UK Politics

The pain (and relief) of losing political office

Ed Balls, left, hears he's lost his seat at the 2015 election Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ed Balls, left, was the highest profile MP to lose at the 2015 election

On one day in May they're respected representatives of the voters in parliament, the next they're out on their ear. For those MPs elected in the 2010 intake who lost their seats in 2015, five months of "resettlement" pay has just come to an end. What does it feel like to lose office and what does an ex-MP do next?

The then shadow chancellor Ed Balls said his reaction on election night "wasn't anger or tears - more a dawning disappointment and sense of loss".

On 7 May cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers looked on from town hall platforms as results were announced that would send them back to civvy street overnight.

Employment Minister Esther McVey was the big Conservative name to lose in an otherwise good night for the Tories. Labour lost two big figures in Balls and their key political strategist Douglas Alexander - who lost to the 20-year-old SNP candidate Mhairi Black. Among the 49 Liberal Democrats who lost their seats were the Business Secretary Vince Cable and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Danny Alexander, left, and Vince Cable, right, became ex-ministers and ex-MPs

But it was not only high profile names who lost on the night.

A total of 111 MPs found themselves out of a job the next day. Politicians who lose their seats do get a month's pay per year served - so around £30,000 for those elected in 2010. And they get five working days after polling day to clear out their offices before their security passes are deactivated.

Former Labour MP for Bolton West, Julie Hilling says losing her job in front of 50 million people was "devastating" and that being an MP had been her dream job. Hilling says she doesn't expect sympathy from the public but there should be more support from the parties.

Image copyright Labour Party
Image caption Julie Hilling was elected as an MP in 2010

She says: "In retrospect, the Labour Party would expect an employer to help employees made redundant into new roles and that's something the party should start to do."

That's a sentiment that is echoed in the Open University report Losing Political Office. The study draws on interviews with current and former MPs and reveals a mix of difficulties for those who lose their seats, as well as a small number who feel a huge sense of relief at no longer being in parliament.

'Like rotting fish'

Author of the report, psychiatrist Jane Roberts, says MPs feel they have been "dropped like a stone" by parties and report not receiving a letter or phone call despite years of party work.

Roberts says losing office is not just about party politics, "they've got a team of people who suddenly they have to make redundant".

"All these people have slogged their guts out pounding the street on their behalf. There is shame and humiliation."

Despite this Roberts is also quick to point out that her report is not "special pleading" for politicians, she says we must be able to kick them out, but argues that they ought to be able to leave "without heavy penalties, both professionally and personally".

However not all the subjects of the report were upset to lose their position. One of the case studies had come to find the job immensely less appealing than it had been following the expenses scandal and was grateful to be released from it.

Some had flourished in new jobs but a number felt isolated and forgotten. One subject said "Ex-MPs are like rotting fish. Failed politicians are the worst of the worst. That's what I feel and there's an unspoken feeling that the failure is contagious."

That's a feeling that clearly doesn't bother the members of the Association of Former Members of Parliament who can boast former prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair among their ranks. Formed in 2003, the Association is for former politicians to make contact with friends and colleagues and to provide outreach to schools, colleges and universities.

A gem of a change

The Association chair, ex-Conservative MP Elizabeth Peacock, says the outreach work is popular both with the students who learn more about parliament and with ex-MPs who "feel they are using their experience to pass on to younger people".

Having lost her seat in 1997 Mrs Peacock has had plenty of time to reflect on life after the Commons. She says: "It can be hard when the opposition are crowing and all the people around you in your constituency know you've lost. You have to come back and face everyone. There is no point sitting by the wayside expecting someone to come and pick you up."

For Peacock her first step after losing was to go to college at Hatton Garden and learn to make jewellery.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Lib Dem Sarah Teather has been working in South Sudan

Five months after the 2015 election and ex-MPs' fortunes are a mixed bag. Twenty three ex-MPs have been awarded a peerage so their new workplace is a short trip down the hall to the House of Lords. Some MPs have quickly found their way back into work, for example former Cambridge MP Julian Huppert had been on long-term leave from his lectureship at Cambridge University, while former education minister Sarah Teather - who stood down at the election by choice - has joined the Jesuit Refugee Service to deliver educational services in South Sudan.

Other former MPs have yet to settle into a new job.

Earlier this month Liberal Democrat Jenny Willott said she was "still looking for a paid job in either the voluntary or private sector" and is "doing bits and bobs of freelance work".

However for some there's always another election on the horizon. Julie Hilling is setting up a training and consultancy business but says she won't stop campaigning and hopes to go back to parliament as soon as she can.

Related Topics