George Osborne prepares to lead members of the Treasury team out of 11 Downing Street to face the media before the Budget. Photograph: Getty Images.
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George Osborne shamelessly courts the pensioner vote

The Chancellor's offer to the over-65s is rational but crude politics: they vote more than any other age group.

There is a simple explanation for the lengthy section devoted to supporting savers and pensioners at the end of George Osborne's Budget speech: they vote. In 2010, 76 per cent of the over-65s turned out, more than any other age group. If the Tories are to edge Labour in a close election next year, winning the support of this group will be crucial.

For years since the coalition was formed, Conservative MPs have been calling for the Chancellor to provide relief to the pensioners (a significant number of whom have defected to UKIP) whose savings have been hit by the "monetary activism" (ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing) he regards as necessary to support the recovery.

Today, he acted. He announced the abolition of the 10 per cent tax band on savings (taking at swipe at Labour by adding "when I abolish a 10p rate, I don't secretly turn it into a 20p rate") and the doubling of the zero pence band to £5,000, the launch of a new pensioner bond paying market rates, the removal of tax restrictions on how pensioners drawdown their savings pots, and a new "Right to Advice" for those retiring on defined contribution pensions. All of these measures were designed to match Osborne's rhetorical commitment to those who have "worked hard" and "saved" throughout their lives. His decision to exclude the state pension from the new cap on welfare spending is another show of support for this group. 

Many will rightly question his priorities. It is pensioners who have suffered the least during the long squeeze, with their benefits shielded from austerity, while the young have suffered the most. But Osborne's decision to favour the former over the latter is rational, if crude, politics. 

It is worth noting, however, that today's measures could well be a prelude to a Conservative pledge to means-test universal pensioner benefits, such as Winter Fuel Payments, free bus passes and free TV licences, in 2015. While the state pension has been excluded from the welfare cap, these payments have not. Osborne's "Budget for savers" may well be aimed at providing the Tories with the protective cover they need to execute this U-turn. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war