Research
10 Feb 2015

Research reveals the pain and relief of ‘Losing Political Office’

What happens to politicians who have lost political office? Does it matter to anyone other than those immediately affected? Recent research published by The Open University Business School (OUBS) considers these questions and reveals the personal and professional conflicts faced by MPs and council leaders who are leaving political office.

The report, Losing Political Office draws on interviews with current and former MPs and council leaders. The former politicians included both those who had chosen to leave office and those who had been electorally defeated. It reveals both the profound difficulties for many of those leaving office as well as, for a small number of former MPs, their relief at no longer being in parliament. It demonstrates a widespread reluctance among current politicians to think about how and when they might leave office. Key conclusions of the report include:

• Whilst a minority were pleased to be relieved of ‘the chains of office’ (‘it was so devastatingly awful to be an MP’), most, including those who had chosen to leave office, expressed their sense of dislocation and grief at the loss of office: ‘It was like a bereavement, and it was, but there was no funeral.’

• That they were avoided by many after losing office was an issue for a number: '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.’

• ‘[The notion of leaving is] something I prefer not to think about… my preferred life course is one where I wake up one morning, dead’ (from a current MP).

The research aims to generate debate on the how and whys of the exit from political office, a subject on which there has been limited research despite politicians’ leaving office being an integral part of our representative democracy. The research considers possible wider implications, including the future recruitment of politicians, as well as provoking further discussion on how to ‘reuse’ the talents and skills of former politicians to benefit society.

Visiting Fellow at The Open University Business School and author of the report, Dame Jane Roberts, a psychiatrist by profession and formerly Leader of the London Borough of Camden, said:
“Former council leaders and MPs have a wide set of skills, often unrecognised by employers and wider society. Futhermore, they have the experience of both being in office, and understanding the difficult compromises of governing, returning to civil society, and experiencing the effect of those compromises. They are therefore ideally placed to promote democratic engagement.

“If the risks of gaining political office and leaving that office are too high, we may further narrow the pool from which our elected representatives are drawn and, as a result, entrench the perception that elected politicians are a class apart; this serves none of us well.”

The report was launched at a House of Commons event recently, with keynote speakers Charles Walker OBE MP, Councillor David Sparks OBE and the Rt Hon Dame Tessa Jowell MP.

Keynote speaker, Charles Walker OBE MP, said:
“Losing your seat is not a topic that is discussed in the House of Commons; it is never discussed and my question is why? All MPs, whether through resignation or voting, will lose their seat during their political career and the research by The Open University Business School emphasises the impact this can have on both the politicians, and their family and friends. I am in full support of ensuring that MPs are both recognised for their outstanding contributions, and supported, both within and outside of office.”

Keynote speaker, Councillor David Sparks OBE, said:
“This insightful research is not only relevant, but is particularly pertinent to the current political landscape. It clearly shows the need for politicians, who we expect to be completely dedicated to politics morning and night, to maintain a greater perspective on life to ensure a smooth return to civil society.”

Councillor Sparks also commented: “We will take on board the recommendations of this research and apply them where practical.”

Keynote speaker, Rt Hon Dame Tessa Jowell MP, said:
“As an elected politician, you are always switched on and feel the responsibility for your electorate day and night. This is not easy to give up – I feel as though I am losing a part of myself. However, I am an optimist and strongly agree with a key theme of this research; the importance of establishing a professional career outside of office.”

The report, Losing Political Office is available on the OUBS website:
www.open.ac.uk/business-school/about/academic-departments/public-leadership-and-social-enterprise

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