Grey power alive and kicking in Suffolk

Tuesday, 27 June, 2006

PENSIONERS are said to be the group of the population most likely to vote in elections, but in Suffolk grey power is taking on a whole new meaning.

But September four of the county's seven MPs will be eligible for free transport on buses - although I wouldn't count on seeing Sir Michael Lord, John Gummer, Tim Yeo or Richard Spring on the Number 13 to Tesco!

Sir Michael and Mr Gummer are already pensioners at 67 and 66 respectively, Mr Yeo is 61 and Mr Spring hits the 60 mark at the end of the summer.

I'm all for experience, but it is difficult to persuade youngsters to take an interest in politics when everyone representing them is at least a generation older than they are.

Just for the record Suffolk's younger MPs are Waveney's Bob Blizzard at 55, Ipswich MP Chris Mole at 48 and the 'baby' of them all, Bury MP David Ruffley at 44.

None of the older MPs have given any indication that they are thinking of retiring, even though they're passing the age at which civil servants are expected to retire and take their gongs to a retirement cottage.

In fact the House of Commons seems to hold a grip over many MPs that makes it difficult to persuade them to leave the stage.

The oldest MP, Piara Kabra, is 81. Former prime minister Ted Heath was 85 when he stood down from the House of Commons in 2001 and Sir Winston Churchill was only just short of 90 when he stood down in 1964.

Of course experience is very valuable when dealing with matters of great importance - but it does make the House of Commons look very unrepresentative of the nation as a whole.

Is it any wonder that 18 year olds are unwilling to vote if the youngest MPs they see are older than their parents?

As parliament is currently constituted, the House of Lords is the perfect place for retired MPs to be able to dispense their advice and words of wisdom to those currently running the country.

Wouldn't it be better if any MP who steps down voluntarily over the age of 60, and who has served a minimum of 10 years in the Commons, was guaranteed a place in the Lords?

That way all those ageing MPs who tell the world they have something to contribute to Parliament would be able to retain their ticket to the Palace of Westminster's bars and restaurants.

And the House of Commons might be freed up for more young MPs that the ordinary voters can identify with.

But somehow I can't help feeling that the current crop of 60+ MPs would still remain reluctant to swap the green benches of the Commons for the red benches of the Lords.

WHEN will Tony Blair step down? That is still the question that is exercising a number of political analysts - and I'm now told that most of his MPs expect him to go next year.

I said some time ago that I thought his tenure could be measure in weeks rather than months or years. He seems to have weathered the cash for questions, Home Office and Prescott scandals - but his leadership still looks shaky and I'm not sure that it wouldn't take just one more serious crisis to derail him altogether.

If he does make it to Christmas, though, most of his colleagues expect him to call it a day in 2007. The obvious time to announce his departure would be the May elections, which will be the 10th anniversary of his arrival in Downing Street.

That would give Labour five months to choose Gordon Brown as his successor in time for a coronation at the October party conference.

However many MPs expect him to announce his departure before May - because at that time there are elections for the Scottish and Welsh assemblies as well as district councils across the country.

'The party will not want to go into an election with uncertainty over the leadership still hanging over it,' a senior Labour figure told me.

'I'm expecting an announcement February or March. Gordon would make a very good prime minister, but I think even he would like a contest to establish some kind of authority over the party.'

That's all very well, but who on earth is going to stand simply on the basis that they want to give Mr Brown a contest?

If they score a very poor vote - which seems likely given all those Labour people queuing up to say what a wonderful PM Mr Brown will be - where will that leave them when he comes to step down?

And frankly their credibility within the party would be hit, possibly fatally.

When Mr Blair does announce his departure date, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see no one else stand for the leadership except for Mr Brown, giving him a full summer to prepare for the move to Number 10.

I HOPE my car doesn't break down next time I drive along Westerfield Road or Tuddenham Road, I migh get lynched after my comments last week about the proposed north Ipswich development!

There have been many letters having a go at my views and denying that the objections are based on snobbery.

But they miss the point rather. The issue is that if it is agreed that Ipswich needs more family homes then they have to go somewhere.

And it is no good the people in one part of town nodding sagely and wringing their hands before saying: 'Of course they can't be built around here, it's totally unsuitable,' simply because it's near where they live.

It's no good people in the north of Ipswich saying: 'build the homes in Kesgrave or Claydon.' The people of Kesgrave and Claydon have already had their share of new homes.

And if they're saying: 'Don't build any more homes in Ipswich.' Then they'll be condemning the town to stagnation and just adding to the homelessness problem.

The one issue - as I said last week - which does cause a problem is the roads which will need to be improved into the town centre.

But Westerfield Road and Tuddenham Road are wide enough for most of their distance into the town - and I'm sure it will not be impossible to overcome the pinch points.