Losing political office

Election Labour Party

Representative democracy depends on politicians exiting office. It is part and parcel of our democratic system. There is considerable interest in who stands for and gains office, but curiously little about the leaving of political office: What is the experience like? What happens to politicians as they make the transition from office? What is the impact on their partners and family? Does it matter to anyone other than those immediately affected? Are there any wider implications?

A detailed and systematic study was conducted to examine these questions. A sample was constructed of former council leaders and former MPs (to cover both local and national elected politicians), and, where possible, they and, separately, their partners were interviewed about the experiences of leaving political office, following either choosing to stand down or an electoral defeat. The impact of leaving office on the individual, the partner and family was explored. In addition, some current council leaders and MPs were interviewed about their thinking about their intended duration of their time in political office, in order to inform a consideration of any wider implications from the research findings. The interviews were equally balanced between local and national government, and participants represented a variety of constituencies, wards or divisions in the UK and in varied demographic contexts.

The sample covered all three main political parties.

In total, 41 confidential interviews were conducted, most lasting about an hour and a half, but some considerably longer. All interviews were audio-recorded and the tapes were transcribed, ready for analysis.

Turning to the key findings:

Most interviewees – whether they had chosen to go or not – had grieved the loss of political office in some way, often intensely. In adjusting to a very different life, most had experienced a sense of dislocation. They had initially struggled to find a new narrative about who they were and what they did, and a number had struggled to find employment. Many of those who had been defeated at the ballot box described emotional devastation and a profound sense of personal failure at the loss of their position at the time of the defeat. For a number, this was still the case when I interviewed them well over a year later. Many who had been defeated – and especially their partners – felt deeply hurt and angry at the thoughtlessness of the political parties that they had served so loyally, often over many decades. There had often been little or no acknowledgement from the party of their tireless contribution over the years. They had simply been cast out. They lamented that their skills, knowledge and  experience had not been made use of, and they conveyed a deep sense of frustration that there was so little interest in what they still had to offer.

A small number of interviewees, all MPs who had stood down, had been relieved to leave office, finding the role increasingly unattractive and wanting a more fulfilling professional and personal life elsewhere.

From my interviews, it was clear that current politicians mostly had given little thought to when and how they might leave political office. MPs, by and large, were reluctant to think about it. Council leaders tend to be in office for a shorter time than MPs, but, even so, few had given much thought to when and how they might leave it.

Stories are often powerful. And so it is the case here. There are many powerful narratives in this research: about the experiences of holding political office; about how carelessly dismissed the individuals feel on leaving that office; and about how what former office holders may still have to offer is so little recognised.

I argue that not only do we, the public, do a disservice to those who leave political office and their families, but we do ourselves a disservice by failing to make use of their valuable skills and experience. Furthermore, I make the case that the conditions into which we elect our representatives and the smoothness or otherwise with which they can leave office have wider implications for our representative democracy.

This report is not about special pleading for politicians. Politicians must lose office. We must be able to kick them out – our representative democracy depends on us doing precisely this. They ought to be able to choose to leave and return to Civvy Street with some risk but without heavy penalties, both professionally and personally. But our democratic system does not depend on treating politicians with so much less thought than that accorded those in other occupational roles; it does not depend on laying waste their accumulated skills and knowledge; and it does not depend on a voyeuristic salaciousness. This report is not arguing for money to be spent to address these issues: it argues merely for some thought and better design of the transitions from political office-holding to other roles.

How politicians gain office, their experience of holding office, and how they exit office all contribute to a fluidity between those who are elected to represent and those whom they represent – essential to any healthy system of representative democracy. There is much debate about routes into political office, and some about the experience of office. But there is little debate about routes out of office, when and how to relinquish political office and what conditions facilitate politicians to leave, should either they or the electorate deem that it is time.

This report demonstrates that exiting political office matters a great deal to those who are both directly and indirectly affected. That may well be unsurprising. But how the exit is managed and what happens subsequently matters to us all. The transition from political office is a transition of considerable significance – and not just for those making it. The report therefore finishes with recommendations to a range of individuals and bodies who can take steps to ease the inevitable transition which will occur for all politicians at some stage – the politicians themselves, their families, their political parties and institutions such as Parliament and the Local Government Association. I argue that more thoughtful and empathic actions on exit will lead to a healthier democracy.

