I first started paying attention to the political party conferences when I was in my late teens. It interested me to hear so many people would gather from across the country to discuss what taxes we have to pay and the state of the NHS. Not just politicians, but tens of thousands of party members – all happy to exchange their day-to-day routine for vigorous debate in dusty convention centres in Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool.
Now I attend these same conferences as a campaigner, albeit in rather more corporate settings in cities far from the sea. Naturally, as an active participant in the debates, I look at the discussions taking place through a different lens.
In the past month I attended the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat conferences. Reflecting back, I was particularly pleased to see older members actively involved in the key debates. Yes, there were other moments that will stick in the memory: not least the new commitments from politicians to pay for “and rescue” the NHS.
However, my main memories will be the conversations I had with delegates. In events I took part in on the fringes, I heard members of all three parties’ debate the future of so-called pensioner benefits like the free bus pass and Winter Fuel Payments.
I also met delegates who couldn’t believe the poor care their loved ones had received, and others who praised the fantastic service in their local GP surgery.
For me, the most important reason why Independent Age gets involved in these conferences is because it provides us with an unparalled opportunity “to speak truth to power”. It also helps us to make a strong case that whichever party forms the next government, they need to get ready for our rapidly ageing population.
We are fiercely independent and take our message to all parties, whatever their politics. This year, we put direct questions to the Secretary of State for Health; on why we believe it is so important to meet the care and support needs of older people before they reach a crisis point. We put similar questions to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, but Opposition spokespeople too.
We were also invited to take part in important debates on the future of pensions. From 2015, there will be major changes for hundreds of thousands of older people retiring with Defined Contributions pensions so it was only right we took the opportunity to express our hopes and concerns about the way in which these new pension freedoms will work to the Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions.
Crucially, we raised big concerns affecting older people and their families. But, we also looked to the future and reminded politicians there will be a doubling in the number of over 85s by 2030. Encouragingly, the message seems to be getting through.