Referendum showed pension worries can’t be ignored

With an ageing population, the pension is as potent a political football as it ever has been. Picture: Esme Allen
With an ageing population, the pension is as potent a political football as it ever has been. Picture: Esme Allen
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IGNORE the oldies at your peril. Yes Scotland’s failure to absorb that lesson is one that the main UK parties will be acutely aware of as the general election begins to loom on the horizon.

The Yes campaign paid a heavy price for its inability (or refusal) to provide more detail on issues around pensions and financial security, even as the evidence mounted that pensioners needed more reassurance. Research published a month before the referendum found three-quarters of pensioners were unconvinced that Holyrood could fund pensions in an independent Scotland.

Strathclyde University’s John Curtice pointed out that pensions is a “front of mind issue” for that age group, which saw a Yes vote as posing more risk to their financial security than a cross in the No box.

There’s little indication that the main Westminster parties have absorbed any real lessons from the independence debate in Scotland. But one thing they know well, and which the Scottish Government forgot, is that with an ageing population pensions is as potent a political football as it ever has been.

The balance will be even more pronounced at the general election. Younger voters were thrillingly engaged with the independence debate, but the party politics of the general election is a different matter.

For the Conservatives in particular the disenfranchisement of younger generations with Westminster politics is depressingly convenient, allowing them to target older age groups. The depth of the Tory-led coalition’s cynicism on this became clear in March when it unveiled “pension freedom” proposals that are little short of a vote bribe.

Three short years ago it warned that people couldn’t be trusted to make their savings last. Now, however, it’s remarkably relaxed about letting people do as they like with their savings.

The proposals are dangerous – they amount to ripping up the pensions settlement and they’ll leave thousands of people destitute in their later years – but they’re also a potential vote winner.

Is it enough to make a difference, though? Labour isn’t sure. The word is that it will oppose the plans in the House of Commons and could even overturn the reforms if the party wins next May.

New research suggests pension freedom may not be as successful a bribe as George Osborne believes. Fewer than a third of adults think they’ll benefit financially from the reforms and more than half find the changes confusing, according to a survey by TD Direct Investing.

But in pension terms there are myriad questions facing the main parties. Among the contentious issues up for debate are the future of tax relief on pensions contributions, the timetable for the state pension age increase, the state pension triple-lock guarantee and universal benefits.

The current government has already admitted that universal benefits such as bus passes and cold weather payments need reviewing. Predictably, however, it says it won’t do that until after the 2015 election.

You can understand why, whatever your position on universal benefits. Because while you’re not going to win an election by pandering to the grey vote, the referendum underlined that you could do serious damage to your chances if pensioners think you pose a threat to their financial security.