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.