A PHOTO of Jeremy Corbyn weaving through traffic on his bike a few days ago showed that in terms of pedal power at least, the Labour leader is not remotely frail. The word conjures images of zimmers and walking sticks, not a cyclist zigzagging proficiently between London cars under a blazing sun.

You can’t help wondering if the rumours about Mr Corbyn’s declining memory, attention span, strength and general fitness come from real evidence of reduced capabilities, or if they are a fiendishly contagious conspiracy, cooked up to topple him before he has a chance to become the next Prime Minister. Scuttlebutt insists that the 70-year-old is nothing but a puppet, leaning on colleagues for support, mouthing their ideas, and too decrepit to do much more than clutch the lectern and issue an occasional rallying call to his troops.

With most unfrail alacrity, Mr Corbyn has refuted all these suggestions – apparently made by senior civil servants – and is asking for an independent inquiry into whoever is spreading such lies. He is right to insist on this, but sadly the damage is already done. Now every blink and tremor, every hesitation and stumble, will be cause for analysis and concern.

No-one beyond the Labour leader’s closest family and associates can know how much, if any, truth this gossip holds. We’ve been told about eye problems, but are they an indication of more serious underlying health problems? Or is it simply that the burdens of office are exhausting him, making him appear older than his years? Impossible to tell. With a man whose demeanour has always been more energy-saving bulb than dynamo, it is difficult to detect any appreciable dimming of wattage.

As questions were being asked about his ability to run the party, let alone turn the key in the door of Number 10, I found myself thinking of Mr Corbyn when watching democratic hopefuls for the next US presidential nomination. Bernie Saunders, who will be 78 in September, is impressively impassioned, but he cannot surely be anybody’s idea of the perfect candidate, given the demands that would be made of him in arguably the most high-profile and pressured job in the world. Joe Biden, too, at 76 is scarcely a spring chicken. Like Mr Saunders, he was born while the Second World War was getting into gear. As for the American president, even his worst enemies have to concede that at 73 he still seems to be possessed of enough energy to make international deals and travel the globe, with never a sign of flagging.

This might all sound unpleasantly ageist. Yet with a few notable exceptions, most mortals begin to slow down intellectually as well as physically as they reach their biblical span of three score years and 10. This is not to say that there are not many fruitful, useful and enjoyable years ahead, but it is to suggest that the gruelling schedules expected of modern politicians, be they first ministers or presidents, senators or MPs, is no longer an arena in which those past their prime will easily flourish. A century ago, there would have been little or no public outcry over an elderly or enfeebled prime minister or party leader if colleagues could keep the government on track. In this, Britain had the benefit of centuries of precedent with royalty. From before the Stuarts to George III, kings and queens, with a little help from friends at court, continued to pass edicts and legislation, sign death warrants and go to war, while, whether through ill health, insanity or senility, they were completely unfit for office.

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With the onward march of democracy, however, has come greater visibility, transparency and accountability. Technology might have transformed our domestic workload, but for those in the political front line, the digital revolution has turned night into day. Dedication and accessibility 24/7 is the least voters now expect. No wonder so many images of MPs shows them in running gear, pounding the pavements and turning strawberry pink. This is not just a metaphor but a practical necessity if they are to survive the punishing regime their role demands.

Despite much talk about our fast-ageing population, there has never been a period that is so youth-driven, or when the old have been so easily and cruelly dismissed as irrelevant or past-it because they have one foot still in a pre-tech world. The gulf between those born while ration books were circulating, and those who’d mastered an iPhone before their milk teeth were cut, is eye-wateringly wide. What does someone of pensionable age understand of the Snapchat generation? Other than the most basic human needs, such as security, work, and dignity, which transcend any barriers of time and class, colour and creed, what can an elderly politician offer a youthful electorate?

Well, perhaps more than you’d think. Clearly, what we’re witnessing with the ongoing popularity of those like Mr Saunders and Donald Trump, is the triumph of longevity and experience over vigour. Their retro appeal is in part thanks to a lifetime’s accumulation of high-powered connections and skills. Why be surprised that some dream even now of Ken Clarke taking over the Tory Party to bring it to its senses, despite him being almost as ancient as the Fortingall yew? Or that others rejoice at the distant prospect of Ann Widdecombe resurrecting her political career and returning as a Brexit Party MP.

Experience, and the informed perspective it allows, is by far the greatest advantage of seniority. Is this what the young see when they look at people like Mr Corbyn, who lavishes more care on his allotment than on clear-cut policy yet commands widespread respect and even affection; or why the venerable-looking Mr Saunders made such an impression with his brand of democractic socialism that he threatened to make Hillary Clinton toast?

It would seem so. Evidence suggests, indeed, that despite living in a world designed for youth, where to be in any way incapacitated or slow is to be invisible and ignored, we are nevertheless hard-wired as humans to defer to age. Rightly or wrongly, our instincts tell us that with wrinkles or bald pate, dentures or dodgy knees, comes hard-won wisdom. You might even argue that, far from being a handicap to reaching power, advanced age is actually an asset.