Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Spotlight
  2. Elections
22 February 2015updated 24 Feb 2015 12:32am

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. 

By George Eaton

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. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.