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The Tories failed pensioners in poverty – and lost their votes

The number of people living in poverty aged between 60 and pension age has tripled since 2010.

July 06 2024, 08.37am

During this summer’s election campaign, David found it hard to hear politicians talk of pensioners doing better than younger people. As the cost of energy, bills and food continues to rise, the 90-year-old has had to take drastic measures to survive. “I’ve just had to cut down. At tea time, I have a small piece of Swiss roll or a chocolate biscuit. I don’t eat a meal anymore,” he says. “I don’t have any choice because my other bills are coming in.”

The South Midlands resident, who has multiple disabilities and limited mobility, lives alone in sheltered accommodation and doesn’t qualify for pension credit. As well as his state pension, he claims a small private pension from his 36 years of service in the railways. This tips his income above the level that would grant him extra state support, but his basic costs are spiralling. 

Professional carers visit him four times a day, but his care package, covered by the local council, doesn’t meet his basic needs. He pays £160 a month for help with cleaning his home, changing bed linen and doing the laundry. Meanwhile, his council tax, rent, and service charges have all risen. 

“There has been this idea for several years that pensioners are all so well off, we could save the whole country, but it’s totally untrue. The parties will not come to terms with reality and that’s a big problem,” he says. That reality is that pensioners like David simply don’t have the means to look after themselves properly. They are cutting back on meals, not heating their homes and, in some cases, getting into debt just to pay their bills. “If the politicians came to me, I would open my books and show them what I’ve got in my bank account and say, ‘How am I supposed to live on this?’”

David voted Labour all his life but felt let down in this election, both by Keir Starmer and the other party leaders. He was particularly distressed by the lack of detail on managing the social care crisis, with only the Liberal Democrats addressing that directly in their pre-election promises and a coherent policy strangely absent from both the Labour and Tory manifestos. He feels left out. “They’ve virtually shut the doors on those over 55s,” he complains. 

David had saved modestly throughout his life – he’d done exactly what politicians like to brand “the right thing” of thinking about his future – but it hasn’t been enough. The fast-rising cost of living plus the huge care expenses his disabilities incur means his income just doesn’t stretch far enough. And he’s not alone.

Despite the political narrative of wealthy Baby Boomers extracting all the wealth from the country and leaving younger generations with scraps, our economy is much more complex than that. It is true that, for middle-class households particularly, older generations are likely to be much richer than their children: the over 50s now own 78% of the country’s housing wealth and have benefited from the unearned dividend of rapid house price growth. Many also lived and worked through an era of gold-plated final salary pension schemes, particularly in the public sector, which they are now cashing in. Their children, meanwhile, find even a modest home may cost 10 times their annual income. They are trapped in expensive private rent and are also struggling with highly insecure work and stagnating wages (which are now rising, but after a decade of little growth).

However, the suggestion that older people as a cohort are all more financially secure is wrong. It may have held some truth two decades ago, during the late years of the last Labour government, after its efforts to slash pensioner poverty and boost the state pension paid off, but in recent years, that contract has been broken again. According to Age UK, 18% of pensioners – more than 2 million people – live in relative poverty, with a household income below 60% of the national average; 6 per cent are experiencing material deprivation. 

The lack of new social housing means more older people are entering later life in privately rented homes than ever. More than one in three pensioners who rent their homes privately are in poverty, and many private renters over 70 are at immediate risk of homelessness. Councils, which are not used to dealing with unhoused pensions, have few services and even less cash to support them. Meanwhile, cuts to adult social care services have left many raiding their own savings (if they are lucky enough to have them) to look after their physical needs. 

Those who worked in low-wage, hand-to-mouth roles while in their working years are also more likely to face poverty in older age, as well as those (particularly women) who took years out of the workforce to care for others.

Pensioner poverty often goes unseen because, politically, older people are an invisible demographic. Although the age at which voting intentions are likely to shift from left to right constantly rises, pensioners have always been more likely to vote Conservative. Their vote has been less contested than that of the mid-life swing voter. This has angered some pensioners, who now feel politics has little to offer them outside the infamous pension triple-lock, which means the pension should rise in line with earnings and the cost of living – but which has nevertheless failed to keep many out of poverty. 

As the pension age continues to increase, the number of people entering their pensionable years already experiencing severe financial need is also rising. According to research by the Fabian Society, between 2010 and 2022, the number of people in poverty between the age of 60 and the (moveable) state pension age increased from approximately 800,000 to more than 1.2 million. The cost of living crisis has since made that situation even worse. 

Joanna Elson, Chief Executive of the charity Independent Age, describes the idea that all pensioners are enjoying a comfortable retirement as “a dangerous misconception”. 

“It is essential that all voices are heard, yet older people in financial hardship often tell us that they feel excluded from society,” she says. The charity is particularly concerned about the prevalence of ageist stereotypes, with politicians pitting generation against generation, which she thinks is leading to the problems older people in poverty face being hidden from view. 

Yvonne, who is 78 and lives in Witney, Oxfordshire, is also struggling with only the basic state pension plus pension credit benefit to live on. She lives in a bungalow rented from a housing association. When she moved in in 2007, her rent was £68 a week; now it is £150. 