Why bother about losing political office?

Why bother about the leaving of political office? Why the fuss? Surely, it’s a transition much as any other and can be informed by the considerable amount that we already know about redundancy, retirement or indeed life transitions in general. Moreover, politicians know the score when they enter the fray; why single them out for any consideration at all?

While politicians share elements of their role with other occupations – many occupations are just as intensely and relentlessly demanding, for example – I argue that it is the combination of factors associated with the political role and the leaving of it that is distinctive:

  • Political office as an MP or a council leader is immensely hard work that intrudes upon family life, is unconfined to any normal hours of work, requires working in more than one locality and more than one arena and entails continual shuttling between constituency and political chamber.
  • The attraction of politics for many is all consuming, not only of time but of identity and deeply held beliefs: personal and occupational identities are often deeply intertwined.
  • Public expectations of access to their elected representative are higher now than they ever have been. There is often little time for the office holder to develop or maintain interests beyond politics.
  • Continuous media scrutiny and sometimes public exposure are now part of the package, often edged with cynicism, distrust and sometimes contempt.
  • Yet seeking positive constituents’ perceptions and opinions is a legitimate and intrinsic element of a politician’s role. On these perceptions rest votes and thus both the individual and their political party gaining office.
  • When the time in office comes to an end, involuntarily or not, the cliff edge is often very steep: loss of office may be sudden and unexpected, and can be entirely unrelated to individual poor performance in some situations (one’s party is out of favour, for example). Council leaders experience ice-cold turkey: they are out immediately after a defeat with no
    redundancy pay, not even the statutory minimum.
  • Unlike senior managers who can move to another organisation or another part of the country without loss of status, politicians mostly have to build up support in a locality to be elected, and therefore cannot move on so quickly, even if they wish to.
  • In common with others made redundant, politicians may lose office at any age, and often well under retirement age. But, unlike many facing redundancy or retirement, there is little in the way of anticipation of a significant transition, let alone a package of support (such as coaching or career management) on exit for politicians. Quite the reverse: a politician’s
    demise may be greeted with glee.
  • Finally, politicians are private individuals, but they are in public office as elected representatives. Their leaving of office is not just a private affair; they are subject to the expectations of their constituents. Politicians cannot help but be the recipients of a wide range of emotions projected on to them by others. Anger, guilt, anxiety and disappointment are just some of the powerful emotions that the public may commonly bring to the encounter. Such emotions may be internalised, and politicians thus have to cope with both these projected feelings as well as their own expectations, responsibilities and sense of duty.

What is known about losing political office?

In essence: not much.

There is an extensive review of the academic literature on the loss of political office in my forthcoming book. What follows here is a brief summary.

Research on leaving political office began in the 1920s in the United States, and gathered pace later in the twentieth century with explorations of the lives and activities of US presidents after they had left the White House. Even so, there is little that has probed presidents’ lived experience of transition from office and their adjustment to post-presidential life. US presidents, of course, if they are re-elected for a second term, not only know when they will be leaving office four years before it happens, but the transition itself is two months or so, before the inauguration of their successor. This is very different from UK politicians’

There is a more recent literature emerging this century on what happens to heads of government from nations other than the USA, mostly Western-style democracies, once they have left office (Theakston and de Vries, 2012). This literature on political sunsets has focused on what such leaders have gone on to do – what roles they may take on and their degree of influence after office. All are at risk of ‘relevance deprivation syndrome’ (coined by Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign minister, and cited by Keane, 2011, p. 284). Theakston and de Vries’ case studies demonstrate that success or failure in high office does not predict
the success or otherwise of what comes later. They suggest that there are increasing opportunities for former national government leaders to play a role on the international stage, but both personal and broader contextual factors will influence their ‘afterlife’.

