest. No, I'm not embarrassed at all - I'm ashamed. I'm ashamed that we are being forced to fight for our dignity, because there is no dignity in poverty."

The shadow Social Security Secretary, David Willetts, said the rally showed Gordon Brown could no longer ignore pensioners. "Pensioners have had a raw deal from this Government, but it is good to see that they are not letting Labour get away with it. Pensioners and the Conservative Party want the same thing - a decent rise in the basic state pension and that's what we have promised to deliver."

But as she stood shivering at St Stephen's Green, 74-year-old Sarah Faulkner was unconvinced by the Tories. "This is rather a late conversion, isn't it?" she said. "We don't forget that it was Thatcher who took away the link between pensions and earnings. But the reality is simply this: the 75 pence increase they gave us isn't enough for me to get a hot dog from that van."