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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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear