Leaving the house: Ex-MPs discuss life after the House of Commons

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One day, they were the nation's representatives. The next, they were back on civvy street. Six recent ex-MPs tell Charlotte Philby about life after Parliament

Susan Kramer, 60

Susan was Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park in south-west London from 2005 to 2010. In May, she lost her seat, by a tiny margin, to Conservative Zac Goldsmith, and is currently looking for work

If you're in politics, you have to know that you can lose. Although I'd hoped the outcome of this year's ballot would be different, I always understood it was going to be close. It is utterly exhausting to be a Member of Parliament; I don't think I got more than five or six hours of sleep a night in years. The day I learnt I'd lost my seat, I went home and slept for 12 hours. Frankly, when I woke up, it was as though a huge load had been lifted from me. I don't think people are aware of how much stress MPs are under; you're having to carry on your shoulders the lives of so many constituents, as well as national issues. When you leave, suddenly you are no longer directly responsible. At last, it's legitimate to spend your energy on your own life.

I quite deliberately made the decision that I would fight the electoral campaign with total and complete commitment, which meant I hadn't thought about what would happen next until I lost. I have five or 10 more years left in me before I stop work (I wouldn't think of retiring before then – I couldn't afford not to work, financially or mentally), so I started the job-hunting process. Before going into politics, my husband and I had set up our own business, so I hadn't gone through the formal job process in 25 years. Luckily, I got some calls almost immediately.

To some extent, this is the last roll of the dice, and it does feel important to get it right. I'm determined to do something that gives me real pleasure. But then I can't be overly prissy about it; I do need to have a job. How much one needs to work after a career in politics depends a lot on what lifestyle you want to lead. I've never had a racy lifestyle, but I'd like to know that I can visit my daughter and granddaughter in America – or if there's a show on in town, I want to be able to buy a ticket and take a friend.

By the end of the summer I expect to be back in work, but during this hiatus, it's such a nice thing to no longer have a pattern to my days. I can get up at 8.30am, and really spend time with family and friends. They have shown such patience; for so long I wasn't able to invest any time in them, but rather than walking away they're all still here.

I've barely sat outside in years, but now I can enjoy lazing around in my communal garden. And I no longer have to walk around permanently attached to a handheld PDA device, to be constantly in communication; now, when I check my e-mails, I have 20 messages rather than 300.

The biggest change has been being able to catch up with neglected stuff: the blind which has been broken for two years has now been fixed as I can finally stay in for the repair man; I now have four working gas rings on my cooker; the pictures which have been sitting on my floor for three years are now on the wall. And I've been doing things like switching energy suppliers. As an MP, things like that get completely abandoned. You could call it a massive housekeeping exercise.

I'm also cooking again; I recently made fish baked in a salt crust, a recipe that I've been meaning to make for a decade! And I've finally used the bubble bath that had been left unopened for years…

It's amazing how you stop listening to the news programmes, and while I've had the occasional browse through the newspapers, I'm no longer glued to them. I currently have three books on the go, and I'm wearing a sundress for the first time in as long as I can remember, without having to wear a jacket over the top. I'm also wearing far more bling than I ever could – and, for the first time in a long while, I actually have a sun tan.

Lynne Jones, 59

Lynne was Labour MP for Selly Oak, Birmingham, from 1992 to April 2010, when she stood down. She lives in Birmingham

Even for those who go on to become Prime Minister, politics is a game which is bound to end in failure. In 2007, I made the decision not to stand again after the next general election. I'd thought of standing down in 2005; I was working 80 hours a week but what was I achieving? I thought: what's the point of flogging yourself to death when you're not going to change anything? As a backbencher, you can do so much at a local level, but on a national level, over the years, through frustration, you start to reduce your ambitions.

I was an MP for 18 years, and I accumulated a lot of stuff along the way. I've spent the past few months trying to sort through it all, resisting the temptation to throw everything on the skip. Tomorrow I've been asked to say a few words in celebration of a new church near my constituency in Birmingham: it struck me that this will be the last time I'll ever have to be in MP uniform. Early in my career, I had my "colours" done, and it was suggested that I'm "autumn" – I look best in sludgy greens and brown and oakier colours. Today I'm still wearing a green, brown and beige stripy jumper.

