IF Theresa May thought pensioners would be a soft touch, she’s very very wrong, writes Lesley Riddoch.
Was this the weekend the Tories bungled the General Election – perhaps not ultimately losing to Labour but certainly squandering their sizeable lead and the landslide majority everyone hitherto predicted?
And if so, was it their pensions policy and proposed “dementia tax” wot done it?
Several Brexit supporting Sunday papers talked of a Tory “wobble” over cuts for the elderly while the BBC reported Theresa May “would not rethink” plans to reform social care in England. Meanwhile on Radio 5 Live, Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind described the party’s manifesto as “brave” and Labour and the SNP wasted no time in sticking the boot in.
According to Jeremy Corbyn, the combination of Tory plans to end the pensions triple lock, start means testing winter fuel payments and demand contributions for social care amounted to an unprecedented attack on the elderly. Doubtless Nicola Sturgeon will echo that language in tomorrow’s SNP manifesto launch – the SNP leader has already pledged to retain the triple lock.
Of course right wing commentators warn Britain cannot afford to maintain current “lavish” levels of public expenditure on the elderly, even though Britain’s full basic state pension is well below 20.5 per cent of earnings - the OECD average. Pensioners in “basket-case” Ireland for example receive 33 per cent of the average wage, made possible by their rejection of austerity-centric politics and their 5.2 per cent GDP growth last year. Indeed, Ireland has a higher ranking in the latest World Economic Forum Inclusive Growth and Development Index (12th) than Germany (13) France (18) or the UK (21).
Agreed, the bulk of British pensioners probably don’t know that – yet. But they will doubtless be made fully aware of how mean the British pension is compared to other countries during the remaining three weeks of the election campaign, as political rivals seek to put clear red water between themselves and the “nasty” Tories.
Theresa May may try to question the costings behind Labour’s generous plans. But that looks rich coming from a party that’s attached no price tags to any of its own proposals and which has been happy to ride a Brexit rollercoaster based entirely on false claims about extra health spending. Live by the sword, die by the sword, some might say.
Of course, the Tories are far from dead – but weekend opinion polls suggest Labour is now within nine to twelve percentage points of the Conservatives, after overcoming a whole host of apparently insurmountable obstacles.
Corbyn’s deputy, Tom Watson recently suggested the party could not win, Dianne Abbott messed up figures about police recruitment on commercial radio and every day Corbyn’s “coalition of chaos” is contrasted unfavourably with the “stable and strong” Theresa May by the right wing English press. But despite all this, Labour has been steadily closing the gap even before last week’s manifesto launch.
Of course Labour’s momentum could easily stall. But a measure of Tory panic has been the reheating of very old accusations about Corbyn being soft on the IRA. That might have tarnished the Labour leader several years ago, but not now.
In another world, where the media explored novel political developments with equal enthusiasm, there would be animated analysis of this unexpected Labour comeback south of the border – at least as much as the relentlessly excited chatter about the prospects of a Conservative revival north of it.
That won’t happen – but perhaps voters don’t need screeching media u-turns to realise the nature of this election campaign has just changed dramatically, thanks to an un-forced policy error affecting a section of the electorate widely believed to be putty in the Tories hands.
Back in 2014, last minute scaremongering by Labour and the Tories about the danger of a post independence drop in pension pay-outs was credited with reversing the Yes lead in the week before the referendum vote – not least because older, more fearful voters actually turn out and vote.
So the Conservatives know full well how potent pensions can be as an electoral issue. And yet last week they knowingly waded back into that very minefield.
Not only has that handed ammunition to Jeremy Corbyn – it also helps Nicola Sturgeon.
Even voters hostile to the SNP, examining Tory plans to shrink the state south of the border, must concede a very different social contract now exists north of it.
The SNP built on Henry McLeish’s policy of free personal care for the elderly to create a very different social care system here.
Of course the right care can be hard to access in some council areas and the system is fast running out of cash.
Likewise, Scotland has already set up joint health and social care partnerships to end the nonsensical situation where elderly patients remain stuck in hospital beds with non-emergency conditions because local social work departments haven’t got the cash to provide support and basic adaptions to the patient’s own home. So far, there have been professional appointments but gey little joint planning and cost saving. But that will come. And no party north of the border suggests the solution is abandoning health and social care partnerships or ending free personal care.
But pensions are a UK Government responsibility. So the more Theresa May tries to shift austerity from the disabled to pensioners, the easier it will be for the SNP to play their well-worn “nasty Tory” card.
And as Alex Salmond pointed out this weekend, if there is a sizeable cut in social spending or elderly care in England, the Barnett formula means Scotland’s block grant will shrink too.
All because Theresa May must find ways to pay for Brexit and thought pensioners would be a soft touch.
Very, very wrong.