Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Beyond the free bus pass

Labour must be alive to older voters or it will be dead in the water

—Labour is still coming to terms with its new identity after the landslide victory of Jeremy Corbyn. Without doubt, Corbyn has activated a base of left-leaning activists. His followers have been enthusiastic, and some, an estimated 12 per cent, are young.

This should bode well for the renewal of Labour’s base of active members. Engaging young people is important. Winning most votes among young people is welcome, as I am sure Labour will in 2020.

But it does not change the fundamentals of Britain’s electoral arithmetic.

Sadly, young people are only young for a while. But older people are ‘older’ for the rest of their lives. And Britain’s population is getting older. The number of people over 65 has increased by half since the mid-1970s. And the simple truth is that older voters decided the outcome of the general election, as they have for several elections.

By 2020, according to excellent research published by the Fabian Society, the majority of voters will be over 55. Or, put another way, there will be 1.1 million more over-65s and 80,000 fewer aged 18-24. Add to this that older voters are the most stable of the population (they move less often), have the highest registration, 95 per cent, and the highest turnout by some distance, 78 per cent in May, and Labour’s task becomes more obvious.

While it is a welcome prospect that people live longer, it is far from welcome that Labour got hammered among the over-65s. Our share of the vote in 2015 was just 23 per cent. Tory support was over twice that, 47 per cent.

Even when we look at all over-55s, Labour still only received 26 per cent to the Tories’ 43 per cent. That fact, that bald statistic, illustrates why David Cameron, not Ed Miliband, is in Downing Street. And at the next election, an extra 850,000 ‘silver votes’ will be cast.

Put bluntly, if Labour cannot reverse this situation, and win a substantial share of the vote among older voters, it cannot win – or even come close to winning – a general election.

So what is to be done?

First, Labour needs to broaden its message. Too often Labour thinks the only thing to talk to pensioners about are the NHS, social care and bus passes. Ten years ago we talked about winter fuel payments, but the shine has worn off that.

This fundamentally misunderstands what it means to be ‘old’ or ‘retired’. It is changing. The silver voters are not overwhelmingly dependent, with one foot in the grave. They are more affluent than ever (although pensioner poverty and loneliness are not to be ignored). They are more active than ever. They travel more. They own more of their homes outright and provide the majority of active citizens. Yes, they may have the time, but more still work beyond retirement, and they drive our community organisations and charities.

Older voters are not deferential, have high expectations of public services, and have ambitions for their own lives in retirement.

In our 13 years in power, we transformed the lives of millions of pensioners, so that today, for the first time in history, pensioners are less likely to live in poverty than the working age population.

This growing group of voters still have hopes and dreams far beyond being the permanent babysitter or the default carer for their elderly relatives. They worry about their own quality of life, as well as that of their wider family network.

Labour needs to break out of the mindset of seeing older voters only in terms of health, care and dependency. The party that owns the future tends to win elections. Older voters have futures too.

So one of Labour’s challenges is to stop over-segmenting voters, offering too narrow a message out of step with the diversity of older voters, and instead begin to address their wider concerns about their multigenerational family, their neighbourhood, and their life choices.

As this group grows ever more influential, so the related issues of savings and inheritance grow in significance. Without endorsing their policies, it is possible to observe that the Tories foresaw this and began to offer incentives and new choices over pensions, savings and inheritance taxes. The detail aside, many pensioners clearly thought: ‘At least someone is thinking about our future.’

Labour needs to get its head in the game and wake up to the political concerns of older voters or we will be dead in the water in 2020.


Caroline Flint MP is a former shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change


Photo: Stephan Rebernik

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Caroline Flint MP

is Labour MP for Don Valley and a former Europe minister and former home office minister


  • An important sector of the population, some of whose interests Labour has served well in the past. I am concerned that we may not have capitalised on this potential support in the past and wonder why. But mostly I would seek from the author what we can be specifically doing as the article stops at the point where it should start. The general statement that, “{Labour}…. should break out of its mindset as seeing the old as……….” It is the statement of what we should be specifically doing that is the most valuable and at that point the article stops.

