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.
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.
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