I wear earrings, too. I went to a number of weekend courses on media presentation and I was told that not wearing earrings was equivalent to a male politician not wearing a tie. I'd never had my ears pierced, so started by wearing clip-ons.

Much of this afternoon has been spent unblocking the sink that my son, who is home from university, has managed to clog. Tomorrow we're off to the house my husband and I bought in mid-Wales in 1980, when it was covered with a corrugated tin roof, with a chemical toilet, and no bath or sanitation; there were just two gas lamps and no running water. I've been there on and off since leaving Parliament, and doing it up is what I'll be devoting most of my retirement to. I'm trained as a bio-chemist but I won't be looking for another job; I'm vice-president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and so I will be actively involved with that.

I've just about got used to the idea that after dinner I don't have to go back to work. I've just had an eye operation, so my evening reading has been temporarily curtailed. Instead, I find myself watching a lot of detective shows on TV. I have much more time to do the things I want to do: I've been learning Spanish, listening to tapes, in preparation for all the travelling I plan to do.

I was in London yesterday, winding up the office there. I'm also a member of County Hall, so I have been taking Pilates classes there and cycling as much as I can. I've been eating too much – when you're at home it's very easy to have a cup of tea and another piece of cake.

I haven't bothered listening to Prime Minister's Question Time or anything like that. I haven't even thought about Parliament; I don't miss the green benches at all. I might have regretted it more had Labour returned with a minority government, in which case I might have been able to exert more authority than I could as a backbencher with a large majority. But as it is, I think I'm better off where I am.

Nick Palmer, 60

Nick was Labour MP for Broxtowe from 1997 to 2010, when he lost his seat. He recently found work as a translator after a period claiming Jobseeker's Allowance

When I first stood as a Labour MP in Nottingham West in 1997, I'd never actually been there. I was head of internet services in a pharmaceutical multinational in Switzerland and applied to 18 different seats across England, commuting several hours every weekend to canvass, campaign and attend debates. Winning the seat was a lifelong ambition fulfilled. I was thrilled to bits, but my mother, who had lived in Gdansk and had seen the rise of the Nazis and knew what politics could do in extreme forms, was sceptical. When I told her I'd won, she simply said: "I hope you're pleased".

Moving into politics meant taking a pay cut of 40 per cent; I'd been making £90,000 a year in Switzerland. But then money had never really been that crucial. The change that a lot of people who have previously worked in the private sector find hard to adjust to as an MP is that you no longer decide anything; rather, your role is to influence the decision-makers who sit at cabinet level. But I was prepared for that; you have to be a bit egotistical to think that if you're not directly making the decisions then it simply won't do. I saw myself as part of a greater movement.

Sometimes one would manage to win an argument through intellectual debate. At one point, a major ongoing problem in the countryside had been the spread of TB in cattle, which is transferred among other sources by the urine of infected badgers left in the ground. The National Farmers Union had been pressing for a massive cull of badgers and Defra was unsure what to do. I took a delegation to see Hilary Benn, who was Secretary of State at the time, and I argued the science with him. In the end, he accepted my argument that culling badgers would make the situation worse.

Early in my career there was a proposal in my constituency which I managed to have reversed without the same level of intellectual persuasion. I approached the minister concerned and asked whether he would reconsider. He turned to his civil servant and said, in a loud voice: "So, can we stop the fucker?" The civil servant looked up and gave a nod. "Right then, stop the fucker," the minister replied.

If I try to separate in my mind my motives for taking up that cause, I can't. Was I doing it as a good constituency MP, or because I was personally opposed to the idea, or was it because it meant voters would support me? I'm not sure. In politics, I think mixed motives are commonplace.

Psychologically, I was prepared to lose my seat. I'd always been aware that we'd been defying gravity – after all, Broxtowe had been a Conservative seat ever since it was created. When I was re-elected in 2005, Tony Blair said to me: "I'm pleased and surprised to see you here".