  • As one of those mature citizens who left the labour party after 45 years, i may be able to assist. I was brought up to live within ones means and for the State to assist in terms of emergency. I was also brought up with the notion that personal responsibility for oneself and family mattered. All I have heard in the past 5 years from the labour party is that it is against austerity and would borrow more. Further, attempts to break the culture developed in the last decade that it is OK to live off benefits have been criticised – I am still hearing about this today when sanctions are applied to those failing to abide by rules to seek employment. In the past 5 years every attempt by government to reduce the national debt has been blocked by labour. This continues.

    Sorry, it matters to me that the national debt is reduced and as a country we live within our means. I am getting the opposite. Do not mention the word austerity as any analysis of government spending indicates that we continue to spend more.

    To conclude the older generation are frightened of debt and labour are doing nothing to convince them that the country’s finances would be safe in their hands. Also, you are starting to sound like the party for the unemployed etc. All one has to do is listen to tradesmen in ones
    home to get their views on this subject. Everytime an MP stands up in the House of Commons suggesting that attempts to bring welfare under control are unfair we oldies groan.

  • As someone who is (comfortably) in the Over 65 cohort myself
    can I suggest that the main motivator in our voting is an innate nostalgic conservatism?
    This creates the paradox that UKIP recruits solidly from my age group and that
    it is also strongly for exiting from the EU – it’s a paradox because each of
    these positions means change, which conservatives are usually against! But it’s
    the direction of change which matters. UKIP want to take us back to the 1950s
    (or thereabouts) and Exit from the EU is equally a regressive and retrograde step.
    The driver here is the “Things ain’t what they used to be” meme. Or even “It’s
    all gone to the dogs”.There is an irony about this because actually life has
    never been better for the elderly. We are living much longer. Many of the diseases
    that killed our parents or made their lives bad have been tackled successfully.
    Many of us have workplace pensions with inflation linked benefits. Our houses
    have capital that we can realise if we want to. (I realise that not all are so
    lucky, but the Tory voters mostly are and many Kippers too).

    So what can Labour offer? First get someone credible of our
    generation to sell the message. Alan Johnson (65 this year) might be a good
    choice. Then research the hell out of us as a cohort. Find out what really
    makes us tick and what could be offered that would appeal. Ring fence the
    benefits we have – make sure that we understand people’s feelings about inheritance
    for example. Get the NHS to specialise more on specific care and solutions for
    older people’s health problems and needs. Get a clear simple message across
    with things that we really care about. Show, for example, how membership of the
    EU actually helps our generation. Essentially what I am saying is have a joined-up
    policy for the elderly and sell it well. We vote. In large numbers. Give us something believable
    to vote for.

  • Labours biggest problem will be that the older generation still remember what things were like the last time the Corbyn type of Idiot left had control of the party.

    Add to that the numerous reasons why Labour failed to win, despite the ‘idiot left’ not running the party, the denial (until it was to late) of those reasons and the very simple fact that the party had nobody better to become Leader than Red Jez and Labour will be lucky to win any General Election for a very, very long time

  • Spot on. This is why the Tories got 4 million pensioners’ votes, twice as many as Labour. And watching The various anarchists, Stalinists, nihilists and hipsters supporting Corbyn’s movement is a huge turn off for people who voted Labour for forty or fifty years and their families before them.
    And can’t somebody club together and buy him a good quality razor?

  • But what do we actually do?

    The problem is that pensioners as a group are already pretty well off, and they are managing to be so, at the expense of young people. The triple lock on pensions leaves them better off each year, and to compensate the Tories have cut benefits for young people. The housing boom leaves many old people sitting on incredibly valuable assets (often houses with bedrooms they don’t need), whilst young people cannot afford a first house. Pensioners continue to enjoy expensive benefits like free public transport, TV licences etc.

    If we actually wanted to make a fairer society then actually we should be asking pensioners to make the same sacrifices that have been expected of everyone else, rather than giving them further help. But whilst the Tories (who care much less about fairness) continue to look after pensioners this makes it very electorally dangerous for Labour to do this.

    I don’t know what the solution is. Perhaps, as Caroline Flint seems to suggest, this is more about engaging older voters and making them feel more connected to the Labour project, than it is about actual policies.

