It’s tough to be sacked as an MP as a crowd cheers – Peter Duncan
Politics is a rough old business. It has been rough enough for the general public over what has been a painful few years in British political life, but maybe it is time to spare a thought, just for a moment or two, for the way in which this turbulent process impacts on people – real people – who take up their cause and stand for election. And maybe even a thought or two for those who lose.
Election night is a melodrama of epic proportions on the national stage. But it is no less dramatic in each and every town hall where counts are conducted. Dreams stride into those counting halls, and by definition many are dashed as the hours unfold into the early hours of a Friday morning.
I’m going to declare an interest: I’ve been there and done that. I’ve experienced the highs of an election night personal triumph, and the lows of finding that, in the space of three hours’ counting, the effort and sacrifices of months and years beforehand have been for nothing.
Last Thursday night was one of those nights, like 1997, which saw a major changing of the guard. SNP gains in Scotland at the expense of the Tories and Labour, and a blue tide in England washing away the so-called “red wall”.
Being a politician is unlike any other job – although I have always sought to downplay the lack of job security as being a differentiator from those working in the wider economy as, let’s face it, job insecurity is faced by many more people than just those in politics. However, insecurity is a relative thing.
There are not many in the wider economy who face being given notice to leave their job in the full glare of the cameras, often surrounded by a crowd usually dominated by those who wanted to see you fail. No, this is a situation of insecurity and sometimes public humiliation like few others. Labour MPs in northern heartlands last Thursday probably thought they faced a difficult evening, but those with good majorities will never have contemplated failure.
We look for our politicians nowadays to be wedded to the constituency, to shop in the local supermarket and attend the parents’ evenings at the local schools. We want them embedded in the communities they represent. And while that is obviously a great platform from which to genuinely understand the needs of your constituents, it places a particular pressure on a former MP or MSP after defeat.
Suddenly that visit to the local shopping centre is a public re-examination of failure. Wives, girlfriends and partners of former MPs often report that when walking down their local high street it seems like everyone is staring – consumed in the suspicion that they are being whispered about round every corner.
For some MPs there seems like nothing more natural than to swap your MP’s pass for your “former member’s pass”. Some believe that gives them the ability to stay connected to old friends, gradually easing themselves out of public life.
But that route seems a weird one to me. Imagine you fall foul of a round of redundancies at your local large employer, would it really be normal to hang around the staff canteen for weeks, months and years afterwards?
Growing queue of aspiring politicians
Of course, the tendency to want to hang around is often the consequence of a lack of direction over what comes next in the career of a former MP. For those who were surprised by failure, as many are, whatever the polls say, they will find that the phone does not ring much with those seeking failed politicians to join their organisation. Opportunities are few and far between, not least of all because whilst some of the characteristics of political experience are in high demand (self-confidence, analytical and presentational skills), there are a few downsides too. A reputation for ill-discipline or rebellion hardly marks you out as the ideal team player, and too often the CV marked “former MP” carries as many risks as benefits.
Now, I’m well aware that many readers will, not least because of the chaos in parliament of recent years, hold slightly less sympathy for departing politicians than they might have had. They will quite rightly point to an ever-growing queue of aspiring politicians who want to stand for election as evidence that the experience is not all that bad. And the fact is that it isn’t.
Lifelong friendships (often made across party lines), incredible experiences and the ultimate reward of actually changing things for the better lie in wait for a small proportion of those who put themselves forward for a ballot paper near you.
Many will hold a clear vision of what they’d want to do if elected, whilst most will completely underestimate the cost to them emotionally and financially in getting to that election night count – and the further rollercoaster of emotions that awaits them that evening and thereafter.
In a year in which we faced a December election when campaigning for all our votes was a lot less pleasant weather-wise, I’d urge you to take two thoughts away with you after this dramatic election season: be grateful for the campaigners who give up their free time to deliver the democratic contest that is at the heart of every election; and hold a thought for the ordinary people who served, and now don’t.
Public service is a noble ambition, but it can be rough trade. Remember too those casualties who are now footnotes in a remarkable election night transformation.
Peter Duncan is director at Message Matters