Tory takes a mauling from the politest people

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The Independent Online
THE good nature and natural good manners of the 600 pensioners did not take long to reassert itself after they had booed, hissed and heckled the Tory speaker who had dared to defend the Government's record.

The statement by Ross Coates, a 39-year-old solicitor and a member of the Conservative Political Committee, that 'you are considerably better off under a Conservative government', was greeted with much derision. Cries of 'rubbish', 'get off' and a slow handclap met further provocative remarks such as 'we are totally committed to you and your generation', and 'we have increased pensions in line with prices'.

It was clear that the experience of the members of the Suffolk and Norfolk Pensioners' Associations did not match Mr Coates's statistics. They simply did not believe him. But, a few minutes, later, a collective guilt of possible rudeness to an invited guest began to take hold. By the end of the rally in a Lowestoft sports centre on Saturday, Mr Coates was being praised for his 'guts' at venturing into the lion's den.

Such divergent attitudes among pensioners cut across normal political divides for people whose formative experiences were the Second World War and the creation of the welfare state.

The views of Jack Thain, 72, general secretary of the National Pensioners' Convention, are typical. A former Tory party member, his devastating attack on the Government earned him a standing ovation from representatives of the 50,000 association members in Norfolk and Suffolk. He appealed to patriotism in bemoaning the collapse of manufacturing industry: 'We built the best machine tools. We built the best cars, the best motorbikes, the best ships and dug the best coal.'

He praised other past achievements of his generation, the formation of the National Health Service, the fight for democracy. 'The NHS is not British any longer. It's being run by small groups of people unelected by anyone . . ,' he said.

And he bit hard against suggestion that pensioners were not entitled to a better way of life against the perceived greed of those able to award themselves healthy pay rises, such as MPs and directors of the former public utilities.

'We are not asking for the world. We are not asking for what captains of industry pay themselves,' he said. 'We want dignity and decency and don't want to have to go the DSS to get it.'

The meeting's affection for Jack Jones, 80, the former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, who has campaigned tirelessly for pensioners since his retirement in 1978, was overwhelming.

He ridiculed the 25p extra 'age allowance' received in pension on his 80th birthday, and said the pounds 10 Christmas bonus would need to be pounds 70 to have kept pace with inflation, and that a married couple would had lost pounds 30 a week since the link between pensions and average earnings was broken by Margaret Thatcher in 1981.

'Taking from the pensioners and giving to the millionaires is like Robin Hood in reverse,' he said to even more warm applause.

Gerald Marsh, 72, a former builder and chairman of Gorleston ward Tories near Lowestoft, confirmed the meeting's view that standards of living were slipping. 'Every year the money to spare for the little extras gets less and less,' he said. 'Whatever you say about the cost of living, the pounds 1 extra we are going to receive is never going to cover the increases.'

The faith of other Tory and former Tories had also been shaken by their experiences as pensioners. They were frustrated that politicians were ignoring them. 'They do not listen, they will not listen,' Mr Thain said. 'The reason they are not listening is that they don't want to know'.