  • Out of interest, Holby18, is it the actual size of the debt that concerns you most, or the sense that Labour gave so much money away to people who don’t bother to help themselves? I guess what I’m asking is – would you be happy for a Labour government to borrow more money if it were spent on something like infrastructure projects which would make the country more productive, rather than on benefits?

  • I am not an economist but debt to GDP never went above 40+% until recession and it started soaring during the last years of the labour government, and increased dramatically under the coalition government and this year too. It currently stands at some 89% of GDP and next year will increase further before dropping back to 71.6% in 2019.

    Infrastructure spending is important of course in stimulating the economy when growth is slow. I would rather wait until the ratio is around 60% before borrowing more. It was inevitable to borrow a lot as public spending in terms of welfare etc had to be maintained even when the economy was sluggish. Gordon Brown did spend too much imo (structural not due to recession) and therefore we as a country were hit harder than our neighbours.

    I am not against welfare spending to help those in need. Looking after those people reflects the society we live in and want to live in. Some benefits are outrageous with people on excellent incomes getting tax credits etc. Further, I am retired and am not wealthy. I saved for retirement and honestly feel that the fuel allowance and stupid £10 Christmas bonus are unnecessary. I would much rather that those on pension credit had their allowances increased. I also feel that people who have worked for years and made redundant should receive more generous unemployment benefits too.

    We all feel we know what should be done – all of us armchair chancellors. All I know is that our debt ratio is far too high and therefore all those lovely infrastructure projects that the country needs should be postponed for several years until our debt is reduced.

    Best wishes.

  • Many baby boomers had a ghastly life Christabel. Many of us were poor and had to save for years to obtain a mortgage. During that period we did not have cars or holidays and often worked several jobs. Even with a mortgage we all went through a period of some 17% interest rates and these often fluctuated each month. A nightmare. Neither did we have the opportunities. I myself did not go to university until married and in my 20’s and worked throughout the period. Not all pensioners are well off. Many are but there are also many who rely on top up benefits to survive and their income is a pittance.

    I do not recall when growing up anyone ever complaining about those who had retired and that as a taxpayer we were funding retirement pensions. All I know is that many were poor as private pension provision was limited to the wealthy. As a community I was brought up to respect my elders and to treat them with dignity which I can tell you the welfare state did not do in my youth.

    Surely you must agree that dignity in old age is very important and to achieve this, state retirement benefits and other allowances for those in need should be maintained and increased to take account of higher council taxes etc.

    I loathe this inter generational sniping. I could retort by saying that many young people want everything immediately. They want their own homes, their holidays, their cars, their white goods (I had a tin bucket for years), their social life, their children, their childcare. I chose not to say that. I do not have a bus pass as I drive. I donate my fuel to a local charity. I am active in my community and look after much older neighbours. Finally, I pay a lot of tax. What else do you want me to do?

  • Andy, I recall the period. The 1983 manifesto was a nightmare and led to the forming of the SDP. A ghastly period in which I stuck with the party rather than defect. Michael Foot was an excellent orator and had a good intellect. We now have him mark two with the intellect and oratory skills missing. The voters did not accept it in 1983 and they will not again. For Momentum give me Militant. They had the same objectives too. Control all elements of the party and then hope to woo the public. Fantasy politics. Sadly, those on extreme left have a great belief in themselves and their vision of society. They will never budge from their position regardless of how the world around them has changed. Jeremy Corbyn has held the same views for 40 years which supports my argument.

    The years ahead will be fraught. Mr Corbyn is loving the power and his comrade Mr McDonnell has just said he is in the job for the long haul. They will never give up anything for the sake of the party or the country.

    You are right – we have seen it before and are too old and wise to be taken in. The country would be in ruins if this man ever became PM.

  • Christabel – most people in the older age bracket would have loved to live in the lifestyle that younger people have today.

    In every area the young will have an easier and pleasanter passage through life – education, health, work – all these things had to be fought for in previous years.

    As Holby18 states, there is now a loathsome practice of political parties playing the old off against the young – it is also something I hate.

    For what it’s worth, I would give up my bus pass, any fuel or Christmas payments, and free prescriptions; you are correct in the assumption that most of us don’t really need handouts – I would base such benefits on income, if possible.

