Why democracy matters to pensioners

With the general election in sight, party leaders, aware of popular disquiet, are increasingly keen to present themselves as reformers who will "fix" our politics. But how conscious are they of the hopes and desires of the people on whose behalf they claim to be reforming?
Dot Gibson
11 February 2010

With the general election in sight, party leaders, aware of popular disquiet, are increasingly keen to present themselves as reformers who will "fix" our politics. But how conscious are they of the hopes and desires of the people on whose behalf they claim to be reforming? Here, OurKingdom publishes the first in a series of articles in collaboration with Power2010 looking at why democracy matters to different groups within our society. The first is by Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners' Convention.

Ask any politician and they will tell you about the large number of older voters in their constituency and how they are more likely to turn out to vote than any other section of the community. But years of faith and support for the political system are ebbing away as older voters see the lack of real representation for their concerns in the palaces of Westminster. 

On the day when the government announced that the state pension would rise by just 34p a day, MPs were lining up to complain about having to pay back thousands of pounds of expenses that some of them should never have even claimed in the first place. 

But the money for the bell towers, duck houses and moat cleaning was really only a symptom of a much bigger problem with our political system.

Older people – like anyone else – have to feel there is a proper mechanism for promoting their concerns and effecting positive change. The huge problems of inadequate income, fuel poverty, neglect and discrimination facing millions of older people, dictate that the genuine voices of pensioners themselves must be heard. 

A few months ago, when the scandal surrounding MPs’ expenses was at its height, there was a small window of opportunity when it felt as if Westminster might change. There was widespread talk about the introduction of US-style primaries, the recall of MPs, regular referenda on major issues and some form of proportional representation. There was a recognition that things had gone wrong and that more of the same simply would not work. 

But not before long, the establishment had gathered itself together and – once the Speaker of the House had been ousted, a few MPs had been forced to pay back their allowances and the rules on second-homes had been changed – it again felt like business as usual. Increasingly though, the basis of those parliamentary procedures is seen as inadequate in a modern democracy. 

It isn’t just that not every MP has a seat in the House of Commons’ chamber or that whilst there is a shooting range in the grounds there are still no proper crèche facilities, but something more fundamental. When the Pensions Bill was being debated in 2007, the government business managers were able to guillotine proceedings before any of the amendments were heard. More concerning was the fact that the chamber was almost empty when these important issues were being discussed. 

Nevertheless, despite the obvious weaknesses in the existing structure, democracy is the only way of properly assessing and determining the public’s wishes on important issues. Yet politicians often seem reluctant to canvass for these views. Too often MPs claim that the public would not be prepared to pay more in taxation to see services improved – but no party has ever seriously considered asking them.

For example, the government’s recent green paper on the future of care services posed the idea of a tax-funded system – but refused to even have it as one of the consultation options for people to choose. 

Little wonder then that the lack of proper channels for representation, combined with a sense that many MPs are out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, leads a significant number voters to claim that the current system is simply not fit for purpose. 

It must also be recognised that older people are not a homogenous group. Despite widespread reports of a so called ‘grey vote’, the truth is that pensioners generally do not change the voting habits of a lifetime. And the politicians know it. Consequently, this gives them less political leverage than the media might have us believe.  

A senior politician cynically explained the way it works. If an 80-year-old has always voted for party A then their vote can be taken for granted without any real need to offer them a reason to keep turning out to the ballot box. Likewise, if they have never voted for party A, there is probably very little that it could do to make them change their mind. Either way, the political parties know they don’t really have to listen to the older electorate because the ‘grey vote’ is already determined. 

The next Parliament is also likely to have a considerably different age profile than most of its recent predecessors. Given the large number of existing MPs that are due to retire at least one third to a half of all new MPs are likely to be under 45-years-old. This will raise a serious challenge as to how they relate to the concerns of older people and what priorities they will give to subjects such as free bus travel, mixed-sex wards and the closure of local post offices. 

Having held numerous discussions with government advisers, it is also clear that many policy initiatives are dreamt up by people who have very little concept of the opposition amongst pensioners to means-testing or the difficulties of having the main access to information through the internet, when 7 out of 10 older people have never even been online. Engagement with older people – on their own terms and in a way that is suitable – is therefore crucial if democracy is to be more than just warm words. 

However, in recent years, rather than encouraging mass participation in the political process, we have witnessed the emergence of the celebrity champion, whose job it is to wage war in the public’s name. More often than not, this trend has been a little overblown. 

Just over a year ago the government announced that Dame Joan Bakewell was to be appointed as the Voice of Older People. What we know is that Dame Joan is a pensioner and a much loved and respected media favourite. What’s less clear is that she has a record of understanding the concerns of the vast majority of older people and a legacy of campaigning to improve their lives.  

Like the high-profile efforts of the actress Joanna Lumley to achieve some justice for the Ghurkhas or Esther Rantzen’s announcement that she would single-handedly clean up British politics by standing at the general election; there seems an acceptance – and almost a reliance – on celebrity individuals to sort out our problems. But rather than being evidence of a flourishing democratic process, such cases actually highlight the weakness of our democracy – and we would do well to ask at what point our democratic influence passed from the ballot box to the TV studio? 

In light of this, and the development of 24-hour news coverage, it is vital that any assessment of how a democracy should function should also address the role of the media. This is reflected in the way older people are portrayed or ignored by programme makers. Despite hundreds of requests, the BBC’s flagship political discussion programme Question Time refuses to invite a representative from Britain’s biggest pensioner organisation, the National Pensioners Convention, to take part because the programme makers claim we are not well known enough and that our representative may find it hard to perform under the studio lights. Interestingly, neither of these arguments were ever voiced when the fascist BNP leader was invited to take part. 

Not only does this raise serious questions about either the conscious or unconscious bias of the programme makers, it also raises concerns about why a handful of individuals remain the gatekeepers of political debate – setting the boundaries within which the population can discuss the issues of the day. Imagine the breath of fresh air if older people could see someone who looked like them – living on a very low state pension – talking passionately about the issues of concern – rather than the same rent-a-crowd faces of those who speak on behalf of no-one but themselves and have very little experience of what it’s like to be an ordinary pensioner in 21stcentury Britain. 

The generation that experienced the horrors of WWII and re-built the country and its institutions such as the welfare state after 1945 therefore clearly know the importance of democracy. But they also have a lifetime experience of its weaknesses when it is left to a handful of elected and unelected individuals to exercise and interpret its role. 

Re-connecting with older people will be vital in future decades as the population ages and the older electorate grows. It will mean not only listening to the voices of pensioners – but more importantly – acting on what they say. More than anything, it will also mean having a public debate about the kind of society we wish to inhabit. One which respects those who have gone before; properly looks after them and gives them financial security in retirement or one which leaves them to the mercy of the market and the economics of the casino. And if history has taught us one thing – it’s that these issues are too important to be left just to politicians. 

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