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On a blustery afternoon on Eastbourne pier, holidaying pensioners are in no mood to talk about politics. “No thank you very much, mind your own business,” says one white-haired lady sitting on a bench, nibbling a giant cloud of pink candyfloss.
A couple walking along the promenade, eating their lunch from a fish and chip shop, are even more determined to keep their views to themselves. “Who are you? A journalist? I’ve had enough of you people,” snarls the man. The encounter ends sourly with a bark of “leave us alone!” and a bombardment of chips.
Such distrust as Britain goes to the polls on Thursday is not just limited to the media. Just over a fifth of Eastbourne’s population is older than 65 and they are showing every sign of being mutinous over the choices that politicians have put before them.
The seaside resort on the south coast is one of the tightest constituencies in the country, where the local Conservative MP Caroline Ansell has a majority of just 733 over her Liberal Democrat rival.
Theresa May’s election manifesto policy that the elderly would face unlimited costs on their home care, with £100,000 of their assets protected, has dismayed elderly voters, despite a later U-turn.
Polling by YouGov shows that pensioners across the country started the campaign with 69 per cent likely to vote Tory, compared with a national average of 48 per cent, but the figures wobbled around the time of the policy change and have now fallen to 62 per cent.
For Stephen Lloyd, the Lib Dem candidate, these figures are a potential lifeline. When asked about the impact of the Tories’ social care U-turn. he said: “It’s gone down shocking badly . . . with a lot of older people, a lot of Conservative voters, it really has. We’re getting that a lot. What they pick up on is . . . oh my god, I’m losing my house,” he says.
Mrs Ansell said she was too busy with the campaign to offer her view. Among her constituents, meanwhile, long-held partisan convictions are being overturned. At the Age Concern drop-in centre near Eastbourne station, Joan Blazeby, 85, a lifetime Conservative voter, says she will be voting Lib Dem for the first time on Thursday.
She made a decision because of her fondness for the local candidate, reflecting a weariness with national politicians. “I don’t think we know which of them really supports what,” she says, when asked about the main party leaders.
For her, frustration with Mrs May’s flip-flopping on dementia tax was the final straw. “She should have been very sure of what she was saying before she said it,” Mrs Blazeby says. “It’s not a very cheerful thought that somebody can tell you one thing one week, and another the next.”
Switches like this could be significant. Over-65s tend to show the highest turnout of any age group — in 2015 it was 78 per cent, almost double that of 18 to 24-year-olds. Robert Ford, politics professor at the University of Manchester, says that as a result, any moves by pensioners tend to have an impact on a national scale.
“Because it’s such a high turnout age-group, if the Tories lose 3 per cent among this bracket then that will convert into their losing a number of seats,” he says. “So it’s not a game-changer for the overall result but it could make a difference at the margins — and the margins means half a dozen Tory candidates who hoped to become MPs who now won’t be, because older voters have shifted.”
But many older voters are also embracing the Tories for the first time, because of their preference for Brexit. Ron Kerwood, an 83 year-old former dock worker from east London, now resident in Eastbourne, has only ever voted Labour but will move to the Tories on Thursday because “Theresa May and the Tory party are the only ones with any intention of carrying out Brexit”.
“I’m not too worried about the dementia tax, I think it will be watered down,” he says, as he relaxes on a bench on Terminus road.
One 67-year-old lady who refuses to give her name says she has voted for the UK Independence party for the past few years but is now turning to the Tories because she is so disappointed with Nigel Farage for standing down as Ukip leader. “Well, you can’t really trust any of them can you?”, she says despairingly. Her tepid endorsement of May is coloured by a sense that all politicians are trying to get one over on the public. Does she like May? “She seems all right,” is the unconvincing verdict.
Speaking by phone, the day before the election, Mr Lloyd suddenly checks himself. “Politics has been so febrile and crazy in the past 18 months that I don’t even know if I trust my own hunches any more,” he says, and admits that trust in politicians, and the media, seems to be at a low. “It is hard to know which way it will go,” he says. “People do seem very unsure of themselves.”