John Curtice: A clamourous interest group that is too big to ignore

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The Independent Online

As usual, Gordon Brown left the most headline-grabbing feature of his Budget until last. In the wake of the Tories' proposals that council tax bills for pensioners should be halved, he announced he would knock £200 off every pensioners' council tax bill for the next year. The battle for the grey vote has been duly joined.

It is little wonder older voters are being courted so strongly. The over-65s alone constitute about a fifth of the adult population, up three points on 30 years ago. Those 55 or over account for more than one in three of all adults. Such a group cannot be ignored.

And older voters are more likely to vote. In our NOP poll last week, more than 70 per cent of those 55 and over said they were certain to vote; less than a third of those 35 and under said they would. At the last election, those over 65 were twice as likely to have voted than were those aged 18 to 24. So those 55 and over could constitute two in five of all who vote in May.

Older voters also have distinct interests. They want to hear what the parties have to say about crime and pensions. Older people may not be the most common victims of crime, but they often feel more vulnerable to it. And most are, or soon will be, relying on a pension as their main source of income.

Many of them have adult children, so education is a less pressing priority. Mr Blair's one-time mantra of "education, education, education" was never the most appealing message for older voters.

And Labour does find it more difficult to win votes among older voters. In our NOP poll, the party was three points behind the Conservatives among over-55s despite being five points ahead among the electorate as a whole. Labour's weakness among older voters appears no greater now than it did four years ago, but Mr Blair's prospects for a safe overall majority would look a lot more secure if he could close the gap somewhat.

Some older voters are probably beyond his reach. They will not have voted Labour all their lives and will not break the habit now. But others sympathetic to Labour need their enthusiasm sustained. Mostly, these are the less well-off for whom the state pension is a lifeline.

Mr Brown's measures were targeted at this group. Compared with the Tories' proposals, more of his council tax cut will go to less well-off pensioners. And, by promising to increase the pension credit in line with earnings, he again concentrated his largesse on those with the lowest incomes. How grateful they will be remains to be seen.

John Curtice is professor of politics, Strathclyde University