Dazed, defeated and under-employed: how politicians cope after losing an election

If your name’s not down…. Ben, CC BY-NC-SA

As an unpredictable general election approaches, some big names in politics can no longer be certain of holding onto their constituencies. And while we tend to find out a lot about candidates before polling day, we often hear little about what happens after members of parliament lose their seats.

And there may be a good reason for that. Interviews with 30 politicians, including ten former MPs and ten former council leaders, have demonstrated that departure is not at all straightforward. For some, it can be devastating, but this is often kept private.

Interviews with those former MPs who had lost in the 2010 election were conducted about two years after the event. I also talked to their partners wherever possible. For many, defeat had been shockingly unexpected. It often only became apparent that the game was up as the votes came in at the count – even if the seat had been marginal.

Even by comparison with other jobs, electoral defeat is a remarkably sudden death. Of course, as a candidate facing months of intense campaigning, it is extraordinarily difficult even to countenance the possibility of losing. One partner commented that their political spouse “wouldn’t even talk about not winning…wasn’t interested” before the election. Another, “You can’t think you are going to lose otherwise you do…”

Some clung on to a desperate hope that the national tide could be held at bay, “I thought we might just pip the post, that we might just do it and you have to keep that sense because you’ve got to lead everybody else.”

And even at the count, all of those defeated – exhausted and run ragged by the campaign – portrayed a grim determination to keep themselves together in front of the cameras, come what may. “I just put on a show,” said one. “Inside I was smashed to pieces…I had to carry the party through it and that was incredibly difficult and it took every ounce of emotional strength…but you’ve got to hold it together and you know the second the mask slips, it’s flashlight, flashlight, flashlight all over the place.”

It is often a bravura act that masks an array of turbulent emotions: shock, hurt, devastation, guilt, betrayal, a sense of failure, contagion and sometimes shame from the time of defeat and over many months. One felt, “a complete failure but not being able to show it.”

Lost in the wilderness

My interviewees struggled to reconcile both their ready acceptance of the democratic deal – that the electorate can and should kick politicians out of office – and the personal experience of rejection by their electorate in a constituency with which often they had developed a strong bond.

Some fled the constituency because the feelings were so raw. With some resentment, one former MP said: “I didn’t want to stop and have people say, ‘Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.’ And you’d look at them and say, ‘Are you really?’”

‘Oh dear, Mr Portillo, I’m so sorry …’ Reuters

Defeated politicians suddenly lose a demanding, busy but valued role. Suddenly they are no longer relevant to any political debate. Their deeply cherished values and beliefs seem to have no place.

The experience was dislocating at best, but devastating and personally crushing even in the longer term for some. A minority appeared depressed. A number struggled to find employment. On the other hand, a couple of former council leaders, narrowly and unexpectedly defeated, had soon flourished. The experience of defeat depends on a range of factors.

Partners’ lives were often upturned too. Their role had been suddenly changed. For some, the possibility of spending more time together as a couple brought unexpected benefits for the marital relationship. For others, there was more strain, as impatience and resentment surfaced in the very different circumstances of post-politics life.

Little wonder then that most of the politicians I interviewed who remained in office were reluctant to contemplate any but the vaguest idea of leaving. It was, said one, “Something I prefer not to think about…my preferred life course is one where I wake up one morning dead.”

To add insult to injury, many of the people I interviewed had received little acknowledgement of their contribution over the years from their political party once they left office – nor had any interest been shown in putting their skills and experience to good use, either to help the party or wider society. Former politicians often seem to disappear, for example, “Nobody seems to want to know you after and you just fade away…there are those skills that could be used to encourage other people.” With the parlous state of the main political parties, this appears cavalier.

Instead former politicians enter world in which their identity and place is uncertain. Perhaps now lacking in confidence, uncertain of what skills they could offer employers, the defeated politicians in my study had to construct a new narrative about who they were and what they did.

If the transition from political office could be made less fraught, a lot of knowledge and experience could be put to good use. But more than this, how politicians gain office, their experience in office, and how they exit office all contribute to a fluidity between those who are elected and those whom they represent. That is essential to any healthy system of representative democracy.