Mr Brown would be foolish to ignore pensioner power

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The Independent Online

Mercifully, we don't hear too much these days from New Labour about "young Britain", one of the more absurd, not to say offensive, slogans of the early days of this government. And with good reason. Ministers have, at long last, begun to wake up to the huge political potential of those at the upper end of the age range. "Grey power", a phenomenon more talked about than observed over the past decade or so, has begun to make its presence felt.

Mercifully, we don't hear too much these days from New Labour about "young Britain", one of the more absurd, not to say offensive, slogans of the early days of this government. And with good reason. Ministers have, at long last, begun to wake up to the huge political potential of those at the upper end of the age range. "Grey power", a phenomenon more talked about than observed over the past decade or so, has begun to make its presence felt.

Yesterday's demonstration in London was remarkable for a number of reasons. It was probably the first time that a prime minister's father-in-law, in the distinguished form of the actor Tony Booth, had placed himself near the head of a movement dedicated to changing government policy. Barbara Castle, as formidable as ever, and the elder statesmen Jack Jones and Rodney Bickerstaffe also provide powerful voices for senior citizens.

Nor are they the only glamorous role models. Clint Eastwood's film Space Cowboys is more than just an amusing tale of superannuated orbiting; it is but the latest example of the burgeoning economic potency of the "grey pound".

But, as the 75-year-old Tony Benn might remind us, this is about more than personalities, entertainment or marketing; it is about politics. Older voters are more likely to vote. The number of them is rising inexorably. But, crucially, polling data also reveal that, since the last general election, Labour is doing worst among the over-60s. The reasons are not hard to find. The prime one is the 75p rise in the basic pension that the Chancellor announced in his last Budget, badly sold and widely taken as an insult. Then there is the Government's attitude to funding the long-term care of the elderly - a policy that penalises those who have saved and bought their own homes by forcing them to liquidate their assets to pay for the costs of residential care (although nursing costs will be met by the state). In Scotland, the new First Minister, Henry McLeish, has indicated that he wants to revisit this. Such an initiative will be a great boost to those who want to see a more generous approach south of the border.

The image of a harsh government was reinforced at the Labour Party conference, when the leadership suffered its most telling defeat in years at the hands of the party's grass roots over pensions. While we would argue that restoring the link between pensions and earnings is ultimately unsustainable, the point here is that the idea of a government that did not want to listen to pensioners was reinforced. We would be disappointed if, in his statement today, the Chancellor was not able - while maintaining that policy - to do something extra for those pensioners who might be termed the "nearly poor". People in this group are slightly better off than some, but still find it difficult to make ends meet, their income being supplemented by perhaps a modest Serps or an occupational pension top-up to, say, £100 per week. It is time to improve their lot.

Which brings us to the most laudable aspect of grey power - that it is about voting and argument and peaceful demonstrations by those in society who are vulnerable, sometimes frail, and who have abjured the sort of intimidation employed by the bullies on the fuel-protest picket lines. The National Pensioners Convention, and pensioners generally, deserve to be listened to. We hope Mr Brown has listened.

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