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Pensions at the polls

With most of the world focused on events unfolding in the Middle East, the promise of action on a whole host of pressing home-front issues seems unlikely.

We have hit mid-term blues for all the parties, with none of them enlivening the spirit. The turnout at the last general election was a mere 59 per cent and my prediction is that, unless something radical happens to engage voters, this figure can only drift lower when Tony Blair goes to the polls again.

We are coming close to presidential status in terms of lack of voter interest. Over half of US citizens do not bother to vote – and perhaps they get what they deserve. The same seems to be happening here.

So what is going to energise the person on the Clapham omnibus once again? Is it time for a new political party?

Current talk of a new party – dubbed A New Party for Britain – seems more akin to the efforts of Sir James Goldsmith and his Referendum Party, which helped to destroy the Tories&#39 election chances in some marginal seats in 1997. The big business nature of this grouping will not appeal to all. Perhaps the key issue of interest to many – welfare reform – does not even appear to be on the new party&#39s agenda.

While the Tories have recently rediscovered their old enthusiasm for tax cutting, this does not seem likely to make them engage with voters. Early May will be the time to watch out for party changes during 2003. While the knives were out for Iain Duncan Smith before Christmas, any would-be assassins will wait until the outcome of the local, Welsh and Scottish elections in May before they decide to strike.

Whatever happens, one of the best Tory weapons is Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary David Willetts, who remains one of the most able of their front-bench team. For the financial services industry, the good news is that he seems set to survive, whatever may happen to his leader.

The Liberal Democrats are in an interesting position. Despite Charlie Kennedy&#39s antics on the Have I Got News for You programme, the party is failing to make the mid-term headway predicted at the time of the last election. While Kennedy has clearly won an internal battle to focus his party guns on the Tories, it will be interesting to see what effect this repositioning will have on the fortunes of the major opposition parties.

It would be a mistake for Kennedy&#39s political clan to think that Tory voters are not interested by the public services and welfare reform agenda. Placing welfare reform higher on the party&#39s list of priorities may be just the angle the LibDems should be looking for.

What does the future hold for New Labour? The key political milestone in 2003 will be the Chancellor&#39s five economic tests for European single currency membership.

The Queen&#39s Speech emphasised the fact that Gordon Brown is set to make his judgement in June. It will be a key moment for the much analysed Blair/Brown relationship and, therefore, a key moment for New Labour. The divide or rather chasm that opened up in the Tory party over the euro issue during the 1990s may seem nothing compared with the potential travails of Labour over the issue in the coming year.

It seems to me that the opportunities for a new political agenda are manifest. Issues facing the financial services industry are likely to be at the heart of the political agenda into the next general election, so how about this for a new political force in the land – the Pension Party. Sounds daft, but if single-issue campaigns are here to stay, why not take advantage of one of the biggest of them all? Who would have predicted 18 months ago that we would see many different kinds of employees striking outside their workplaces because their pension rights have been eroded?

Who could lead our Pension Party? The talent of LibDem work and pensions spokesman Steve Webb must put him in the running. But I am sure that Willetts and MP Frank Field would throw their hats into the ring and Dr Oonagh McDonald might want to make a welcome return to Westminster.

What should the Pension Party manifesto be? Simple – to salvage Britain&#39s once great state and employer-based pension systems and ensure they effectively meet the challenges of modern lifestyles and the outlook for less predictable investment markets.

The party might want to conduct a referendum on what we want from our retirement income. Asking people what they want – that would be a novel political idea in the UK.

For those of us hoping for some glad tidings from Work and Pensions Secretary Andrew Smith in the Pension Green Paper published before Christmas, there was disappointment for many. It was just not the bold, forwarding-looking piece that many of us hoped might end the current pension blight.

Mmmm … the Pension Party – it just might get my vote and that of millions of others. But who might start it?

Iain Anderson is director and chief corporate counsel at Cicero Consulting

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