Losing Political Office
Jane Roberts, Palgrave Macmillan, 10 February, 2017

What happens to council leaders after they leave their leadership role? How do they adjust? Do they stay in politics? What employment do they find? I suspect that you have little idea other than the anecdotal. Few do given the relative silence on political exit. Professor John Keane describes the area of politicians leaving office as “under-theorized, under-researched and under-appreciated”. Does it matter?

In my book on losing political office, I looked at the international literature on political exit – and there is surprisingly little. Of that which has been written, most is about heads of government but even this, apart from US presidents, has only been in the last couple of decades or so. There is starting to be more work on parliamentarians in western type democracies but barely anything on politicians leaving elected office in local government. I wish I were surprised. It was however a gap I was determined to address.

In my research, carried out first at Warwick University and then at The Open University Business School, I conducted in depth interviews with two groups of former politicians, council leaders and Westminster MPs, from across the political spectrum – 10 who had stood down, 10 who had been defeated – and their partners at the time of the loss of office, where possible. I was keen to understand what their leadership role had meant to them, how and why they came to leave office, and what happened subsequently. Most had left office in or around 2010. I later interviewed 10 current council leaders (or directly elected mayors) and MPs about their thinking on how long they would like to remain in political office and the factors that might bear on such a decision.

Without exception, all former and current council leaders (in contrast to the MPs) had relished their role, finding it both exhausting but exhilarating. But for those who had left office, my findings were sobering. Even those who had chosen to go were able to acknowledge that, at the very least, the transition from office had been more unsettling than they had anticipated with the loss of role, purpose, structure, status, income, camaraderie – of simply mattering as before. For former council leaders and MPs alike, there was often a lengthy period of trying to reconstruct a narrative about who they were and what they did.

For many, but not all, of those who had been defeated – sometimes by very small margins and/ or unexpectedly – it had been a time when they had felt a crushing sense of failure and humiliation. And yet few had received any meaningful acknowledgement from the party that they had represented for so long. As one said, “it was like a bereavement – and it was – but there was no funeral.” Defeated council leaders, unlike MPs, leave immediately with no financial cushion, not even statutory minimum redundancy pay and with IT systems, for example, instantly cut off. Ice cold turkey. For some, the bitterness had lingered long. Partners expressed their anger in a less restrained manner. They had witnessed the private grief (and I use this word advisedly), the struggle to make use of their skills, and the loss of their spouses’ political office had affected them too. While some political brutality may be par for the course, let us not forget the human being behind the public persona.

No wonder current council leaders are often reluctant to go, or even to think much about their own exit in the future. I was surprised by how few really thought about succession planning. And yet, democracy depends on politicians leaving office. Political exit is absolutely inevitable.

In the book, I draw on insights from psychology, sociology and political science. I outline what factors help and hinder the transition from political office and I make a series of practical recommendations – requiring thought, by and large, not money. But my experience is that few institutions really want to engage much with this issue – it is as if it something to be avoided in polite company. On the other hand, five MPs who left Parliament in 2015 did talk with me after they had read a summary report of my findings, and on the record, about their own experiences and their observations of their colleagues. I am very grateful to Lord David Blunkett, Jo Swinson, Sir Jim Paice, Paul Burstow and Sir Vince Cable.

Does any of this matter other than on a human level?

Quite aside from the careless waste of former council leaders’ skills, I argue in the book that there are wider implications still for our representative democracy. As access into political office is getting narrower, the holding of office is more challenging, and the leaving of office is becoming more risky, there is less “fluidity” into and out of office. And we diminish our democracy as a result. That affects us all.