After the business of winding down the office and replying to letters and e-mails died down, I signed on at the JobCentre – I'm not sure that anyone recognised me in the queue! – and through that I'm now signed up with several agencies who give me work translating mainly Danish and German documents, typically travel guides and that sort of thing. I'll take whatever I'm given.

There are things that one finds hard to get used to back in the "normal" world. For one, it is a very peculiar family life that one has as an MP. You have to keep adjusting, going backwards and forwards. One minute you're a bachelor making yourself microwave meals for one; the next you're back in a family relationship. Since I lost my seat, my wife and I have been adjusting to the increased time together. I've been enjoying going to the odd board games convention and going to the local bridge club now and then, and I'm getting used to dressing more casually.

In the past, former MPs have told me that once they'd lost, it was as if they'd dropped off the face of the planet; that they'd been disregarded by former Parliamentary colleagues and friends. I was pleasantly surprised after losing by the letters I received from people who didn't have to write; even a Tory MP I've never had much contact with got in touch to wish me well. We may disagree on the politics, but in the end we were all in it together, hoping to make the world a slightly better place.

Anthony Steen, 71

Anthony was first elected as a Conservative MP in 1974 and has represented Totnes, South Hams and Liverpool Wavertree. He chose not to re-contest his seat in 2010 following the parliamentary expenses scandal. He now runs the Human Trafficking Foundation

As an MP one's life is riddled with hurdles: you either move them or you jump over them. The biggest problems in government now are the endless rules and regulations, the interference of the nanny state. Towards the end of my time in office there'd be an endless blur of people knocking on my door wanting to check this or that; the location of a desk, the weight of the books on a shelf; "Health and Safety" and "transparency" are the words they use. It's oppression, and it's wasteful over-manning. For instance IPSA [the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority – the watchdog body introduced earlier this year to oversee parliamentary expenses] is spending £6.5m on policing MPs – it's utterly absurd!

By the end of my time as an MP, two days every month were spent filling in figures and checking my receipts: that's not what I was elected for and it's not what I'm good at. What I was best at was helping people with problems. All day every Saturday, I'd be available to my constituents; I got involved in every single campaign that I could. In Liverpool, lots of constituency problems are related to landlords and tenants, and with my legal background, I was able to positively assist in ways that few others could.

In this job you have to have two bases: one in your constituency, one in London. It used to be that an MP's principal home was in London. Now, because of various neuroses in Parliament, there is pressure to do more at a local level and therefore to have your first home in your constituency. And then you end up with, what? A bedsit in London to share with your wife and children for the rest of the time? My wife and I spent endless hours on the motorway twice a week, going back and forth – it's an appalling way to raise a family.

MPs used to be encouraged to do paid work outside Parliament, which would bring everyday knowledge into the chamber. I worked for the Body Shop and aviation companies; for someone like me who could have been a high earner at the Bar, it augmented a modest salary. Today, a supplementary income is not encouraged – so now you have to be very rich, very young or have illusions of grandeur to want to get into politics.

In hindsight, I deeply regret not being more a part of my children's upbringing; I regret not having more time to practise the piano or play tennis. But there are also things that I miss. I miss the canteen, the clerks who call you sir but run the place.

But life moves on. Since leaving Parliament, I've set up the Human Trafficking Foundation with Clare Short and Baroness Butler-Sloss, which supports victims of the transatlantic slave trade. Human trafficking involving children and women who are forced into the sex industry is the second largest lucrative criminal activity in the world. I've been dealing with victims, police and using my political connections. It's a huge job I'm taking on, seven days a week – more than I did in Parliament. But it's also more worthwhile.

Chris Mullin, 62

Chris was elected Labour MP for Sunderland South in 1987 and announced his decision to step down in 2008. He left Parliament this spring and is currently editing the second part of his Diaries

I imagined that after 23 years as a politician, I would suffer severe withdrawal symptoms. For more than two decades I led a very structured existence. While Parliament was in progress – for 30 weeks of every year – I'd catch the same train every Monday morning at 18 minutes past nine from Sunderland station; on the train I would sit with a Dictaphone responding to correspondence. In London I'd post the envelope to my assistant, who'd type it up.

