Grey power can hold the key to Tory revival hopes

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The Independent Online

If the Internet bubble bursts during the course of today's predicted stock market meltdown, few tears will be shed by the old and the worldly wise for the paper millionaires and individual thirtysomething home traders pouring over their massive losses. Millions of pensioners worked for 40 years in banks and traditional blue chip corporations and retired with modest investments in boring national savings, building society deposits and fixed rate annuities. Who can blame them if they now have a quiet chuckle at the expense of the get-rich-quick merchants whose fingers are burning badly this morning?

Labour politicians who have become associated with the fool's gold of the Internet dot.coms will, hopefully, also get their comeuppance as they count the cost of their political investment in all things new, Internet and young. Tony Blair will live to regret the day he made much of Britain being a "young country". So far as votes are concerned, Britain is middle- aged and getting older.

Today is Labour's black Monday when grey power reasserts itself as older and wiser heads realise that long-term savings based on real profits in the real economy should be nurtured and encouraged. Labour will rue the day when it forgot about pensioner power and gave up, as Peter Mandelson has reportedly advised, on chasing the votes of the elderly. According to one report, Mr Mandelson and the Labour focus groups feel there is "no mileage to be had from pensioners". Even in the 1997 General Election 44 per cent of pensioners voted Conservative compared with 34 per cent Labour.

Mr Mandelson has heatedly denied ever giving this advice. But the sentiments ring all too true of a party that, despite the bribes of a pounds 150 winter fuel allowance and free television licences for the over 75s, has sacrificed the pensioner vote by the insult of amiserable 75p per week state pension increase

Nothing could be a greater miscalculation and provide the Tories with an easier basis for electoral recovery. Since their election defeat, the Conservatives tried, unsuccessfully, to re-connect with the "youth vote". Even now some of them, because of focus group findings, are wanting to throw their lot in with "Florida woman" - the aspirational young mother who desires family holidays in Disney World. But since the Party suffers from the impression of being stuffed with activists whose average age is 64 it must surely be more sensible to capitalise on the pensioner vote, which could become its greatest electoral asset next year.

With 10 million pensioners getting browned off with meagre tax treatment on their incomes, savings and pensions William Hague, the Tory leader, could make an electoral virtue out of necessity by embracing a huge block of retired voters who are most likely to turn out at election time, who assiduously study the election leaflets which most of us chuck in the bin.

They are also about to be joined by the first of the post-war baby boomers now confronting the prospect of early retirement. The "nearly grey", as well as the grey, are thinking more about the security of their pension funds as they consider maybe 30 years ahead of enforced leisure. As they wonder if they have the resources to sustain their old age they have had their fill of New Labour and are in a naturally conservative mood.

These "nearly grey" voters are rumbling Gordon Brown's stealth taxes which removed the extra tax free age allowances from those who became 65 last week and which plundered pension funds by the removal of advance corporation tax advantages two years ago. They are the voters who were most upset by the removal of the popular Pep and Tessa saving schemes and are ripe for being seduced by an openly "grey" political party.

Michael Portillo, the Tory Shadow Chancellor, hinted yesterday that he has begun to recognise the potential of the grey vote to build a bridgehead for the Tories' long march back to office. Speaking on breakfast television he recognised the open goal that Mr Brown has created by discouraging long-term savings. Mr Portillo said that the Chancellor has "actually made people reduce the amount of savings that they have".

The Shadow Chancellor also became the first major politician to spell out that if you don't have money to lose, there are parts of the stock exchange where you should not be risking your money. He hinted that the Tories might be thinking of making a major policy pitch in favour of honest thrift with enhanced tax advantages to encourage traditional savings.

So much investment in the froth of the stock market appears to have been undertaken by the mortgaging of real homes and assets, with little warning from our political masters. So it was a welcome intervention by a senior politician of Mr Portillo's stature to spell out a traditional and Conservative message on savings and investments. This message will strike a chord with the grey voters who feel they have been forgotten and ignored in the current frenzy of the "new economy".

Pensioner power at the polls will also be energised by the closure of sub-post offices and banks. Although this trend is likely to continue with the increasing number of benefit and pension payments made through the automated bank giro credit system, the Tories (who don't altogether have clean hands themselves) have nevertheless recognised the electoral possibilities of reinforcing their appeal to retired people.

Edward Leigh, a former junior DTI minister in the last Conservative government, a right-winger and would-be privatiser of the Royal Mail, has suggested an unashamed subsidy to retain sub-post offices.

Health is also finally an issue which the Tories can now make some capital on behalf of the elderly. As pensioners learned last week of a growing number of horror stories regarding the "do not resuscitate" hospital notes about themselves and their spouses there was a sense of anger and betrayal at Labour's National Health Service promises.

Hitherto, Labour had traded successfully on pensioners' concerns about the NHS but these revelations have created a spectacular own goal and betrayed the trust of elderly voters. If the Tories can expose this aspect of the health debate they could restore their reputation as the party for the elderly.

Retired people as a voter force are rarely targeted as a high-profile group. The pressure is invariably on prospective candidates at selection meetings to answer "what will you do to win us the youth vote?" I say stop chasing the youth vote. It doesn't vote for anyone anyway since it is the most apathetic group. Grey power is where the votes are.

"Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" is a growing force which still reads election literature from cover to cover, writes to his or her MP regularly, reads every word in the newspaper and still regards voting as a civic duty. Since, Mr Hague, you and most of your party are bald or grey why not, unashamedly, embrace the aspirations of the retired and the nearly retired. These are millions of votes which the Labour Party seems prepared to forsake.