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Gary Younge
Grey power bites back

Deep down a government as poll conscious and image-obsessed as this one must have always known that. But when it expressed its determination to keep the pension index-linked it was more than just a mathematical calculation. There was political arithmetic there too. Labour figured that a sizeable number of pensioners would not vote for it anyway and the rest would have little choice but to continue doing so, because the alternatives are worse.

The trouble is the government got its sums wrong. The numbers were crunched on the understanding that older people are capable of complaining but not fighting back. It had become trapped in a paradigm of patronage which understands pensioners at worst as burdens on the public purse and at best as victims of vagaries ranging from bad weather to street crime.

It is not a mindset particular to Labour. As the bunting unfolds and the guest list is drawn up for the Queen Mother's 100th birthday party, it is a view that will underpin a national obsession. Strip away the patriotic paraphernalia and you are left with a popular figurehead of an unpopular family who derives her support from the fact that she is old and therefore people think she doesn't really matter. The nation will coo at her frailty and marvel at the very resilience of her years but they do not expect her to say or do anything but wave and smile. We may be her subjects; but she is our object.

But to regard pensioners as recipients of, rather than agents within, the political process is at worst patronising and at best naive. "The only time you see old people in the papers is when they've got a black eye and they've just been mugged," says 82-year-old Peggy Jones. "But we're not after sympathy. We're after a decent income, proper healthcare, and a good transport system. We want what everybody else wants."

Peggy, who lives in Brighton, belongs to a pensioners' group which organises meetings and lobbies everyone from MPs and councillors to bus companies and health boards about pensioner's demands. Attendance at their monthly meetings occasionally hits 100, but is more often between 30 and 40 a time. "It's not huge numbers," says Isla Robertson, 67. "But it's a far better turnout that you get at most Labour party meetings." Isla and Peggy are part of a growing movement that any political party ignores at its peril. In America they have earned the name the Grey Panthers; throughout Europe they are labelled as the advocates of grey power. But demographically, politically and economically, it is a global force that has come of age.

Pensioners make up one quarter of the nation's electorate; within a few decades it will be more like a third. Moreover, they are more likely to vote than almost any other group. They may not all be radical; but many, if not most, are angry and are feeling bitterly disappointed by this government. This is the generation who helped build the welfare state and are now being told they are a burden upon it. It will soon include many who were politicised during the 60s. Not all of their criticisms of this government are necessarily fair. But politics isn't fair. Labour has offered pensioners what it thinks they need rather than what pensioners have said they want. Now they are being punished.

At the last pensioners' parliament in Blackpool, attended by more than 2,000 delegates and organised by the lobby group the National Pensioner's Convention, dissidents argued for direct action, sit-ins and for their vote conditional on Labour returning the link between pensions and average male earnings. They remain a minority but their numbers, like their frustration, is growing. And they are not going to shut up for the price of a cup of tea and a pat on the head.

Labour found this out the hard way during last month's local elections. Three quarters of the Labour councillors who lost their seats in last month's local elections said pensioners, angry at the miserly increase, had largely contributed to their defeat. Until then the government responded to pensioners by doing what it always does when criticised by those who expect more. It presents a list of all it has done, and expects scales to fall from the eyes of the detractors and gratitude to come rolling in.

"Every time I write to my local MP," says Robertson, "they tell me all the things I should be thankful for - the heating allowance, the free eye tests, waiving the TV licence fee and all of that. But I don't want concessions. I don't want charity. I want a decent income so I can be independent."

Now a government which has started its life rebranding both Britain and itself as young and trendy, has been forced to redirect its message. Within 10 days of the local elections the social security secretary, Alistair Darling, was calling for more positive images of older people in the media. The chancellor now plans to up the pension next month by between £2 and £3, regardless of inflation. William Hague, sensing an Achilles' heel, has been throwing around spending commitments like confetti. The substance of his offers - which are flimsy, particularly given the Tories' record on pensioners while in government - is not as important as the fact of them. Older people are on the agenda.

They are not, in Britain at least, yet setting the agenda. Experience from Europe and America suggests that it will not be long before they start doing so. In the key swing state of Florida pensioners are a crucial constituency. In 1994 parties representing the elderly won seats in parliament in both the Netherlands and Luxembourg and more than 100,000 votes in Belgium. By the end of the decade most of these groups had split or faded. But British pensioners can learn as much from their fall as their rise. Most of these parties collapsed for the same reasons that most pressure groups of this kind do. Pensioners may be be united by age but they are divided by class, gender, race or region. Once the main parties had incorporated the principal demands of pensioners into their manifestos the need for separate parties became obsolete.

But they forced their demands into the mainstream by uniting around a common cause and remaining independent. At present British pensioners remain divided between charities, consumer groups and campaigning organisations which have links with Labour which are too close to exercise any real political leverage. Politicians have only just begun to realise the potential of grey power; British pensioners, have so far, only just begun to capitalise on it.

gary.younge@theguardian.com

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