The politics column - Martin Bright says don't ignore the baby boomers

Baby boomer voters, who will be 50 or over at the next election and who turn out in large numbers, h

Labour is beginning to map out its nightmare landscape of a Conservative resurgence coupled with the disintegration of its own coalition. Labour's "spring" conference - a bleak prospect in mid-February Blackpool - marks the first gathering of the clans since the election of the first credible Tory leader for more than a decade. The venue adds a twist: this is the very place where, thanks to a single speech, David Cameron was catapulted from young also-ran to favourite.

Fear about the future is tangible: it is difficult to steer Labour politicians off the subject of Cameron. Where Downing Street and Old Queen Street initially urged a cautious "wait-watch-and-listen"approach, three months on the counter-attack has begun in earnest. Now the Blairite loyalist group Progress is launching a pamphlet setting out how the party should counter the revitalised Tories. The booklet, Power to the People, contains pithy attacks on Cameron from two new-generation MPs, Liam Byrne and James Purnell. In another mark of respect for the new Conservative leader, the Prime Minister's chief adviser on strategy, Matthew Taylor, breaks cover with an essay of his own.

Byrne provoked outrage when he suggested on the eve of last autumn's conference that Labour should resist the temptation to move off the centre ground. He was dismissive of the idea of chasing the votes of "urban intellectuals". His analysis, which showed that the Tories were in second place in all but 12 of Labour's 88 most vulnerable marginals, provided a serious challenge to those eager to ditch Tony Blair's legacy. Byrne now argues that the government must take the battle to Cameron's self-styled "caring Conservatives" by challenging them on their new commitment to public services, especially the NHS. Will they commit to Labour's levels of funding? If they abandon targets will they also abolish the commitment to reducing waiting times? What is their strategy for tackling health inequality?

Purnell points to the choice of the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood to head various policy groups. "It's as if Neil Kinnock had put George Galloway, Derek Hatton and Arthur Scargill in charge of the 1987 policy review." For his part, Taylor does not mention the new Tory leader, but Cameron's presence is implicit even in this essay defending the government's public service reforms. Taylor's belief, echoing Blair's, that the government should welcome the Tories' conversion to its reform agenda, rings increasingly hollow.

Labour may have been slow in waking up to the challenge of a newly strengthened opposition, but May's local elections beckon alarmingly. Blair looks increasingly like a man who has lost control of his party. Yet there is a danger that the party is becoming caught in the Cameron headlights. There are other issues, at least as urgent, to be considered. Schools reform has divided Labour like no issue since Iraq. Even though the Prime Minister has in recent days finally sought a compromise rather than face the humiliation of passing the legislation with Tory support, the wounds are raw.

Earlier this month a report by Age Concern slipped out almost unnoticed. Its conclusions should have a significant impact on the way the next election is fought. The findings of Winning in 2009 provide the government with a greater longer-term challenge than the Cameron honeymoon. An analysis of so-called baby boomer voters, who will be 50 or over at the next election and who usually turn out in large numbers, shows that no party won their allegiance in 2005.

This group, which voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Blair in 1997, now believes that Britain has lost political leadership across the spectrum.

Oddly, the research does offer the government grounds for hope. Many concerns expressed by the boomers - over pensions, healthcare, public services - are classic Labour territory. Fears for their financial security also suggest they are likely to stick with what they know rather than opting for change. Age Concern has been invited into the Treasury and the Department of Health to discuss its findings, so there are signs, at ministerial level at least, that the message may be getting through.

Even though baby boomers will hold the key to the 2009 election, the issue has yet to resonate within Labour ranks. The party might, however, take solace that the issue has permeated even less among Conservatives, who are still reinventing themselves to appeal to voters under 30, the so-called Generation Xers. Cameron's conversion to environmentalism and the fight against world poverty may be a mistaken choice of priorities.

One statistic speaks volumes: in 2005 over-55s made up 40 per cent of those who voted, while 18- to 24-year-olds constituted a mere 7 per cent of those who turned out to vote.

If it is serious about winning the next election, Labour might spend less time obsessing about one confident young man in his late thirties, and more time reassuring 17 million baby boomers.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Iran: the next war