The high cost of energy bills is also a constant worry for her. She lives with fibromyalgia and osteoporosis brought on by treatment for breast cancer. In the last six months, she’s suffered spinal fractures, and she needs a warm home to keep her as well as possible. “If I get too cold I’m in pain all the time. If I get really cold, I seize up and can’t move, so I have to have the heating on; otherwise, I’m suffering even more,” she says. “For the first time in my life, I have been in debt because of my fuel bills. I don’t like being in this position, but I can do nothing about it.”

To make matters worse, Yvonne’s chihuahua needed veterinary treatment this month, costing her an unexpected £1,000. “They won’t let you do it on a payment plan. They want the money on the day,” she worries.

Yvonne doesn’t have savings or a private pension and has had low-paid jobs during her working life. “I never took a penny out, we never had benefits, we always worked. We kept our heads above water, and I’m fortunate enough to get to pensionable age, but then suddenly, you don’t exist anymore.”

Campaigners are starting to worry about the effect this blind spot is starting to have on the political debate around poverty. Dr Carole Easton, chief executive of the Centre for Ageing Better, said the 2024 election campaign had already involved a lot of “stoking of intergenerational conflict”, from the so-called “quadruple lock” pension promise – which means pensions rise in line with earnings, inflation or living costs (whichever is higher) and the personal allowance rises every year too meaning recipients of the state pension never pay tax on it –  to the suggestion that young people might be forced into a new form of national service. 

“Attempts to chase votes or score points by stoking intergenerational conflict are based on ill-informed ageist assumptions and fail to recognise that inequalities are greater within generations than between them,” Dr Easton says. “Good policies don’t benefit one group at the cost of another; they should deliver for all.”

Of course, the triple or quadruple lock on state pensions doesn’t only benefit today’s retirees: future pensioners could end up hit even harder if a reduction in the state pension occurs now. According to Dr Easton, small percentage increases each year now can add up to larger increases for workers collecting their pensions in decades to come. The young now are not losing out by supporting today’s pensioners at the ballot box; they’re protecting their own futures too.

She believes one of the best ways to reduce the number of pensioners living in penury would be to improve their chances of staying in work during their 50s and 60s so they have a better chance to prepare financially for their later years. She describes the lack of discussion of older workers in the parties’ manifestos as “an inexplicable oversight”. A third of workers are already over 50, and that proportion will continue to grow as the retirement age slowly rises.

Structurally, improving access to affordable housing and a fully funded social care system that meets users’ needs would save huge sums from poorer pensioners’ personal budgets. Price rises affect us all – such as the cost of food and energy – and must be addressed to support older people in poverty. 

During the election campaign, as some pensioners felt pushed out of the mainstream political conversation, opportunists were able to push in. Reform UK leader, Nigel Farage – who won a seat in the Commons at his eighth attempt – frequently refers to himself as a pensioner. 

Yet the term “pensioner” is no longer a simple one to use when framing a political argument because of the huge economic disparity with the group. It could mean a 90-year-old living on the state pension alone and struggling or “a 50-year-old retired consultant on a very comfortable nest egg,” as political consultant Emma Burnell puts it. Both were aggressively targeted by Reform UK’s election surge – a decision that Burnell, who runs the consultancy Political Human, puts down to a demographic quirk: retired people in late-mid and later life are a very large group that is ripe for capture but soon to shrink rapidly. “Reform looked at the demographics and realised that it’s now or never,” she says. In hindsight, the decision may have paid off as the party took five seats at the election, no doubt securing older votes.

Burnell herself is most concerned about the wellbeing of voters in the pre-retirement period, which have the highest levels of poverty among all cohorts. “They usually get lumped in with Boomers in our minds, but they're actually Gen X,” Burnell explains. That group is now in their late fifties. “They came into the labour force just as Thatcher's deregulation made their work, pay and pensions much less secure, and they are leaving it – or trying to – just as the pension age keeps rising, but before changes to workplace pensions will make much of an impact in terms of them having enough put by.”

The biggest issue for the Tories as they try to rebuild is that they have lost the trust of late-mid-life and older people, many of whom have found themselves much worse off over the last 14 years. Pensioners have also been more likely to feel the sharp end of cuts to local public services and the turmoil in the NHS. They feel abandoned, and they no longer believe the party is their natural home. 

This is an opportunity for Keir Starmer’s freshly-minted Labour majority. In his first speech on the steps of Downing Street, the new prime minister promised to address poverty. As he appoints his first cabinet, tackling pensioner poverty would be a radical start. Rather than quadruple-locking the pension, boosting the pension credit payment to cover more than subsistence for the poorest pensioners would be a good start. A clear funding plan for social care that widens state support for disabled and vulnerable pensioners must be high at the top of Wes Streeting’s in-tray. The provision of secure, affordable housing for those over 50 also benefits the economy as a whole. That is not a sunk cost: those homes, for obvious reasons, come back into circulation very frequently.

If these policies are not forthcoming, and poor pensioners continue to feel ignored in their desperation, the chance that Reform could capture them – today a protest vote, but tomorrow something far more sinister – is a very real prospect.

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