    As Paddy Briggs has said above, the old are never going to be won over because it is impossible for Labour to ever resolve the problem of lost communities and culture.

    What the elderly want can’t be bought – in a way it is a waste of time pursuing us.

  • I would have thought with your advanced years and knowledge of politics that recognition of one persons ability to put socialist principles in front of bliarite attempted attacks on socialism is most welcome in the blue camp NOT in the Labour party.

  • Sorry I didn’t mean to suggest that there aren’t any pensioners living in poverty or that the state shouldn’t look after them which of course it should.

    However, overall as a group pensioners are becoming wealthier and young people are becoming poorer. The triple lock on pensions has meant that whilst workers saw their wages decrease in value year after year, pensioners saw their tax payer funded income rise year after year (contributing to the deficit). This doesn’t seem fair.

    Meanwhile many pensioners who own valuable mortage free  properties, pay little or no tax because their income is relatively low, and yet enjoy a much better lifestyle than many higher rate tax payers who have to pay housing costs AND substantial amounts of tax. This doesn’t seem fair.

    And yes, most pensioners have worked for most of their lives and deserve a reward.  But most young people will also end up working most of their lives, and (given the precarious state of the world economy) may well endure the kind of economic hardships that today’s pensioners went through before they retire. But these young people are currently paying taxes to support pensioners who worked for fewer years and for a greater reward than they themselves will receive. This doesn’t seem fair either.

    Fairer policies would include the abolition of the triple lock and some kind of property tax like the one proposed by Tristram Hunt the other day. I just wonder whether Labour has the courage to do it.

  • Christabel, you are wrong about education. In our younger days we could have a free university education, with students grants for teh less well off. Now they have to pay for their tuition and no more grants, they have to have loans instead. Most graduates will leave Uni with over £52,000 of debt! How on earth is that having an easy passage?
    Only the wealthy can afford to pay for their offspring to go through Uni, and the numbers of students from poorer backgrounds has gone right down and who can blame them? Starting out independent life with such a huge debt is enough to put anyone off!

  • WJ, you are wrong about education. In our younger days we could
    have a free university education, with students grants for teh less well
    off. Now they have to pay for their tuition and no more grants, they
    have to have loans instead. Most graduates will leave Uni with over
    £52,000 of debt! How on earth is that having an easy passage?
    the wealthy can afford to pay for their offspring to go through Uni, and
    the numbers of students from poorer backgrounds has gone right down and
    who can blame them? Starting out independent life with such a huge debt
    is enough to put anyone off!

    And sadly there are still many pensioners struggling to get by, they need those extra handouts and more! Maybe the handouts should be means-tested so that thsoe who don’t need them don’t get them, and the poor can have a little more so they don’t have to choose between eating or heating.

  • I am 60 and do not recall ever having a leader like Jeremy Corbyn, who is certainly no idiot! He is honest, genuinely caring, and if people were to really listen to him with an open mind and forget all the anti-Corbyn propaganda they’d be pleasantly surprised!
    Labour failed because it went too far to the right, the rot set in with Blair who lost the party many thousands of members. It’s now getting back to the original intention, we’ve all seen what happened this summer, those who left because of Blair have come back.

  • I completely agree. I have a background in economics and felt that the decsion to oppose all austerity was mistaken and only reinforced the stereotype of Labour not being economically responsible and spending toom much. Although before the recession national debt was at an all time low.

    I also agree that welfare should only support the most vulnerable. I work part time as a student and many of my part time colleagues who have families are only slightly better off in work. This is just as unfair as people dodging tax (albeit on a smaller scale). I felt opposing all of IDS’s reforms made us look out of touch.

  • I agree. Dressing smartly is a sign of respect and that he takes the responsibility of being leader of the opposition seriously.

  • It’s not quite as simple as that. The only young person benefits being taken away is the automatic right to housing benefit for 16-24 year olds. As many 16-24 year olds can only afford to live with their parents or a house share without state support this seems pretty reasonable. Pensioners have contributed all their lives and should not be expected to give up their homes. The problem is that inheritance entrenches class power and reduces social mobility.