There is little information, however, examining the experience of transition from office of politicians who have not achieved the highest office, although the literature from Canada is richer than elsewhere. For example, Shaffir and Kleinknecht (2005) powerfully describe the intensity of the trauma of an electoral defeat, based on interviews with former Canadian federal and provincial parliamentarians. There are also reflections from autobiographies, but they make little mention of the emotional and psychological consequences of leaving office or of the impact on partners and wider family impact. There is not a great deal of work in the UK, but the work by Kevin Theakston and colleagues from Leeds and by Ashley Weinberg in Salford has been particularly useful. The Leeds University group surveyed Westminster MPs who left Parliament in 2005, exploring reasons for standing down where MPs had chosen to go, the practicalities of leaving the House of Commons, and what happened next
(Theakston, Gouge and Honeyman, 2007). A study by Weinberg (2007) sent questionnaires to a number of Westminster MPs before and after a general election, looking at measures of well-being in those still in office, and those who had left office either by standing down or having been defeated. Weinberg highlighted the merits of MPs preparing in advance for life after Parliament.

With regard to what happens to leading local government figures, however, I have not been able to find any work, despite a persistent search.

There is a wealth of literature studying other transitions that may have relevance to the experience of loss of political office. Most relevant are redundancy, unemployment, retirement, bereavement, and loss and change more generally (e.g. Jahoda, 1982; Beehr, 1986; Hartley, 1987; Marris, 1993; Vickers, 2009; Gabriel, Gray and Goregaokar, 2013; Wang, 2013), which demonstrate that each transition is a process and a journey over time, with multiple meanings and impact beyond the immediate financial and practical, and affecting families, not just the individual. There is also some interest in what happens to specific post-holders, for example chief executive officers, or people in specific occupations, such as top athletes (Lally, 2007) or members of the armed forces, once they exit their role. None of these roles and occupations, however, carries the same representative function as does a politician.

An understanding of the possible impact of the loss of political office may be informed by Ebaugh (1988), who provides rich insights into the experience of ‘exes’. A former nun turned academic, Ebaugh became interested in ‘role exit’, that is ‘the process of disengagement from a role that is central to one’s self-identity and the re-establishment of an identity in a
new role that takes into account one’s ex-role’ (Ebaugh, 1988, p. 1). She was curious that so little scholarly attention had been paid to the area, in contrast to the interest paid to role entrance. She did not, however, interview ex-political office holders. Based on interviews with a number of other ‘exes’, such as ex-nuns, divorcees and ex-doctors, most of whom had left their previous role voluntarily, she has devised a four-stage model of role exit: beginning doubts; seeking alternatives; a turning point; and creating an ‘ex-role’. She has called for further studies that compare voluntary and involuntary role exits.

Overall, there are significant gaps in our understanding of the experience of transition from political office. Keane, who has argued for a ‘politics of retreat’, has described the area as: ‘Under-theorized, under-researched, under-appreciated, and – in many cases – underregulated.’ (Keane, 2011, p. 282–3).

There is little from a sociological or a psychological perspective, little analysis on the experience of transition itself from interview data in the UK, and there is relatively little literature on the experience of transition from political office at a ministerial or parliamentary level. The transition from local government leadership has not, to my knowledge, been analysed. Furthermore, the implications of the experience of transition from political office for our democratic system have been little debated.

It is intriguing that so little is discussed and written on what is after all an integral part of our democratic system.

Research questions

Given the gaps in the literature, I set out to explore what happens to politicians who have not been heads of government but who have occupied prominent political positions. I examined,therefore, the experiences of MPs and council leaders of large local authorities.

I asked the following research questions:

  • What is the experience of losing elected political office for the office holder?
  • What are the consequences of the loss of political office for individuals and their families?
  • What, if anything, can be done to mitigate any negative consequences?
  • What can current politicians tell us about the period prior to exit and how the matter is (or is not) approached while in office?
  • Are there any wider implications from the data for our democratic system?

Jane Roberts is a Visiting Fellow at The Open University and a member of the Leadership Research Discussion Group at The Open University Business School.  Fuller findings and discussion will be available in a book that she is currently preparing.