Losing badly takes a heavy personal toll on MPs – I should know

Few people regard politicians as vulnerable human beings. But rejection in politics, as in life, can have harmful long-term effects, as I learned after losing my ‘safe’ seat in 2010

“I think you may not have enough… you may have lost.” That was my agent’s bombshell on election night, 2010, which sent my mind and stomach into an angst-ridden churn.

Many of my former Lib Dem colleagues in the House of Commons will be feeling this way today as they digest being turfed out of their seats. Many now ex-Labour MPs will be feeling it too.

These emotions aren’t unique. Other events create similar sensations: “I want a divorce”; “We’re making you redundant”. They have one key element: the loss of something, or someone, integral to your identity or life.

Losing my parliamentary seat of Montgomeryshire in 2010 ejected me, for better or worse, from an entire way of living – a way that had occasional glorious high points and frequent long stretches of unrelenting yet hugely addictive grind, .

There are degrees of losing. To be vanquished in a recognised marginal carries little shame. By contrast, to lose a seat regarded as “safe” is humbling. No, more than that: humiliating. I tried to handle it gracefully.

Dismissing the electorate’s verdict is to spit at democracy. However, it triggered depression that dragged me down for three years, ending only thanks to the intervention of a man of faith, Steve Chalke, who reconnected me with the need for a “life direction”.

Many people have touched the void of rejection, one way or other, and the size of the event doesn’t matter: getting dropped from a sports squad at school; being passed over for promotion; a relationship breakdown, maybe. The sensation is the same. But losing an election has an extra pain: the media spotlight, with a cast of thousands. I had to discuss my demise on air with Jeremy Paxman minutes after the declaration.

That same evening, former MPs will face their party activists – and apologise. But it makes nothing better. Meeting your staff is even more tragic. You cost them their jobs – half a dozen loyal souls cast out because you lost. Whatever excuses one offers at the time, I must shoulder the blame, as it happened on my watch.

Opposing activists add their vitriol: “I’m glad you lost, Lembit. You were a disgrace to the constituency.” One ousted Labour MP told me laconically: “As I made my defeat speech, I gazed across at my constituents and asked myself, where did they all go wrong.” He didn’t mean it. In reality, we both felt crushed. Indeed, many newly redundant MPs will go home to a family in desperation with no income and no Plan B.

Afterwards, severance pay kicks in, totalling many thousands of pounds. But even that will end this year, adding a pressing financial crisis and domestic tensions to defeat too. Ex-MPs don’t expect sympathy. They no can longer expect a golden goodbye either.

Here’s my advice to defeated MPs facing the trauma of rejection. First, accept it – regardless of whether you think you deserved it. It’s gone. Don’t say immediately you’ll stand again. See and understand what has happened.

Second, feel anger if you need to without over-analysing. I internalised my rage, and it added to my troubles.

Thirdly, grieve. Losing a cherished vocation mimics bereavement. Only then can you properly move on. These lessons may be useful to all of us, not just abandoned MPs.

Five years after my defeat, some still delight in reminding me I lost a “safe” seat. Yet there’s a silver lining. I no longer feel obliged to humour those I don’t respect. It’s liberating – one sign I’m maturing towards a new perspective on what matters in life. Also, after a long period of virtual insolvency, I have a new career. I’m heavily in debt, but I’ll work it out over the next few years.

My own experiences deter me from jumping on the political graves of the vanquished. Few people regard MPs as vulnerable individuals. But the peril of defeat hangs over them, their staff and families. It seems harsh to revel in all the distress the displacement of a parliamentarian creates.

Am I over losing Montgomeryshire now? Not really. I still carry with me my agent’s words, but in modified form: “I didn’t do enough – and I lost.”

It’s taken half a decade for me to admit that, in 2010, I felt I let down my staff, volunteers, party, constituency … and in some ways my reputation. I still feel that today – and always will.


Lembit Öpik

The GuardianTramp

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