Capturing the grey vote

Politicians cannot afford to overlook the 17 million "older voters" in this election.

With the 2010 election just weeks away, politicians and pollsters will be looking very carefully at one group no party can afford to overlook in this delicate power struggle -- the 17 million "older voters" in the 55-plus age bracket.

The over-65s will hold the majority in five constituencies across Britain and will form 40 per cent of the turnout in 102 constituencies. The shift in the age profile of the electorate is even more pronounced if the focus moves to the over-55s, who will account for the majority of votes cast in 319 seats.

The ageing electorate will also have a significant impact in the marginals. Over-55s will form the majority of votes cast in 94 seats where the incumbent MP holds a majority of fewer than 5,000 votes. With the Labour Party going into the election with a majority of 63 seats, it could lose its majority in the House of Commons if it forfeits its 38 "grey marginals".

In 35 of these seats, the Conservative candidate finished in second place at the last election. So, if the Conservative Party can win in these seats, it could overturn the government's majority. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the "grey vote" may decide the outcome of the general election.

 

Fightback

What are the issues these vast numbers of people will be voting on? Age UK's "Our Power is Our Number" general election campaign highlighted five main election calls on which older people repeatedly say they want to see progress -- respect, support, money, health, participation.

Unless the government confronts today's attitudes to age, we all risk marginalisation and disrespect as we grow old. If no action is taken, a fifth of people will be consigned to poverty in old age.

After years of political neglect, our care system is crumbling and families are coming under ever greater pressure. Older people are suffering ill-health for longer and the National Health Service is ill-equipped to respond.

Unfortunately, clear policy solutions to this problem have been overshadowed by the political rows that have erupted over it. Labour's alleged plans for a "death tax", forcing people to pay £20,000 from their estate to pay for care costs, were leapt upon by Conservatives, who launched a controversial "RIP off" poster campaign against it.

The tables turned, however, when Andrew Lansley refused to attend a care conference organised by the Labour Health Secretary, Andy Burnham. The move was widely criticised as blocking a unique opportunity to form a cross-party consensus on this difficult issue. Fearing further backlash from the media, charities and voters, all the parties committed to a round-table discussion on the issue, hosted by Age Concern and Help the Aged.

Amid the cross-fire, what concrete proposals have crystallised? This year the Liberal Democrats were forced to rein back on their "free personal care for all" and a citizen's pension "until they become affordable again", though they recently announced funding for a week's respite to a million carers.

The Tories proposed the eye-catching "home protection scheme", a voluntary one-off charge of £8,000 paid at 65 which would waive residential care fees for life. Questions have been raised about whether the numbers stack up, considering that residential care costs roughly £25,000 a year, and whether people would bother taking out such a policy.

Labour has fought back with the Free Personal Care at Home Bill for people with the highest care needs, and its National Care Service remains a serious aspiration. It has also proposed three care funding options -- a means-tested scheme under which everyone would get some help, an insurance-backed scheme and an inheritance levy, all of which will become clearer in a forthcoming white paper.

 

Warning signal

While the debate about funding for care is important, politicians need to accept that support for any funding proposal will be limited unless the quality of care improves. Widespread reform of the entire system must be a priority for the next party in power.

As well as paying for care, with 45 per cent of pensioner couples and 73 per cent of single pensioners receiving over half their income from state pensions and benefits, having enough money to live on remains a concern for most people in later life. In recent years, the number of pensioners living below the poverty line has remained stubbornly still at about 20 per cent. One way of raising pensioner incomes would be by relinking the basic state pension with earnings. Although the three main parties have committed to doing this, all have been cagey about when exactly this will happen.

The main pensioner benefits, including the Winter Fuel Allowance (WFA) and Freedom Travel Pass, appear to be under protection from the spending squeeze for now, but the Conservatives have not guaranteed the levels at which they would set WFA. To start making a real difference, all the parties must commit to automaticising the benefits system to ensure that more older people get the money they are entitled to.

While all the parties have so far resisted cutting pensioner benefits, all remain under pressure to fill the black hole of public debt. One way the Conservatives have proposed to do this is through increasing state pension age over and above current reforms, beginning this year.

While a proportion of older people want to and need to continue working for longer, moving the retirement goalposts is a frightening prospect for many others, particularly those whose working lives have been cut short by illness and disability.

It still remains unclear which of the parties is seriously committed to improving later life. This should send a clear warning signal to politicians, and not only because failing to harness the power of older voters will undermine any party's chance of success at the election.

Our ageing population presents one of the biggest social policy challenges of our time and must be the lens through which politicians and all parties view their ideas for the future. As well as the challenges, living longer holds huge potential for our society in the 21st century, potential that politicians today have the opportunity to unlock.

So by standing up for later life and meeting the needs of older people today, politicians will not only be at the forefront of tackling one of the biggest global transitions, they will also help create a lasting legacy for generations to come. In the important weeks ahead, politicians need to look carefully at whether the policies in their manifestos can deliver this.

Michelle Mitchell is charity director of Age Concern and Help the Aged

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.