Christine Jardine: What to do after election loss?

THE focus is on the dozens of new MPs in Scotland, but what becomes of the ousted, and their staff, asks Christine Jardine.

When an MP loses his or her seat, as Douglas Alexander did in May, little thought is given to what they will do now. Picture: PA
When an MP loses his or her seat, as Douglas Alexander did in May, little thought is given to what they will do now. Picture: PA

When the votes were counted, the new MPs returned and speeches delivered, that was probably the end of the public’s interest in the last general election.

But for one group, those few moments in counts up and down the country changed their lives. And not necessarily for the better.

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While all the attention was focused on who won, what about those who didn’t? The losers. Those people who have devoted themselves to public service only to find that their’s is a service the public no longer wants.

Lib Dem Danny Alexander not only lost his seat, but his ministerialship. Picture: Getty

It’s a group that extends far beyond the MPs who lost their seats.

I know it’s not easy to have much sympathy with those defeated members. They’ve had their dream job and led a privileged life for five, ten, 15 years, maybe longer and with varying success. On defeat they will be paid up to £33,000 resettlement money, more if they were a cabinet minister, to help them back into civilian life.

But many of them are still young, with families to bring up. Will they look for something to see them through the next five years until they attempt a political return or will they turn their backs on politics for good. In many cases we can only hope not.

Danny Alexander spent five years as chief secretary to the Treasury. He’s proud of being a Highlander but his experience in government might mean he now finds himself being pulled toward a career elsewhere He previously worked for Cairngorm National Park, and there will be countless companies keen to enlist his help.

And what about Douglas Alexander? Almost 20 years as a Labour MP. A former secretary of state for Scotland, for transport and for international development.

It would be hard to argue that either man did not have immense talents which are now lost to the Scottish public. And they are not alone. The list of talented politicians no longer inhabiting the stage is too long and too depressing to rehearse.

There is also the emotional impact of having dedicated themselves to a cause they believed was in the best interests of others only to be told: “No we don’t want you. You got it wrong.”

That’s a blow from which many may not recover, and the rewards of a new career may never heal the wound. But what about the others? There are many who were never high-profile enough, or long enough serving, to attract lucrative offers.

And what about their staff? What about the parties’ staff? What about candidates who have dedicated years of their lives, given up careers and taken on vast personal expense in pursuit of what they believe only to be rejected? How does our democracy look after these people?

And should it look after them? Does that not raise the spectre of a professional political class motivated by financial reward rather than public service? Maybe.

As a Liberal Democrat candidate myself, the first thing that I would stress is that nobody forces you to do it, and nobody promises you that you will win. And you certainly don’t do it for the money.

But there is also nobody who warns you what the cost might be. And not just in financial terms.

I can’t speak for others but I would guess that, like me, they do it because they believe in something. They want to help those who do not have the political power to help themselves. They want to fight injustice or they want to ensure that all our young people get the best chance in life. I’m sure a lot of the electorate simply assume that everyone who stands for parliament is somehow employed by the party or they can afford to do it. In my experience that is rarely, if ever, the case.

Some have worked in politics, but mainly they are people with real jobs and families. Both of which get neglected for the duration.

But while we want candidates for whom it’s not about personal advancement or financial gain, is there not an argument that we should make it more affordable for them to ensure we get the best and not just the most financially secure?

There is also the parliamentary staff. With the huge changeover from Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to SNP – 50 seats changed hands – around 200 parliamentary staff in Scotland and Westminster were made redundant. On top of that the parties’ own staff will be “rationalised” to cope with a new political landscape.

In a field as emotive, personal and unique as politics, it’s not just a case of finding an employer with a similar company, or product. There are very few who could just jump from the MP they have worked for, to the opponent who put them out of a job.

In politics your boss’s defeat can mean both a change of career and uprooting yourself to wherever you can find a job.

Yes there are lots of transferable skills: communications, organisation, marketing. But in a country recovering from recessions, a glut of politically qualified people, from researchers and case workers to special advisers, is unlikely to find huge demand out there.

Of course they are no more or less entitled to the benefits of a welfare state or protection from economic reality than any other sector.

But do we really want to lose their skills and experience? Is it a good idea to replace all of the people working for you in a part of the country with a completely new and inexperienced staff every five years?

Many of those now on the job market are young people with excellent degrees who turned their back on good careers in the private sector in favour of public service.

For five years and more they have honed their skills only now to find there is no more use for them.

Now they will probably go back and pursue those lucrative careers.

Ultimately, however, there may be a way in which society can benefit. We can hope the best of them will have been bitten by the public service bug and will want to return.

There is no doubt that the skills they gain in the private sector, the experience of a life outwith the political bubble, will be valuable both to them, and to the public they may one day seek to serve again.

Ironically, not being taken into account by the electorate who dumps them may ultimately benefit both.