4th March 2016
THE UNGRATEFUL ONES
I belong to a cult, a dangerous and growing cult that threatens the existence of the Labour Party. I talk of course of the cult that is the over 65s. We are everywhere. On public transport (after 9.30am obviously); we sit in Costa and Starbucks and other coffee houses; we are in the park with our grandchildren; we hang out in the shopping malls; despite rumours to the contrary many of us still work. Those with the inclination and resources go to the golf club. But many others, mainly dependent on the state pension, struggle to make ends meet.
But whatever else we do – we vote. We vote early and we vote often. Not for us the mantra that politicians are all the same and are just in it for themselves. Our parents drummed into us the importance of voting as we learnt about those who had sacrificed much and even given their lives to secure universal suffrage. The current problem for Labour is that our cult votes Conservative. The most recent ComRes poll had Labour trailing in third place behind UKIP amongst over 65s.
Now, if any thrusting young Corbynistas think we are irrelevant because we decline with age and then die off, I have bad news. Our numbers are increasing. In 1971 the over 65s made up just 20% of the electorate but by 2020 that will have risen to 33%. The baby boomers born between 1940 and 1960 are now proud grey panthers marching towards retirement.
There are more worrying numbers for those who wish to ignore the grey vote: 94% of over 65s register to vote and 76% actually voted in 2015. The numbers for the 18 to 24 age range are 55% registered and 44% voted. This should be enough to force a rethink by those in Labour ranks who favour the young persons plus non-voters route to victory. To rub further salt in the wound Labour’s vote amongst the over 65s fell by 8% while the Tories rose by 3%. (www.if.org.uk)
We were the generation that had it all. We were born into the National Health Service and we took full advantage of Attlee’s universal and free at the point of need health care. If we fell on hard times because of unemployment or ill health Attlee’s welfare state looked after us until we could get on our feet again. Disability, retirement and chronic ill health no longer became passports into destitution. We even had help with funeral costs. We were indeed looked after from the cradle to the grave. We willingly paid in according to our means and took out according to our needs.
We were the first generation to send our children to university almost as a matter of routine with the state helping with the costs.
Going back further we oversaw the liberalisation of censorship in the early 1960s and supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality and suicide. If it was not for us Lady Chatterley’s Lover may have never made it to W H Smith.
When Blair came along we supported civil partnership, the national minimum wage, human rights and welcomed the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes made available to help us as we grew older.
Are we grateful? Do we flock to the polls to say thank you to Attlee, Wilson and Blair for all their governments did for us?
No fear! We vote Tory in ever greater numbers.
Labour has an over 65s problem. Despite having a leader from our age group the party has little to say to us. Where was the offer to the over 65s in the 2015 election?
While Labour dithered the Tories were up to their armpits in attractive-sounding offers. We may be in the age of austerity but the state pension, free TV licences, bus passes and winter fuel allowance were exempt from cuts. This might be cynical politics but it is also effective politics.
Labour needs to focus properly on the over-65 vote. We need to take them seriously, recognise their concerns and we need to respond.
The place to start is with the language. We are not a set of negative common nouns. We need to get away from the lazy media stereotypes of tea dances, care homes, walkers and swollen ankles.
Do Ken Livingstone or Jeremy Corbyn look as if they are ready for a care home? The over 65s should not be categorised as bed blockers or as a set of problems. Over 65s are as diverse a group as any in the population and we need to address them as an opportunity and not as a problem.
The over 65s are mostly patriotic, royalist and support the military. They are, in the main, socially liberal but economically conservative. They take a keen interest in public transport and consumer rights. They tend to be less enthusiastic about the EU but pro-Trident. Their top priority at the last election was deficit reduction. On balance they would prefer a police officer to shoot an armed terrorist rather than have a negotiation.
Some of this is difficult territory for Labour and for Corbyn in particular. Disbanding NATO, abandoning Trident, chatting to Argentina about the Falklands, flying pickets and all the other flotsam from the 1980s are no more relevant to this age group than to any other. Like the majority of the electorate they do not think Labour lost in 2015 because it was not left wing enough. It was just not relevant to them.
There is a real opportunity here. If Labour can listen seriously and respond appropriately there is a large group of loyal and reliable voters to be found. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to ignore.
By Keith Nieland