THE BLOG

Are the Pensioners Revolting?

21/05/2013 12:58 BST | Updated 20/07/2013 10:12 BST

In the dampened light of an overcast spring Saturday, I watched two figures stride past the bust of Nelson Mandela at the side of the Royal Festival Hall. They were the vanguard of the 'Defend London's NHS' protest which had gathered at the foot of the stairs just south of the statue. They clutched the same 'Keep the NHS public' placard as the young girl in ripped jeans hovering near by, but in her natty bright pink rain coat and low heeled sandals the lady and her overcoated husband a few steps behind were maybe five decades older.

The grey vote is often assigned wholesale to the Tories - the old, we are told, are inherently conservative, natural backers of austerity, unwilling to take any cuts to their own benefits to help the young. They must be promised winter fuel and be saved from the 'granny tax' to ensure their backing - which, as 76% of over 65s voted in the last election, far out stripping the youth vote, is indispensable.

Yet this determined pair reminded me that this may not be the case. There are older people willing to trudge through central London on a far from glorious May day to fight for public services. And why not - they do very well from them. The 2008 NHS Next Stage Review Final Report found that over 75-year-olds use a disproportionate amount of NHS resources and almost half of the total sum of benefit payments in 2011-12 went on state pensions, the largest single chunk. Is it so shocking to believe that they might want others, their children, their grandchildren, to have the same support they have had?

It is often presumed that we get more conservative as we get older - the trope of grumpy old men and women complaining about the depravity of youth culture and the loss of respect for hard work. But research by American sociologist and gerontologist Nick Dangelis in 2007 found that people become more tolerant as they age. And as 90-year-old second world war veteran Harry Leslie Smith so eloquently stated in The Guardian earlier this month, it is reasonable to feel this is not what Britain fought for. WW2 ushered in an era of spending and welfare, and the EU: that's what victory meant.

Politicians and their parties too often patronise the old, homogenising them and resorting to dropping in 'traditional' buzz words or policies to secure this demographic. Labour needs to remember that you can gain grey votes with promises to help close the wealth gap, and the Tories need to not assume that all OAPs are chomping at the bit to run off to UKIP.

Because Saturday gave my hope some of them aren't.