Parliament returns tomorrow – without 47 of the people who were MPs just a few weeks ago. Some, like those standing as independents, had a pretty good hunch that they’d be booted out by the electorate on Thursday. Others had less notice, and realised only as the campaign wore on that their constituencies, many of which had been solidly Labour for decades, were turning away from them. Many of them will be in Westminster in the next few days to clear out their offices and make their staff redundant. You can usually tell the difference between a re-elected MP and one of their colleagues who lost as you watch them walk through the corridors of parliament. The latter keep their heads down, trying to avoid having yet another conversation with someone who wants to offer their commiserations – or someone who hadn’t noticed they’ve lost.
They might not get much sympathy for this, but losing a seat is can be very traumatic for MPs, particularly those who weren’t expecting it. It is an extremely public humiliation, for one thing. A number of MPs I’ve spoken to in the past few days and after the last election all mention that while they are having to maintain composure in the line-up of candidates at the count, the winning candidate and party activists are busy cheering. In some ugly local battles, over-excited activists even end up booing the losing candidate as they give their speech. Few people in the ‘real world’ have to lose their jobs in quite such a public fashion, and it leaves a deep scar in even robust and level politicians.
At least in the days after the loss, an ex-MP tends to be surrounded by friends and family who are keen to support them. But normal life drifts back and most people move on. Most, that is, apart from losing MPs, who can take months to regain their equilibrium. Ben Howlett lost his seat as the Conservative MP for Bath in 2017. He had only realised this was going to happen when the exit poll came through at 10pm. Afterwards, everyone went home, including Howlett’s partner, who returned to London for work. And the ex-MP was left on his own. ‘The thing that got to me in the end on Sunday was the fact that I had had people all around me constantly, I was never alone. But that Sunday, everyone was home. My team were back with their family, and there was a realisation that I was on my own. As someone who has had mental health issues in the past, to be on my own, literally broken, on my own with my thoughts, I just broke down.’
I met Lee Scott more than two years after he’d lost his seat in 2015. He’d stood again in the 2017 election, but had expected to lose. He was clearly still more upset about the previous election, which he says felt ‘like a bereavement’. He was still sad, even while smiling about the honour of doing the job, and recalled quite how much he had cried in the days after losing.
A 2006 study of former MPs described emotions ranging from shock, anger and bereavement to failure and exhaustion on losing their seats. Two former MPs said the grieving process lasted between four and six years, and a quarter of those surveyed said they were still grieving. In another survey conducted in 2007 of those who lost in the 2005 election, one MP said: ‘My wife nearly died from an internal problem brought on by the trauma.’
The life of an MP is a very public one, particularly if you’re in a town or rural area where people tend to recognise you more. It means that your trips to the supermarket and your walks to school are noted by constituents, or even interrupted with people approaching you with casework. You are rarely off-duty – until suddenly you lose your seat, and with it your profile. This can lead to a real crisis of identity for people who have spent years trying to get into Parliament, not to mention the time they’ve then served there. Some find being able to go round Tesco without worrying that people will note the contents of their trolley a blessed relief. But there’s also the humiliation of knowing that everyone who does recognise you will now identify you as the one who lost.
Then there’s the loss of your social network. Westminster is all-consuming and many MPs find that their old friendships wither away as a result of the sacrifices they have to make to do the job properly. One MP who lost in 2015 was discussing with some friends how exhausted and depressed he was. One of them suggested that going abroad for a well-deserved holiday might help. But the ex-MP replied dolefully, ‘I can’t. I don’t have anyone to go with. All my friends are still in Parliament.’
Of course, the one thing that may help is the payoff, which is double the statutory redundancy and in some cases the main reason a candidate without much hope of winning will go through the process of standing at all. An MP also has a budget for winding up their office, and their rent is covered until the end of February, so they are not immediately out on their ear. And there’s also the status that comes with having been an MP at all: you’re hardly a worker with such a limited skill set that when your local steel works closes, you have nowhere to go. But that said, losing MPs do struggle to find new work, and this often comes as a surprise to them too.
Max Wiltshire is a recruitment consultant specialising in communications, and found after the 2015 election that a number of ex-MPs came to him looking for work. He wasn’t very impressed. ‘Initially I was quite excited,’ he says. ‘I thought, these are actual parliamentarians, they’ve sat on the green benches. Surely they are going to be the perfect people to engage with government and Whitehall. But when I met them, all they’d done was have a private office function which allowed them to bang their own personal drums on a small policy issue.’ They hadn’t distinguished themselves in Parliament, and hadn’t built up a skill set that would be much use in the outside world. They didn’t take very kindly to Wiltshire’s assessment of their career prospects, either.
Many MPs yearn to return: Jo Swinson’s loss in Dunbartonshire East was the second time she’d gone through the process, having also lost in 2015. But those who decide to move on do tend to find that life outside Westminster is a lot simpler, even if it takes them a lot longer to find the right job and get over that brutal line-up at the count. They get to see their family. They can be based in one place, rather than tearing around the country constantly. They even have greater agency over their career trajectory than they did in the the madly unmeritocratic world of Westminster, where you can end up being reshuffled regardless of whether you were doing a good job. One losing MP remarked last week that they felt as though they’d just left an abusive relationship. That is not as easy as most people presume, and takes years to recover from, but life does, in time, turn out to be better on the outside than in.