From Monday afternoon to Thursday evening, my time would be spent in and around Parliament; then I'd return to Sunderland on the 18 minutes past seven train, arriving at around 11.30pm. Friday would be spent at the constituency office, or attending events. Most of the weekend I'd ring-fence for my family – even as a minister I was never one of those MPs who accepted every invitation that came my way.

Now, on a Tuesday afternoon, I'm sitting at home in my slippers – though fully dressed. I shave every other day, depending on whether or not I have a public engagement. I still get up at 7am; today I spent the morning drafting one of a series of lectures I'm giving at the University of Newcastle. Tomorrow, I'm being presented with an honorary degree from the University of Sunderland, with a slap-up lunch attached. I've also been writing and editing an instalment of my memoirs, which is a gargantuan job.

For those who were trained as doctors or lawyers, or as a writer, as I was, before going into politics, it's easy to pick up work. Others find it very difficult. Employers may be reluctant to employ a former MP in a regular job; I'm sure the expenses business has made us a less attractive proposition. It must be very painful for those who are defeated and find themselves out on their ears in their forties or fifties.

There are things I miss about my former life: the wonderful library, and having the right to poke my nose into just about anything that interests me. I miss simpler things too, like sitting on the terrace at the House of Commons on a summer's evening in the company of friends, or inside the atrium at Portcullis House.

There is a certain prestige attached to being an MP. But it's not always glorious; there is a certain amount of drudgery, particularly with some constituency case work. I don't keep in touch with former colleagues much. I live 283 miles from London, which is a good thing – I don't want to be one of those ex-MPs who hangs around the place; one you're gone, you're gone. Overall, my time as an MP was a wonderful experience. I just hope I did some good along the way.

Angela Evans-Smith, 51

Angela was elected Labour MP for Basildon in 1997 and lost her seat in May this year. She lives in Basildon and is currently looking for work

At the time of the election I knew Labour was running behind in the polls; the boundaries in my constituency had changed and my majority had been wiped out. I knew it was a real possibility that we might lose the election and that I might lose my seat, and I thought I'd prepared myself mentally for that. But I hadn't.

That first night out of office was very difficult; I remember the moment of defeat vividly. I'd been MP for Basildon for 13 years and had to stand by and watch as someone new came in and took what I'd come to regard as mine. At first, there were practical things to be done: I had to wind down the whole operation and make my staff redundant – some of whom had been with me from the beginning; then there were radio interviews to give, office space to clear and letters to write.

When that all dried up, the sheer exhaustion kicked in. I'd been working 70 or 80 hour weeks for years, but it wasn't until I stopped that I realised how tired I was. It's only stepping back now that I realise how much of my life was consumed by my job. A close friend pointed out recently that she's spoken to me more in the past two months than in 10 years.

I hadn't applied for "normal" work in 28 years – before becoming an MP I'd worked behind the scenes in politics for years. I had to sit down and write my CV, working out my strengths and attributes; in that situation, you can start to doubt your employability. But I'm only 51 years old, I can't just sit back and retire. I've put the word out now and I'm waiting to see what comes back; in the meantime, I've been made a Lord and plan to become an active peer.

Since leaving office, I've been tending to the things I'd neglected for so long, like my husband and family. Now I swim three times a week – I'm fitter than I've been in a long time – and am enjoying spending time with friends. It's good to have the space to sit back and think about your life. On a Saturday morning now I wake up and think: "What am I going to do today?" On a Sunday I get to sit down and read the papers, or do a bit of gardening, and know there's not a huge pile of paperwork on the table waiting to be done.

One of the things I miss most terribly is not being involved in critical debate. For years, until I joined the cabinet, I was able to ask questions and challenge ministers at Prime Minister's Question Time; now I can only watch from a distance.

There were times when people would come to me with incredibly complex problems. I had one young woman who'd been a victim of appalling domestic abuse and I had to just be a shoulder to cry on, listen to her and try to work out what to do to help her. Sometimes problems can't be solved; there is a sense of powerlessness that comes with that. I never took my defeat personally; it's just a part of the ebbs and flows of politics. But there is inevitably a certain feeling that you've been rejected. I was comforted by the fact that I'd done my best both as an MP and as a candidate in the election. There is nothing more I could have done.

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