Does Labour have anything to offer the elderly?

True to form, the Tories have designed policies which mainly cater to wealthy pensioners


I received an email this week from a lady who felt that Britain’s 11.5 million people aged 65 and above were being ignored in Labour’s internal elections.

I have to admit I think she’s put her finger on something important here. Former chief secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne recently admitted that at the election ‘Labour was left scrabbling around for something to say to older voters’.

So how can we start to put that right?

Let’s begin with the politics. Labour lost the election partly because it lost the ‘grey vote’. Among over-65s the Tories won the most support by a thumping 47 per cent to 23 per cent.

Though Labour won handsomely amongst younger voters, it was the older voters who turned out in droves to secure victory for the Conservatives. A crude analysis is that the Tories have bribed older voters by protecting, say, universal winter fuel allowances, free TV licences and bus passes whilst clobbering younger voters with tuition fees, EMA, housing benefit etc.

However, what makes this a crude analysis is that it masks the poverty faced by significant numbers of pensioners. This is often linked to problems with health and is exacerbated by the 31 per cent cuts to adult social care budgets over the last five years.

On top of this is the reduction in meals on wheels services, with a third of councils abandoning them entirely. This may well have contributed to the fact that nearly a third of pensioners are found to be suffering from malnutrition when admitted to hospital.

The idea that Tory policies have favoured pensioners is a sweeping generalisation – true to form they’ve protected better off pensioners but failed to target help where it’s most needed.

So what should be done? Part of the solution could come from implementing in full the report of the Dilnot Commission (2011), which argued for the cap on the cost of social care to the individual to be lowered to £35,000 from the present £72,000.

Another part of the solution lies in the long standing Labour policy of integrating health and social care, and improving the discharge planning from hospitals that often results in elderly people being readmitted. A future Labour government must also be focussed on using the Equality Act 2010 to ensure equal access to treatment.

Research has highlighted that treatment rates drop disproportionately for people over 70-75 years in areas such as surgery, chemotherapy and talking therapies.

However, it would be wrong to define our policy approach purely in economic terms. Isolation and loneliness can sadly often be features of old age. This can be caused by a host of factors including bereavement, ill health or a lack of public transport. Age UK have argued that:

“Reducing loneliness should be treated as an important public health priority and local government should include it as an objective in their Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNAs) and in health and well being strategies, working together with local housing, transport, health, care and voluntary organisations.”

Public bodies also have an important role to play in promoting volunteering and helping retired people develop new skills.

In addition, the internet has become a basic utility, but one that elderly people often lack access to. When my elderly in laws came from Greece to stay for a few months they struggled with English language media. When I taught them how to use my ipad to read Greek newspapers they were delighted.

Learning how to use the internet has also helped many older people stay in touch with far flung friends and family through social media.

Yet too many older people still find themselves the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’. One proposal to tackle this could include insisting that learning providers funded by the department of Business Innovation and Skills must provide support to help people get online.

In admitting that Labour had little to say to older voters, Liam Byrne went on to point out that by the 2020 election the majority of voters could be over 55. In light of this fact, he argued that ‘Labour’s politicians have to think again about their priorities if they want to win back office’.   

Tim Starkey is a barrister, Labour activist and candidate in Labour’s National Policy Forum elections. He blogs at

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