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John McDonnell wants to defend pensioners – but will they return the favour?

McDonnell senses a chink in the Tories' armour. 

By Julia Rampen

A 34th birthday is associated with hangovers, impending middle age – and voting Conservative. That last bit is according to YouGov, which says the age of 34 is a “tipping point” at which voters are more likely to favour the Conservatives over Labour. For every ten years older a voter is, their chance of voting Conservative rises by roughly 8 per cent, and the chance of them voting Labour decreases by 6 per cent.

Labour’s shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell (65), wants to change that. He jumped on the Tories’ manifesto plans to remove some of the generous universal benefits pensioners enjoy. At a press conference a day later, he posed beneath a Labour poster of a figure with three boxing gloves. Pensioners, McDonnell declared, are facing “a triple whammy” from Theresa May. 

McDonnell senses a chink in the Mayan armour. He spent the bulk of the press conference talking about the cuts to winter fuel allowance. “I don’t want our pensioners to be cold this winter,” he said. Means testing such a vital benefit, he argued, would make pensioners less likely to claim and cost more in terms of administrative charges. He cited Resolution Foundation prediction that 10 million pensioners would be affected.

While all but the coolest millennial cannot help but be moved by freezing pensioners, younger voters are unlikely to feel quite so sympathetic about the other policies at stake. Labour is now defending the triple lock – the pledge to raise the state pension by 2.5 per cent, the rate of inflation, or average earnings, whichever is highest. Pensioners are much more likely to own their own homes. The typical pensioner household is £20 a week better off than the typical working age household. 

In the press conference, McDonnell argued that Labour will be looking after working families by scrapping the Bedroom Tax, reinstating housing benefit for young people and other measures. Abolishing university tuition fees will be a boon for one group of young (mostly middle class) voters in particular. This is unlikely to convince young taxpayers long overdue a wage increase. 

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Still, while McDonnell’s defence of middle class pensioners may be economically wonky, it is politically astute. A poll by Old Mutual Wealth found a third of over 55s were less inclined to vote Conservative if the triple lock was at risk. And pissing off millennials is a low-risk strategy for Labour. After all, another thing goes up with your age – your likelihood of voting in the first place.