Editorial: Christmas gifts to the old age pensioners

The vote-catching of the professional politicians determined at all costs to get power for themselves and their party is an unseemly business at all times but the way the Government and the Opposition exploit the needs of the pensioners in the hope of catching their votes at the next election is more than usually indecent. Fifty or a hundred years ago when the aged poor were stowed away in workhouses or their gratitude cheaply bought with private and organised charity the votes of the men had a certain importance but as worn out workers then died much faster than they do now the vote-catching element was of less account. But now they live longer, the women have votes as well as the men, and the total voting strength of the Tory and Labour parties is so evenly matched that it matters very much which party captures most of the vote. So as each general election approaches we witness the parties parading the hardships of the poverty-stricken pensioners in the verbal and statistical battle to prove which government of skinflints holds the palm for callousness, the one now in office or its predecessor.

Of course to read the heart throbbing speeches of the combatants one might be led to believe that there really is something to choose between them, but the facts belie it. Neither the pre-war governments, nor the Labour Government after the war nor the present Government has provided or will provide more than a miserly sum barely sufficient to help keep the pensioners alive.

A special correspondent of The Times (22/10/54) reviewed the post-war history of pension and assistance rates and showed how cheeseparingly each government has behaved. The original rates of pension fixed in 1946 gave 42/- for a married couple. It was, says the correspondent, fixed as a “Spartan” standard “somewhat less generous than the standard provided by national assistance during the past six years.” The correspondent then measures the increases of the rates since 1946 against the rise in the cost of living, but austerely using as yardstick not the rise of the cost of living of workers in work because that includes the more-than-average increase in the price of alcohol and tobacco “and other ‘non-essentials’,” but a more restricted measure based on “subsistence” costs. He finds that by 1948 the purchasing power of pensions was already eight per cent. below the level of 1946, by 1952, in spite of higher pension rates the rise in the cost of living had cut the value of pensions by 11 per cent. and today what they will buy is 15 per cent below the original level. “In terms of 1946 purchasing power benefits in 1954 should have been 64/- for a couple and 39/6 for a single person, against 54/- and 32/6 actually.”

Of course the responsibility for this miserable state of affairs, which will not be materially improved by the present Government’s increases nor by those of any future Labour or other Government administering capitalism, rests on the pensioners themselves along with the rest of the working class. They vote for capitalism and their position is one of the consequences of the system they vote for. But even on the short-sighted view of making the best of the capitalism they vote for they should at least refrain from feeling grateful to the Labour and Tory Governments for the mean-spirited “improvements” grudgingly handed out. If the pensioners are content to sell their votes why sell them so cheaply?

An English general once coined the phrase, with reference to old soldiers, that a grateful county will never forget you. With some amendment this is true for the old-age pensioners. If they make themselves sufficient of a nuisance their Labour and Tory self-styled benefactors may be induced to raise pensions again up to or even beyond the insultingly low purchasing power calculated by Beveridge in 1946.

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