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Ex-MPs: Life After (Parliamentary) Death

Defeated MPs Miss Palace of Westminster

With a new UK Parliament, a record number of former MPs are in the jobs market. Some stood down; others were pushed by the voters. Most must find new work.

Before the 2010 election, 97 Labour and 35 Conservatives declared they’d not stand again. Some faced near-certain defeat after recent expenses scandals, some retired naturally, others just fancied the resettlement grant, worth up to £65,000 for longest-serving members. The election created 232 new MPs: 148 Conservatives, 66 Labour, 10 Liberal Democrat, 8 others. This scale is consistent with a big swing from one party to another. In 1997’s Labour landslide, 160 Conservative MPs lost their seats. As many gain new jobs, others lose theirs.

Thrown on the Scrapheap

Few people are sacked in the public arena surrounded by singing and dancing opponents and the media as defeated MPs are at their Declarations. Because an MP’s work is unique, both in the constituency and the Westminster/Whitehall village, it’s a shock to be removed, even if opinion polls predict it.

Some describe it as a bereavement, lost identity. Cutting off at the knees, depriving of oxygen, deserted, being neutered, becoming the undead – all convey the devastating loss of the privilege of Commons membership. Parliament is often described as the best club in the world, and to be excluded is a hammer-blow.

Average MP’s term-expectancy is around eight and a half years. Once booted out, instantly gone are salaries, offices, staff, legislative input, making a difference in people’s lives by solving problems. The status is vanished, loyalty is not in evidence. As many say, ‘there is nothing as ex, as an ex-MP’.

Former Labour MP Joe Ashton who stood down from Bassetlaw in 2001 after serving 32 years, conscious of the struggle some former MPs had when suddenly isolated, ignored or even ridiculed, formed a support group, an association to help them recover from the trauma and look to a new future. Several had severe alcohol problems, depression and financial difficulties. Few talk about the experience, even years later.

For weeks after, they’re expected to wrap up constituency business and casework, passing to the new incumbent whatever is necessary to serve the public, but there are no enforced rules. They then watch their replacement constantly in the local papers, on TV and radio, out and about in an area previously regarded as the former Member’s. Despite predictions, most refuse to accept until they see the piles of ballot papers at the count, believing they will swim against the tide.

To take just one illustration: Keith Bradley, Labour’s Manchester Withington representative for 18 years and a minister, before student opposition to tuition fees, Liberal Democrat electioneering and Conservative tactic of choosing a candidate also called Bradley, led to him losing in 2005. At 55 with three children to support and having been a minister, no new career was automatically obvious.

Born-Again as Something

People wonder how years in Parliament qualify a former Member for other work. Many join advertising or public relations, putting Parliamentary/campaigning experience to good use.

Others work tirelessly in the political wilderness to retrieve the seat they lost, like David Evenett (Bexley Heath and Crayford, out in 1997, back 2005, returned again 2010). Some work for a safer seat; a few are elevated to the House of Lords by grateful party leaders. MPs re-elected after a gap are affectionately known as retreads, or come-back kids.

The notion that an MP is only associated with one seat was disproved by Winston Churchill who in his time won five seats, was defeated twice, de-selected once and crossed the floor of the House twice before becoming Prime Minister.

Some former MPs end in prison, like Jeffery Archer (Louth, 1969-74) and Jonathan Aitken (Thanet East 1974-83; South Thanet, 1983-97), both for perjury and perverting the course of justice. Some, like Michael Carttiss, (Great Yarmouth, 1983-97) seek election to local government, in his case becoming Chairman of Norfolk County Council.

Most find new berths in the choppy waters of the media world. Ministers David Mellor (Putney, 1979-97), Michael Portillo (Enfield Southgate, 1984-97; Kensington & Chelsea, 1999-05) and Edwina Currie (South Derbyshire, 1983-97) went from Conservative benches to TV & radio punditry/presenting. Gyles Brandreth went from broadcasting to politics (City of Chester, 1972-97) and back to broadcasting. Labour’s Brian Walden (Birmingham All Saints, 1964-74; Birmingham Ladywood, 1974-77) and Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk, 1974-83; Knowsley North, 1983-86) did the same, with Kilroy-Silk winning a stint as a Member of the European Parliament and hosting TV quiz show, Shafted.

Conservative Sebastian Coe (Falmouth & Camborne, 1992-97) went to the Lords and carved a new career fronting London’s successful campaign to host the 2012 Olympics. Matthew Parris (West Derbyshire, 1979-86) left politics to became a national journalist with occasional forays onto TV screens.

The fact is, eventually most make a life after Parliament. They get scant public sympathy. Almost all stood in the first place from mixed motives of ambition and public service. As most political careers end in failure, it becomes time for others to have a go.

First published on Suite 101, 9 May 2010; updated 2 October 2010.

Photo: Defeated MPs Miss Palace of Westminster (Maurice)

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