To those MPs who lost their seats, I know how you feel
Friday 07 May 2010
There are three categories of MPs who won't return to Westminster. Some have chosen to retire to tend their flower beds, buttressed by their generous pension pots. Others are calling it a day to seek pastures new; leading this group are ex-ministers hoping that their contacts books will give them lucrative consultancies.
But it's those in the third category who have most to lose – those with working lives still ahead of them but whose political careers will be ended, as mine was in 1997 when I was 45, by the returning officer's declaration of defeat. Some, like my successor Shona McIsaac, may already know they will lose and will be better prepared, mentally, than those who suffer unexpected shock defeats. They should all bear rejection with good grace and dignity, especially at the count, and save the tears and tantrums for when they get home at 4am.
My advice is to express gratitude to the voters for the "great privilege it has been to serve the constituency" and offer generous handshakes and "warmest congratulations to my successor". Issue a brief written statement a week later that it's time to leave politics and then write letters of thanks to all your supporters before disappearing off the radar. Shop away from constituency supermarkets – the yobbos will shout "loser" every time they spot you. Don't go back into Parliament, or even walk past the building. And don't watch the State Opening, tune in to political programmes or read newspapers. With that fat £65,000 pay-off, and the second home which can be sold, few will be selling The Big Issue quite yet.
I was too scared to take a break in the immediate aftermath for fear of losing out on job opportunities. This was a mistake. Having been listed by one national newspaper, the weekend after my defeat, as the most unemployable ex-MP I should have enjoyed a month abroad and recognised that no one would be in the mood to hire "yesterday's man". By the time you return it will nearly be the summer recess and the pain of defeat will be eased by the fact that MPs will be less visible during their holidays. By the time of the party conference season, however, the bitterness and depression will be at their most acute. So do not, under any circumstances, attend these events. Busy yourself with mundane domestic chores like getting the second home ready for sale and cutting out all unnecessary expenditure. The telephone will be silent and those re-elected MPs whom you once counted as your friends will have forgotten you. In the eyes of most people you will, in effect, be dead.
As the novelty of the new Parliament fades, mischievous journalists will start phoning you with requests for interviews about what it's like to be jobless for several months. Resist. But it is now time to face up to your uncertain future. This is the moment of greatest pain as you realise just how unemployable you may be. If you are qualified as a lawyer or teacher, for example, you may be able to resurrect your previous career. But you may have to ask yourself if you possess some skill that is yet to be discovered.
Luck will play its part if you spot the opportunity. This was how I became a journalist. At the first local elections after my defeat I wrote an article about what it was like being on the other side of the doorstep when I was canvassed at the 1998 local elections in Westminster. The role reversal made a passably readable piece which I sent to this newspaper. For over 12 years I have had the privilege, as a consequence, to clank my chains from the political grave as a journalist. Before that I had never even used a keyboard. If my luck hadn't turned I would love to have trained to be an HGV or train driver – the childhood dreams I had before I stupidly got bitten by the politics bug at my secondary modern school.
By now you should be brave enough to mull over your options with the one or two MPs (for that's all there will be) who have kept in touch. Maybe now is the time to have tea with them, enduring the embarrassment of queuing with the great unwashed to go through the security checks at Westminster devoid of your MP's pass. After this catharsis the benefits of being in the real world will finally be appreciated, and you'll realise you don't miss the unsocial hours, the division lobbies, the flog to the constituency or those tedious surgeries. So welcome, fellow ex-MP, even if you are still jobless in six months' time, to the world of a pleasant social life, sex with who you like without the press intrusion, and theatre and cinemas that you never knew existed.
Dealing with defeat: Top 10 tips
* Weigh up the likelihood of your defeat during the election campaign so you are prepared for the returning officer's worst.
* Write your concession speech with generous references to the winning candidate, your former constituents and the new government.
* Go home and cry.
* Don't give any media interviews.
* Hide away – preferably abroad – for several weeks.
* Busy yourself with mundane household chores; prepare your second home for sale and prune the household expenditure. Dumb down to a small car.
* Three months later face the future. Ask yourself what you are capable of doing and what would you have done if you never became an MP.
* Take advantage of any opening that unwittingly comes your way.
* After six months make your painful first visit back to Parliament. It will be horrible but it will stop you pining to go back to being an MP.
* Save schadenfreude for years later. Only now am I eagerly awaiting the voters of Cleethorpes to avenge my defeat in 1997.
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