David Cameron delivers a speech on welfare in Hove, East Sussex, on February 17, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories woo the grey vote again with pledge to protect pensioner benefits

Cameron's promise creates a new dividing line with Labour and the Lib Dems, who would means-test some payments. 

In the last year, the Tories have done nothing to disguise their intention to woo elderly voters (the most likely age group to turn out). They have introduced high-value bonds for the over-65s and have pledged to maintain the "triple-lock" on the state pension, so that it increases by the rate of inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest. 

Tomorrow, David Cameron will go further by promising to again ring-fence all universal pensioner benefits, such as the winter fuel allowance, free bus passes and free TV licences. Some senior Conservatives, such as Iain Duncan Smith, have argued that the payments should be means-tested as part of a balanced austerity programme. But Cameron has resolved that the financial savings that would be made from doing so are too small for the Tories to risk paying a political price. He also appears to have rejected a Policy Exchange proposal to force pensioners to opt-in to winter fuel payments. "Comfort, independence, companionship, health – these aren’t luxuries; they’re what people who have worked and saved all their lives deserve," he will say tomorrow. "And think what we would give up if we did take them away – the principle that if you’ve done the right thing you will get the benefits of living in Britain." The pledge means that the entirety of the promised £12bn in welfare cuts will fall on the working age population. 

The Tories' stance contrasts with that of Labour, which has pledged to remove winter fuel payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, and the Lib Dems, who would also means-test free TV licences. Conservative strategists regard their distinctive pledge to protect the benefits as an important shield against Ukip, which draws greatest support from the elderly. Cameron will portray Labour and the Lib Dems' plans as the thin end of the wedge: "The truth is this: the big savings will only come by restricting these benefits far more aggressively – or by abolishing these benefits altogether. That’s why I have to warn people – beware of politicians promising just to cut one or two of these benefits, and only by a bit. Once they have started chipping away at these benefits, believe me, before long, they’ll start getting rid of them altogether."

That the Tory move comes in the same week that Labour is expected to pledge to cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 (potentially funded through curbs on pension tax relief) sharpens the generational divide between the two parties. Labour's hope is that its offer to young people (to be published in a separate manifesto) will motivate more to turn out, while also appealing to parents and grandparents who fear for the former's future. But based on past elections, opposition MPs will fear that it's the Tories who will get most bang for their buck. 

The contrast between the treatment of young people (who saw tuition fees trebled, the Education Maintenance Allowance abolished and the Future Jobs Fund scrapped) and the elderly is, of course, another reminder that those who vote get rewarded. In 2010, 76 per cent of pensioners turned out, compared to 65 per cent of the total electorate and just 44 per cent of 16-24-year-olds. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the Democratic National Committee Chair contest became a proxy war

The two leading candidates represent the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders factions.

While in the UK this week attention has been fixed on the by-elections in Stoke-upon-Trent and Copeland, in the US political anoraks have turned their eyes to Atlanta, the capital city of the state of Georgia, and the culmination of the Democratic National Committee chairmanship election.

Democrats lost more than a President when Barack Obama left the White House - they lost a party leader. In the US system, the party out of power does not choose a solitary champion to shadow the Presidency in the way a leader of the opposition shadows the Prime Minister in the UK. Instead, leadership concentrates around multiple points at the federal, state and local level - the Senate Minority and House Minority Leaders’ offices, popular members of Congress, and high-profile governors and mayors.

Another focus is the chair of the national party committee. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the formal governing body of the party and wields immense power over its organization, management, and messaging. Membership is exclusive to state party chairs, vice-chairs and over 200 state-elected representatives. The chair sits at the apex of the body and is charged with carrying out the programs and policies of the DNC. Put simply, they function as the party’s chief-of-staff, closer to the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party than leader of the opposition.

However, the office was supercharged with political salience last year when the then-chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was exposed following a Russian-sponsored leak of DNC emails that showed her leadership favoured Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential nominee to Bernie Sanders. Schultz resigned and Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, took over as interim chair. The DNC huddled in December to thrash out procedure for the election of a permanent replacement – fixing the date of the ballot for the weekend of February 24.

The rancour of the Democratic primaries last year, and the circumstances of Schultz’s resignation, has transformed the race into a proxy war between the Clinton and Sanders factions within the party. Frontrunners Tom Perez and Keith Ellison respectively act as standard bearers for the respective camps.

Both are proven progressives with impeccable records in grassroots-based organizing. However Perez’s tenure as President Obama’s Labor Secretary and role as a Hillary booster has cast him as the establishment candidate in the race, whereas Ellison’s endorsement of the Sanders campaign in 2016 makes him the pick of the radical left.

The ideological differences between the two may be overblown, but cannot be overlooked in the current climate. The Democrats are a party seemingly at war with its base, and out of power nationwide.

Not only are they in the minority in Congress, but more than a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives come from just three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York. As if that weren’t enough, Democrats control less than a third of state legislatures and hold the keys to just sixteen governors’ mansions.

Jacob Schwartz, president of the Manhattan Young Democrats, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party in New York County, says that the incoming chair should focus on returning the party to dominance at every tier of government:

“The priority of the Democratic leadership should be rebuilding the party first, and reaching out to new voters second," he told me. "Attacking Donald Trump is not something the leadership needs to be doing. He's sinking his own ship anyway and new voters are not going to be impressed by more negative campaigning. A focus on negative campaigning was a big part of why Hillary lost.”

The party is certainly in need of a shake-up, though not one that causes the internecine strife currently bedevilling the Labour Party. Hence why some commentators favour Ellison, whose election could be seen as a peace offering to aggrieved Sanderistas still fuming at the party for undermining their candidate.

“There's something to be said for the fact that Ellison is seen as from the Bernie wing of the party, even though I think policy shouldn't be part of the equation really, and the fact that Bernie voices are the voices we most need to be making efforts to remain connected to. Hillary people aren't going anywhere, so Ellison gives us a good jumping off point overall,” says Schwartz.

Ellison boasts over 120 endorsements from federal and state-level Democratic heavyweights, including Senator Sanders, and the support of 13 labor unions. Perez, meanwhile, can count only 30 politicians – though one is former Vice-President Joe Biden – and eight unions in his camp.

However the only constituency that matters this weekend is the DNC itself – the 447 committee members who can vote. A simple majority is needed to win, and if no candidate reaches this threshold at the first time of asking additional rounds of balloting take place until a winner emerges.

Here again, Ellison appears to hold the edge, leading Perez 105 to 57 according to a survey conducted by The Hill, with the remainder split among the other candidates.

Don’t write Perez off yet, though. Anything can happen if the ballot goes to multiple rounds and the former Secretary’s roots in the party run deep. He claimed 180 DNC supporters in an in-house survey, far more than suggested by The Hill.

We’ll find out this weekend which one was closer to the mark.

Louie Woodall is a member of Labour International, and a journalist based in New York.