  • Corbyn is worse than Foot. At least Foot had some ministerial experience and wasn’t a total pacifist (he supported the Falklands War)

  • Yes, there are some young people who can live with their parents. But what about those whose parents don’t have the ability to accommodate them (either through death, abandonment, abuse, general poverty)? Many young people who claim housing benefit are parents themselves and might not be able to squeeze their own children into the parental house.

    Meanwhile if you don’t have a job then you can’t even afford a houseshare, and yet young people are the most likely to unemployed. So it seems deeply unfair that the group of people who can least afford accommodation are denied any help with it.

    The government has also discriminated against young people by saying the living wage won’t apply to them.

  • I’m sorry but people at my level of society would never have had a chance of going to university.
    Neither would I have wished to – I have loved my life, I have been lucky enough to have been given an apprenticeship, and I sincerely believe that university education is not the be all and end all of a good life.

    The choice of taking a university course, at great expense to the individual, is the choice that that individual makes.

    Many of the university educated elite seem not to care too much whether my offspring are trained and given jobs, preferring to instead flood the country with cheap labour – why should we care about the self-inflicted woes of students if they have nothing but contempt for us.

  • ‘At my level of society’ ? Why are you letting them dictate to you that you’re not good enough for a good education! Anyone could go to Uni if they got the grades, and there was a lot of financial help so people could better their chances if they got the requred grades.
    All those now scrapping the grants had a advantage of a free uni education and now want to stop all but the wealthiest doing the same, they want to keep us in our place, they need people to do their menial work and by preventing the plebs (their word, not mine!) going to uni they are keeping the top jobs for themselves.
    If you didn’t want to go to uni that’s fine, neither did I, in fact I left school qt 15 before taking any O-levels, but why should we stop poorer students having the chance to go on if they can? Why should we be happy to leave the better education for the wealthiest only? The wealthy are generally the ones who have contempt for us, not your average student from a more modest background. If ALL ‘levels’ of society had the same chances it would go a long way to creating a more equal society and would give us more leaders who DO care whether our offspring have training and jobs.

  • But you don’t get it – I never, ever wanted to go to university; I have been happy with my life and I’ve loved the people I’ve worked with.

    Why, when we have a Westminster packed with university educated Labour politicians, do we see an ‘underclass’ of our people who have simply been buried under forces that they can not control.

    The questions posed by the article above were related to a working class that has been disenfranchised – where has the Labour party been in addressing that issue?

    The policies that the Labour government pursued, and will continue pursuing, hurt the people at the bottom. Our people don’t want handouts, they want a chance of training and a worthwhile job.

    Believe me, university is about the last thing a lot of them would consider.

  • Yes i do get it, it’s not difficult, you didn’t want to go to Uni. Neither did I. But many people do, and tuition fees and loans instead of grants are taking that choice away from poorer people, only the rich can afford to put their kids through Uni. No equality. Is that fair?

  • To be honest it doesn’t matter to me what they wear. What matters is how they think, what they do, do they care for the less fortunate, are they working for a fairer and more equal society, or are they punishing the sick and/or disabled and causing a huge rise in suicides, are they taking every penny they can from the poor but letting the wealthy get away with billions of pounds in tax evasion and unpaid corporation tax, are they working for peace or voting for war so that their shares in the arms industry will make them richer?
    Why on earth worry about trivial things like the colour of a man’s jacket or whether he has a beard or not? Are those things really so important? I think not.

  • Yeah, I completely agree. Support should be targeted at the neediest and the blanket approach to cut of housing benefit is immoral. I was just trying to make the point that some people feel the system can reduce the incentive to work hard and become independent.

  • we have paid in all our lives.over 30% in taxes in the 70’s.when we left school we did’nt get a letter that told us the world owes us a living.many did’nt go to university.but we paid our taxes for people to get a ‘free’ education
    age uk,and 2 other charities for the elderly.recently did research,.the poorest pensioners are in the ‘manchester’, area.who keeps local business going? so you want to isolate pensioners by taking away their bus passes?great.with their families living away from them.loneliness kills.the tv license is for over 75’s.the war time generation.
    the labour campaign pitted the older generation,against the younger generation.not all pensioners own their own houses.who the hell do you think you are? telling people who have worked hard to sell their houses,because they have a spare bedroom!

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